Public discourses on the past before colonial times

12 Jun 2018 - 15:45

John Wright, a research associate in the APC, reports on a meeting of a Focus Group organised by the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) and the Africa Office of the Harvard University African Studies Center (ACS), and held at the offices of the ACS in Johannesburg on 23 January 2018.

The topic “Public Discourses on the Past before Colonial Times” was suggested in a brief concept note which Cynthia Kros and I composed at the invitation of Verne Harris, Director: Archive and Dialog at the NMF. In the note we drew attention to the range of ways in which the history of South Africa before colonial times is currently being mobilized in the public sphere. We went on to make the point that since the 1970s academic historians and archaeologists have done a great deal of research into this history, but that their ideas have not generally found their way into school curricula or into public discourses, which remain dominated by tribal stereotypes.

In the last ten years, we pointed out, a number of historians and archaeologists, including a growing cohort of younger black scholars, have been developing radically new ideas, with wide political implications, on the study of what is still generally termed ‘precolonial’ history. We suggested that the NMF, with its established reputation as a centre of progressive social and political research, could play a leading role in taking initiatives to convene and promote discussions in this field between academic researchers, educationists, and public intellectuals in NGOs and the media.

The meeting was attended by 25 invited participants. They included academics and representatives from educational organizations, publishing houses, the media, and a number of NGOs. Speakers on the programme were Dr Mbongiseni Buthelezi (Public Affairs Research Institute, Johannesburg and APC) on ‘Mobilization of precolonial pasts in South Africa’; Prof. Nomalanga  Mkhize (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth) on ‘The precolonial as personal: history and identity’; Prof. Carolyn Hamilton (APC) on ‘The archive of precolonial history in southern Africa: critical approaches’; and Prof. Alda Saide (Universidade Pedagogica de Mocambique, Maputo) on ‘African engagements with the precolonial’. After input from the invited speakers, the meeting was opened to general discussion.

Following are comments on the meeting which I solicited afterwards from a number of the participants:

Mbongiseni Buthelezi (Public Affairs Research Institute, Johannesburg and APC)

The NMF-Harvard ACS dialogue on the precolonial past suggested that we are far from any consensus on what we are talking about when we invoke the precolonial or how the precolonial can be of any use in present debates on decolonisation in higher education, and on land, art, leadership, etc. The lack of consensus derives in part from the absence, so far, of sufficient scholarship that has demonstrated the value of the precolonial – beyond its invocation as metaphor – to current discussions.

There is thus a pressing need to undertake scholarship that extends and deepens current knowledge. To be sure, the precolonial cannot offer us models of how to distribute land, organise rural communities or structure so-called traditional leadership arrangements. Rather, better knowledge of how southern African societies were organised in the past could offer us a way to think with the past about the present. It would offer us a view into what meanings have adhered to concepts that are highly in flux and contested today, and how they were put to use in a time before they were fundamentally reformulated in colonial encounters. These concepts include notions of belonging to a place, belonging to a social group, being a member of a polity, power, land possession, etc.

In the current moment, such a better understanding would do at least four things:

  • First, it would allow Africans to inhabit the present with a fuller sense of who they were historically, which is badly needed in light of a long history of colonial definitions of Africans as having had no history prior to the arrival of Europeans.
  • Second, it would also allow white South Africans to develop a better understanding of their own past in the region, a necessary antidote to the selective amnesia and denialism that makes it possible for some to praise colonialism for benefitting Africans and to suggest that all things modern were imported from Europe.
  • Third, it would give substance to current debates on decolonisation by offering a fuller sense of what kinds of knowledge production and what kinds of political authority were found in existence in Africa by European colonizers, and were remade by them.
  • Finally, it could allow us to think our way beyond meanings of being black and African in South Africa that continue to be prescribed by self-interested elites, especially those claiming to be traditional leaders deriving from precolonial political arrangements that were interrupted by the advent of colonialism.

