To Swim with Crocodiles

4 Oct 2019 - 08:30
Cover of To Swim with Crocodiles: Land, Violence, and Belonging in South Africa, 1800-1996. Photo courtesy of UKZN Press.


To Swim with Crocodiles: Land, Violence, and Belonging in South Africa, 1800-1996 by Jill E. Kelly.

Jill E. Kelly’s book, To Swim with Crocodiles: Land, Violence, and Belonging in South Africa, 1800-1996, was launched on the second day of the SAHS conference in June 2019. This book offers a fresh perspective on the history of rural politics in South Africa, from the rise of the Zulu kingdom to the civil war at the dawn of democracy in KwaZulu-Natal. The book shows how Africans in the Table Mountain region drew on the cultural inheritance of ukukhonza—a practice of affiliation that binds together chiefs and subjects—to seek social and physical security in times of war and upheaval. Grounded in a rich combination of archival sources and oral interviews, this book examines relations within and between chiefdoms to bring wider concerns of African studies into focus, including land, violence, chieftaincy, ethnic and nationalist politics, and development. Colonial indirect rule, segregation, and apartheid attempted to fix formerly fluid polities into territorial “tribes” and ethnic identities, but the Zulu practice of ukukhonza maintained its flexibility and endured. By exploring what Zulu men and women knew about and how they remembered ukukhonza, Kelly reveals how Africans envisioned and defined relationships with the land, their chiefs, and their neighbours as white minority rule transformed the countryside and local institutions of governance. 

This writer, Ayanda Mahlaba, an APC Masters student, was on the panel for the launch chaired by Dr Sibongiseni Mkhize with the author Jill Kelly and Dr Mxolisi Dlamuka. An interesting observation is that Mkhize, Dlamuka and I are all from the Natal Midlands and so this session felt like a reunion albeit on a foreign land.

My contribution on the panel began with thanking Kelly for helping me find the language for understanding some of the political, social and cultural dynamics that are at play in Mpolweni Mission, where I am from and is an area that features prominently in my MA thesis, as it shows that these issues are not only unique to Mpolweni, but characterize the Natal Midlands as a region. It was also visceral reading this book since some of the prominent families in Mpolweni Mission today were refugees who fled Mkhambathini during the days of udlame, political violence. I then went on to talk about the oral accounts, the focus of my contribution, particularly the complexity of those who narrate about how they are originally from Swaziland. I linked this to something that seems to be a common feature, where people trace their origins to Swaziland and evoke this to the present and that it requires us to understand what it may be signalling to us as historians. I then spoke about the Inkatha-UDF/ANC political violence of the 1980s-1990s and the role that the chiefs played. Chiefs were conventionally suspected of being allies of the KwaZulu government and yet here was a chief in Mkhambathini, Inkosi Mhlabunzima Maphumulo, who was a UDF supporter. It is interesting that in Mpolweni Mission the chief was rumoured to be an IFP supporter, in an UDF stronghold, and this created tensions and even exacerbated the way in which the udlame was sustained.

Dr Dlamuka elaborated more on the chiefship dimension by bringing to the fore the Swayimane, Mpolweni and Ximba chiefdoms although noting that the Mpolweni chiefship was a kholwa one. For Dlamuka, the histories of these chiefdoms show how the cultural practice of ukukhonza was not only top-down, but bottom-up. Kelly succeeds in exploring the bottom-up aspect. Dlamuka concluded by mentioning that in one of the chiefdoms that Kelly writes about, there is an ongoing, protracted land claim, which shows how the legacies of the past linger to this day.

The book launch was an intellectually stimulating gathering with questions from audience members who were familiar and not familiar with this region linking some of the topics that Kelly addresses in her book to the topical Ingonyama Trust and the land expropriation without compensation debate.

Dr Sibongiseni Mkhize, Prof Jill E. Kelly, Dr Mxolisi Dlamuka and Ayanda Mahlaba. Photo courtesy of Ayanda Mahlaba.

Later in July, the APC, in turn hosted the Cape Town launch of Kelly’s book. I chaired this launch with APC Honorary Research Associate Prof John Wright as a panellist. Kelly introduced the book before Wright responded with comments. There were also intervening contributions from the chair. The event was well attended.