- Late Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century South Africa:A “usable past”?
The rise of African history as a distinct academic discipline coincided with a shift away from formal colonial control and towards independent African nation states. It is not surprising, then, that the first generation of historians of Africa took very seriously the potential for historical narratives and analyses to produce and shape political change. The writing of Africans’ history was, to many of them, an explicitly anti-colonial act—asserting the complexity and humanity of the continents’ residents against an image of Africa as “without history.” In the early 1970s, Terence Ranger distilled this approach to two commitments: “firstly, to African agency in… historical analysis, and, secondly, to the production of ‘usable history’ for the newly independent nation states of Africa.”1 Although the imbrication of historical scholarship and nationalism proved problematic in some cases, Ranger’s invocation of a “usable past” continues to resonate, and historians of Africa continue to operate with the “added urgency” that their work must speak to the continent’s pressing concerns.2
In South Africa, in particular, it seemed obvious that historians needed to engage with the political present. The apartheid state justified its legitimacy through a particular historical narrative—the production of alternative histories was, by definition, anti-apartheid activism. Julian Cobbing’s 1988 article “The Mfecane as Abili: Thoughts on Dithakong and Mbolompo” is one of the more extreme—and influential—examples of South African historians addressing themselves as much to the contemporary political landscape as to historical events. In it, Cobbing argued that British missionaries and officials’ claims of having rescued refugees following an 1833 battle masked their actual purpose—slave raiding. He further suggested that violence in the early nineteenth-century South African interior originated not from the conquests of the Zulu kingdom (as earlier historians had argued), but from the labor-hungry machinations of Europeans—machinations which were hidden in the colonial record.3 This theory of secret interests driving conflict amongst Africans was influenced by and ultimately directed towards so-called “third force” violence in late 1980s and early 1990s South Africa, in which the apartheid state secretly funded and fomented brutal hostilities between African National Congress supporters and other black South Africans. In the end, “The Mfecane as Abili” proved to be trenchant political commentary but problematic history. In the bloody context of late-apartheid South Africa, this may be understandable. Cobbing’s account of events has not held up to scrutiny, but more than a few scholars defend, if not the specific argument of the article, the idea that political usefulness might outweigh historiographical or methodological concerns.
Twenty years into the “new South Africa,” historians might be expected to take a somewhat more clear-eyed approach. Yet the question of how, if at all, the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century history of the region speaks to its twenty-first-century present and future remains a contentious one. Clifton Crais, for example, has offered increasingly explicit political critiques in his work, but he has done so by shifting his focus towards the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, examining events and trends wherein the chain of contingency and causality to the present can be more easily demonstrated. Norman Etherington, on the other hand, has argued for a “struggle history” of the early nineteenth century, framed but not determined by South Africa’s post-apartheid political and social needs.4 For better or worse...