Public debates and intellectuals tend to rush to present themselves as knowing what they are talking about when they talk decolonisation. It may be that emotionally and instinctively we know what we are talking about. Intellectually, we are only at the beginning of knowing what we are talking about in South Africa because the detailed work has not yet been done sufficiently. As academic scholars – especially those with the linguistic competence to listen, read and analyse across a range of languages, and with training in historical and ethnographic methodologies – what we can contribute is the slow, painstaking work of excavating and engaging the various archives that present opportunities to go beyond the colonial period. The archives we need to engage include the James Stuart Archive and commemorative performance forms such as izibongo and izithakazelo in order to make better informed contributions to pressing present debates.

Two specific discussions to which more in-depth work on the past before colonialism can be of service are:

  • Debates and struggles over land. Better understandings of concepts of land possession, etc. in the past can help us better understand ‘indigenous’ conceptions of land settlement and possession that are still in operation today in the countryside. These are often in conflict with legalistic land redistribution processes that are porting notions of possession deriving from other conceptual vocabularies (perhaps imported, perhaps formed in processes of dispossession), and overlaying them on top of indigenous conceptions.
  • State formation in the past and state building today. Current discussions on the state in South Africa have hardly begun to factor in the long past. Some preliminary work has received little attention. The time is ripe to start to dispel some of the misleading invocations of the past through research.

What scholarship needs is to attract more young academics to the study of the precolonial in order for the necessary volume of work to begin to be undertaken.

Verne Harris (Director: Archive and Dialog, NMF and APC)

For me a number of useful lines of enquiry, as well as key insights, emerged from the conversation. Crucial are the issues of the need to problematize ‘the pre-colonial’ as a concept and the question of the languages and the idioms in which the problematization takes place. Secondly, as important as finding ways to expand enquiry from academic spaces into popular discourse, is the challenge of opening scholarly discourses to those happening in communities. And here the need to problematize ‘the community’ looms large. Also useful was analysis of the extent to which longer (‘pre-colonial’) histories have been included in school and other curricula. Simply having them covered in a curriculum is not enough – where they are placed, sequenced, and prioritised are equally important.

Cynthia Kros (History Workshop, University of the Witwatersrand)

One of the moments that stood out for me, partly because I have spent my whole adult life trying to make the school history curriculum more meaningful, and partly because she made the point so vividly, was when Nomalanga Mkhize made the claim that the curriculum ‘strips people of the capacity to think’. I have always argued that the history curriculum has a singular responsibility to equip learners with the means to enable them to think critically. But I realised when Nomalanga made this point – or perhaps I knew it when I had to teach in a school administered by the Transvaal Education Department, and had forgotten it since – that the curriculum can act with great violence. It may be a case not simply of the curriculum failing to build the capacity of learners but of actively incapacitating them.

Nomalanga Mkhize (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth)

My sense is that the study of precolonial history has fallen by the wayside in the post-apartheid context. If the rigorous study of the precolonial was once a critical driver of liberation politics, this is no longer the case. Calls for decolonization by students have drawn on some general idea of the precolonial, but are much more driven by theoretical approaches such as critical race theory than by the historical empiricism that once fired up historiography during anti-colonial struggles. Part of this I would argue has to do with the school curriculum which does not prioritise the precolonial. It also has to do with the loss of status of history at universities which has seen History departments scrambling to adapt their curriculums to more global perspectives in a bid to be relevant to students. A lesson that I have learnt in teaching undergraduates is that there does remain a segment of students who want to explore precolonial history, but they want to do this from the living well of their personal clan identities and oral traditions. We should leverage this. Another element of the problem appears to be the lack of creative popularization of precolonial history within our public spheres. We need to cultivate some kind of creative explosion, to draw on and leverage the precolonial in the creative arts industries. This of course must happen alongside a re-strengthening of the study of the precolonial in our basic and higher education curriculums.

Mucha Musemwa (Head, School of Social Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand)

The speakers at the focus group extolled the importance of studying and retrieving the past before colonialism as a way of defamiliarizing the present. The forms of evidence we rely upon, especially how they were made and preserved and by whom, became a matter of animated discussion. As an environmental historian, my interest in these discussions was particularly piqued when, towards the end, a call was made for the group to delineate specific themes for further engagement and research. Land as emblematic of natural resources, the historical conflict over these resources, and the politics of dispossession were themes which, many participants agreed, required us to go back into the distant past to understand what the actual concept of land was in former times. Why? Because it is impossible to understand present notions of land redistribution or environmental change unless we appreciate the genesis of land ownership and how past societies conserved the land. As historians we are well placed to recover meaningful environmental reforms that were tried in the past, then relegated, and which can now be resuscitated and utilized to benefit the present. But, given the varied disciplinary backgrounds of the participants, it became clear that interest in the past may not simply be the preserve of historians alone. And that is a good thing!

