Book extract: The Lie of 1652: A decolonised history of land
In this radical critique of established precolonial and colonial history, heritage activist Patric Tariq Mellet retells the story of dispossession, the destruction of livelihoods and the brutality of slavery in South Africa. Drawing on scholarly work and his own experience of searching for identity, Mellet provides a bold new perspective on the loss of land and belonging.
In South Africa today we have manifestations of xenophobia, “tribal” and ethnic chauvinism, racism, narrow Verwoerdian ethno-nationalism, as well as dubious claims of being “First People” and all sorts of contestations rooted more often than not in the championing of relatively modern identity formations within a Europeandefined national territory – South Africa – which did not even exist before 1910. Alongside this is a historical construct of European colonialism and white supremacy that still dominates the history landscape of South Africa. All the abovementioned manifestations feed off this root narrative.
In 1980, Shula Marks, a South African historian at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), inspired a new generation of historians and social scientists to break out of the previous colonial paradigm in the arena of social history at universities in South Africa.
Her critique was made against the backdrop of the fact that, at the very formation of university institutions in South Africa, an unhealthy funding relationship in return for doing research for “native policy” or “resolving the native problem” on behalf of the government gave rise to a colonial trajectory of thinking rather than independent academic inquiry. In her paper about the “empty land” myth, Marks says: While there are many questions that remain unanswered and are perhaps unanswerable, recent research has provided a radical reinterpretation of South Africa’s past; a reinterpretation which challenges so many of the preconceived stereotypes which still serve to legitimise the Republic’s apartheid practices... South Africa came into being as a unified entity as a result of the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) fought between the British and two independent Boer republics established by the Dutch-speaking descendants of European settlers outside of the British Cape and Natal colonies. After the British victory, the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 out of four surviving territories as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire, with provincial boundaries established and an agreement on a national border.
In 1911, in a process of divide and rule, a range of different African peoples were bureaucratically deprived of their African identity by being labelled “Coloured” while yet others were labelled “Natives”, with over 50 ethnic groups reduced to nine linguistic-based national formations that were imposed on them. In 1913 the new Union government enacted a devastating Land Act, which effectively consolidated and affirmed possession of all land seized by white colonists since 1652 in the previous two British colonies and former Boer republics and restricted African landownership to the 13% of land that had not been expropriated.
When waving a flag created 25 years ago, shouting that we are proudly South African and “othering” those considered outsiders and deemed to be aliens, we forget this fact that the Union of South Africa and its borders were created as part of a peace treaty ending the Anglo-Boer War and with total disregard for the communities through which these borders rode roughshod. Neither the borders nor the name South Africa had the blessing of the majority of people forced into that framework.
The post-1994 democratic republic of South Africa inherited this 1910 configuration of the country with its internationally recognised borders.
There was no resolution to the “land question” in all its many facets, and the deeper spiritual connection to land and belonging remains unaddressed 25 years into post- apartheid South Africa. Part of the alienation still prevalent in our society is due to the fact that African social history has also been erased and replaced with a narrative that justifies expropriation of land from Africans by Europeans.
We were raised on a distorted colonial and apartheid narrative which said that there was a sudden wave of northern “Bantu”, alternatively “black” or “Nguni”, alien invaders of South Africa in the period of the 15th to 17th centuries, who allegedly stomped over people the writers called “Bushmen” (San) and “Hottentots” (Khoe). The latter were said to have been a few nomadic “noble savages” in a relatively unpopulated Cape who, according to this same slanted narrative, were conveniently almost wiped out by a smallpox epidemic. The cornerstone of this thinking was first expressed by the historian George McCall Theal (1837–1919), whose work is peppered with references to Africans as “barbarous”.
According to Theal, “The country was not the Bantu’s originally any more than the White man’s, because the Bantu were also immigrants.”
The constructed stereotypical and amalgamated identities of the San and the Khoe were presented as “Khoisan”, which was later given an attribute of “brown-ness” by colonists.
* The Lie of 1652: A decolonised history of land is published by Tafelberg, which is an imprint of NB Publishers. The book retails at R310.