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Q: Was the land empty when white settlers came to South Africa?

Today we'll be busting another apartheid-era myth being disseminated by the resurgent right: That black people arrived here after whites. This myth has severe political repercussions regarding rightful ownership of the land – it is a perfect example of white-washing of history and it is demonstrably false.

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” – Chinua Achebe

In a backlash to land reform, the rightwing have released a swarm of propaganda regarding our countries history as a counter offensive. They believe the land of South Africa was empty of any black people (except for the Khoi San) at the time Van Riebeek landed at the Cape.

Well game over bigots! You can throw your apartheid era history books in the trash. There is abundant archaeological evidence that shows South Africa had an abundance of brown people settled on it’s soil.

Follow along as we debunk “The Myth Of The Empty Land” with excerpts from an examination of evidence by Shula Marks (Reader in African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) .

For the full fascinating article see:

“Three myths in particular form part of the white man's justification for his rule and for his position of power and privilege in the contemporary Republic.

The first holds that the present-day Bantu-speaking (Black) African inhabitants of South Africa, who today constitute nearly 80 per cent of the population, are relatively recent arrivals in the subcontinent; their advent barely predates that of the Europeans in the mid-seventeenth century; and they swept down into southern Africa from the north in a series of waves devastating the earlier Stone Age inhabitants, who incidentally are rather left out of any further account for that reason.

The second holds that the present-day location of the Bantu-speakers in South Africa is both a simple reflection of these original migrations and of the Mfecane, as the wars that devastated the interior of southern Africa as a result of the rise of the Zulu kingdom in the early decades of the nineteenth century are known.

The third holds that these 'waves of migration' represented separate tribal groups whose differences to this day are so marked that were the firm hand of control of the white man removed they would tear one another apart in an even more fearsome, twentieth-century Mfecane .

Earlier versions of the first of these myths, that by some curious coincidence the first Bantu-speakers crossed the Limpopo River at precisely the same time as the first Dutch settlers set foot on the Cape of Good Hope, and that up to that time South Africa was 'empty' of inhabitants, may no longer be proclaimed in quite such unambiguous simplicity. Nevertheless, more sophisticated variants of these myths still permeate the history textbooks used in South African schools and the propaganda put forward sedulously by the South African Department of Information. They have even crept into textbooks used in British schools and on to British television.

Despite the abundant scientific evidence conclusively disproving these views they persist, for they form part of the ideological justification for apartheid .”

- Shula Marks

“In the 1920s and 1930s South Africa led the way in research on early man and the Stone Age, but it has only been relatively recently, and in part in response to developments north of the Limpopo, that South African archaeologists have begun to investigate sites dated to the last couple of thousand years. These cover the final stages of the Late Stone Age and the advent of what is termed the Iron Age, a dramatically new departure which saw the introduction of agriculture, settled villages, iron-using and pottery and which seems also to be associated with the arrival in the sub-continent of a new people of negroid physical character. As more and more carbon dates have been processed from the Early Iron Age sites which stretch in a thin scatter over southern, central and eastern Africa, so it has become apparent that the first Iron Age farmers south of the Limpopo River as to the north of it, arrived there early in the first millennium AD, and not, as had been previously assumed, relatively late in the second . The earliest dates we have for the Iron Age in South Africa go back some 1,200 years before the Portuguese first rounded the southern tip of the continent in search of the kingdom of Prester John and the fabled riches of the East in 1488. Excavations at Silverleaves and Eiland in the northeastern Transvaal, and Enkwazini near St. Lucia Bay on the Zululand coast have given dates for Iron Age settlements as early as the third to fourth centuries AD. These dates are remarkably close to the first Iron Age dates north of the Limpopo in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, as well as for Zambia and Malawi.

A South African archaeologist, Ray Inskeep, has recently described these Early Iron Age farming communities in his beautifully illustrated volume, The Peopling of Southern Africa , thus:

'They were cultivating pennisetum [a cereal crop] and in all probability a variety of other plants. By the fifth century populations were established in large villages of pole and thatch houses with plastered walls and floors. Their technology included the smelting and smithing of iron and copper, the manufacture of elaborate pottery, the carving of shallow bowls or dishes from soapstone, and the carving of bone and ivory. Salt was extracted from alkaline mineral springs by evaporation in soapstone dishes. The localised nature of such industry combined with the importance of the product almost certainly resulted in its being traded. Some form of trading with the East Coast is suggested by the occasional Indian Ocean seashells that turn up in so many sites.”' – From “The Empty Land Myth” By Shula Marks

From Lauren Southern’s "Farmlands" video to Willem Petzer’s youtube channel to braais all across South Africa, you’ll hear this Apartheid textbook version of history.

“THE MFECANE!” they shout in an attempt to be clever as they turn their chops on the braai and proceed to tell you how the Zulu were genocidal maniacs who entered South Africa after the peaceful white colonists had arrived.

What they don’t tell you is that for over 1,000 years before the Dutch arrived at the Cape of Good Hope, Iron Age farmers and Late Stone Age peoples had been living in the interior of South Africa…

“Contrary to much of the mythology which dwells on the inveterate hatred between the 'Bantu' and the 'Bushmen', and indeed between the different 'nations' of Bantu-speakers enumerated by the South African government, there is much evidence in the archaeological as well the linguistic record of long and peaceful interaction between them.

Cattle-keeping is so important a feature of both Sotho-Tswana and Nguni society that it is startling to learn for example, that the words for cattle, milk and sheep in these languages derive either from Khoikhoi, or from a source which is common to both. Much of the very rich and detailed vocabulary describing cattle is probably similarly derived. The clicks characteristic of the South Eastern Bantu languages, that are unique to this family, also bespeak a long and intimate relationship between Khoisan and Bantu-speakers. Oral tradition in many areas recalls the intermarriage even of Bantu-speaking chiefs with Khoisan women. The picture of Chief Molhebangwe of the southernmost Tswana people, the Thlaping, drawn in 1800, whose mother was a Khoikhoi is a fine illustration of this.

The very name of the major Nguni group in the eastern Cape, the Xhosa, named after their eponymous founder - leader, contains a click. This provides only a hint of the complex variety of relationships established in that area between groups originally practicing a very different mode of existence. This is not to say that among these relationships there was not war and plunder and competition for resources. But ethnic frontiers which were sometimes most visible when they met at ecological frontiers did not have the salience they have been given in twentieth-century Africa and indeed elsewhere where the emphasis has changed from being a search for followers to a scramble for scarce resources.” – From “The Empty Land Myth” By Shula Marks


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