Joel Pearson (Public Affairs Research Institute, Johannesburg)

The Focus Group met at an incredibly opportune moment, as I set out to teach 'History Before Colonial Times' to university students (at Wits) for the first time. The discussions cracked open the elusive concept of ‘the precolonial’ to expose critical questions that unsettle staid history writing and teaching. From the perspective of a junior lecturer, the most timely insight was this: students come to class with long-held stories about where they come from – as Prof. Nomalanga Mkhize put it, a ‘mythico-historical consciousness’ – rooted in the constant conversations that take place in homes. African children grow up with clan histories and names, but also a sceptical approach to versions of the past. By taking these ontological foundations seriously – instead of trying to uproot them in the name of ‘empirical accuracy’, as university education often does with corrosive effect – the genre of the ‘precolonial’, with all its fragmentary sources, will be profoundly enriched.

Himal Ramji (Masters student, APC)

From my side, there’s a big need for new textbooks and other support materials which are able to alter the existing normative educative narrative. What exists is a highly prescriptive document that generally presents a single narrative of history, centring round a globalist capitalist elitist (and often Euro-modelled) South African nationalist narrative. While there are several sections on ‘precolonial’ African history, it is how they are framed that is problematic. We need to improve teacher knowledge through improved history teacher training. I see a lot of resistance here – from older teachers, as well as those training teachers. Finally, popular public representations of history are often momentary, and subsequently become inaccessible, especially film and TV, particularly TV documentaries. For instance, Mandla Dube’s 2017 documentary, Echoes in the Valley, which is a holistic three-part take on Mapungubwe, aired on SABC-3 in July/August 2017. It seems few people viewed it, and it has now drifted into inaccessibility, rendering it inert as a teaching/learning tool.

Alda Saide (Universidade Pedagogica de Mocambique)

It was with great honor and pleasure that Mozambique, represented by the Pedagogical University, participated in the seminar ‘Public discourses on the past before colonial times’ organized by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Harvard University Center for African Studies. It was an odd moment in which scholars from various areas of knowledge within the region discussed, shared and reflected on the history of pre-colonial Africa moved by the concerns of the present. Actively the participants discussed and revisited issues such as: Designation of post-colonial Africa/Africa Traditional; Tribe vs. ethnicity; Authenticity of the identity/Zulu Nation, Shangana, Fingo; Sources for the writing of this story; Paradigms and theories used to write Africa before colonialism, etc. It was evident the importance and need for more in-depth disciplinary and regional studies on Africa before colonialism, as well as its dissemination in the academy, schools and the general public. It is my deep conviction that events like this should be held more frequently and with broader audience.

John Wright (research associate, APC)

I felt that the meeting of the Focus Group was constructive in a negative sense. It made clear, I thought, that there was little by way of a constituency among most of the participants for the kind of critical work on the making of knowledge about the past before colonial times which a number of academics have engaged in since the 1990s, and more particularly since about 2010. At the meeting, knowledge of this past was largely assumed to lie primarily in ‘the community’, with little interest shown in ‘academic’ questions of how and when and by whom this knowledge is made, or of what ‘the community’ is and how  it came into being. Interest in questions of this kind is probably to be found more in educational circles: I feel this is where the NMF and ASC could usefully aim further initiatives.


Lines from the praises of Zihlandlo kaGcwabe

Lines from the praises of Zihlandlo kaGcwabe, ruler of the Mkhize chiefdom in the early nineteenth century. These praises were recorded by James Stuart from Mbokodo kaSikhulekile in Pietermaritzburg in November 1913. See the comments made by Mbongiseni Buthelezi in the report on the Focus Group pointing to the importance of recorded praises as sources on the history of the times before colonialism.

Original in Killie Campbell Africana Library. Annotated photocopy scanned by John Wright.