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  • Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, 1400-1948
  • Peter Limb
Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, 1400-1948. By Paul S. Landau (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2010) 300 pp. $90.00

The marked interdisciplinary flavor of this innovative and important book makes it particularly appropriate for engagement by readers of this journal. Landau's research design focuses on intensive scrutiny of the origins of southern African languages and political alliances, using mission records, early travelers' accounts, and correspondence, as well as oral traditions and interviews and archeological evidence. He deploys research techniques from history, historical linguistics, and religious and mission studies. By centering on the southern highveld (South Africa, Lesotho, and Botswana) and the Moroka clan in particular, Landau is able to use his Setswana language skills to draw wide comparative lessons. European missionaries from the early nineteenth century onward encountered people who had joined together politically despite their differing ancestry. Analysis of names strongly suggests "tribal" words were, in fact, situational [End Page 341] indicators of political affiliation, intimating even wider patterns of amalgamation.

In six concise yet amply sourced chapters, Landau traces the "birth of the political" from 1400 through the onset of apartheid. He begins with "eyewitness engagements" seen through political discourses of the 1800s before visiting earlier centuries to trace the "history before tribes" via the evidence of alliances and finally undertaking an analysis of the role of translation. Three chapters then follow the Morokas and others from independent reign to colonial subjection and thence to the twentieth-century formation of "tribes."

Landau's flair for intellectual and religious history and historical linguistics has long been apparent, but this book is far more ambitious in its interdisciplinary and longue durée scope. Previous attempts at unraveling the complex meaning of precolonial terminology of identity have often been at the expense of simplicity.1 This book, however, makes clear how Bantu language speakers indicated such identity. Drawing on prior research by Vansina, Ranger, and others, Landau re-asserts African agency by highlighting the resilience of their political cultures and their adeptness at incorporating diverse peoples.2

The effect of Landau's approach is persuasive, and his conclusions are startling. Africans across the sub-continent already had amalgamated before arrival of missionaries. "Tribes" did not exist in the precolonial era; missionaries invented them. Politics made ethnicity, not vice versa (41). Africans were tribalized, not de-tribalized, in missions as they faced loss of power, land, and livelihood, weakening an earlier matrix of hybridity that was more integrating of outsiders. Landau also questions the obligatory attribution of religiosity to past polities by archeologists, historians, and anthropologists. He stresses shared influences across large spaces and prioritizes partnerships over centrifugal forces. His rethinking of ritual vis-à-vis rational behavior is refreshing, opening new pathways for the exploration of African secularism, or at least the relationship between secularity and ritual.

Landau's conclusion that "hybridity lay at the core" of African "subcontinental political traditions" and his emphasis on the resilience of alliances that re-appeared in different forms raise interesting questions (xi). What were the attitudes and other forms of political, intellectual, and social consciousness and organizational structure in precolonial times and what respective weight should we place on continuity or change? Less satisfying in Landau's broad treatment of territory and time [End Page 342] is the relatively scant attention paid to disjuncture. For twentieth-century politics, Landau focuses on the Samuelites (supporters of deposed chief Samuel Moroka), with some attention to other influential political movements. But closer consideration of the intersection of politics with religion would have been instructive. Moreover, the tight regional focus begs the question of what was happening elsewhere. The argument that the old traditions of alliance never died is convincing, but there were new external and internal forces at play.

Nonetheless, this book is a breakthrough in African historiography with wide comparative value; its re-conceptualizing of changing organizations, discourses, and likely intellectual histories will force scholars to rethink great swathes of history. Landau shows that the critical analysis and imaginative use of historical sources, together with a close attention to language, can resolve seemingly intractable historical problems.



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pp. 341-343
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