Archiver > SOUTH-AFRICA > 2002-02 > 1013494768

From: "Brady" <>
Subject: Re: Bechuana district - and "Mfecane"
Date: Tue, 12 Feb 2002 08:19:28 +0200
References: <000b01c1b18a$f8ffc740$49a0ef9b@david> <> <001301c1b1e7$1b2a4000$6aacef9b@david> <011601c1b2d0$474795e0$> <006601c1b37c$82b06740$166aef9b@david>

Thanks, David

Most enlightening -- my grasp of African history has expanded considerably.
But, oh dear: so many books, so little time! I really recommend Reader's
"Africa". I've got to the part where King Leopoldt sets off the
"scramble" -- & Pakenham's book on the subject is next on my "to read" list.
I'm always taken aback by how recent (relatively speaking) that rush by
European powers to claim every last square of Africa actually was.
Relatively speaking, except for South Africa, the colonial era was rather
short -- only about 80 years.

Kind regards

----- Original Message -----
From: David Morris <>
To: <>
Sent: Tuesday, February 12, 2002 6:19 AM
Subject: Re: Bechuana district - and "Mfecane"

Dear listers

As a follow-on from previous discussion, and more especially in response to
Maureen Brady's characteristically copious consultation along spans of
bookshelf, this time on Mfecane...
Yes, indeed, there has been advancement in understanding the period since
Omer-Cooper - as is indicated in Maureen's quotation from Reader's 1998
book. Reader alludes to the thesis of Julian Cobbing (Rhodes University),
who from the early 1980s mounted a campaign - as Carolyn Hamilton puts it -
for the 'jettisoning' of the concept of the Mfecane. Cobbing proposed that
the idea of a 'Zulu explosion' sending shock-waves up and across Highveld
was nothing but a settler myth for masking the impacts of slaving - both
from the Delagoa Bay side and from the interior of the Cape (this came up
last year in the context of Khoisan and slavery at the Cape). The Mfecane
question was debated in earnest from the late 80s-early 90s; and in 1991
Wits University hosted a colloquium aptly titled - with reference to
Omer-Cooper's "Zulu Aftermath" - "The Mfecane Aftermath", contributions to
which were subsequently published with the sub-title "Reconstructive debates
in Southern African history" (edited by Carolyn Hamilton, Witwatersrand
University Press 1995).

Needless to say "Pre-Cobbing" Mfecane historiography that attributed the
upheavals solely to Zulu expansion is all but consigned to the bin -
although Cobbing's 'campaign' has been criticised as being marred by
inaccuracies, overstatements, exaggerated claims and a selective use of
evidence (see Saunders' article in the 1995 book). But Cobbing's
achievement, beyond challenging the old idea - which dates back to Theal -
was to stimulate much new research on the period.

The last word has not been heard on Mfecane (is there ever a "last word" in
history, which after all is only a version about the past, constructed in
the present, and susceptible to contemporary constraints, biases, etc?). I
should like to cite a chunk from Hamilton's (1995) introduction (The Mfecane
Aftermath: Reconstructive debates in Southern African history. Introduction,
p 8), which suggests some of the ways that future research might broaden the

"One debate which percolates through the various essays [i.e. in the 1995
book] is the question of African and European agency. Was the period of
exceptional violence which most contributors agree occurred in the early
decades of the nineteenth century a consequence of African activities (the
eruption of the Zulu, and refugees from Zulu imperialism, on to the highveld
as proposed by Omer-Cooper, among others) or was it the result of European
activities (labour-raiding and slaving from the Cape in the south and from
Delagoa Bay in the north, as argued by Cobbing)? In this debate the
contributors have agreed that it is fruitful to pose the question in terms
of African and European agency. But there are clear indications in some of
the essays that this argument itself may impose a structure on the study of
the period that limits, rather than opens up, historical enquiry. In this
form, the disagreements over the relative weighting of European and African
agency repeat the conventional bifurcation of the southern African past into
black histories and white histories, meeting only in conflict. This division
continues despite the wealth of evidence which reveals a more fluid
situation, in which European and African actions...are but different
ingredients in a well-shaken cocktail. It may be necessary to entertain the
idea that the discussions of African and European agency, while facilitating
a debate in these pages, may be responsible for the exclusion from these
essays of evidence and material which does not fit the bipolar form taken by
the debate. There is a further danger that this division of the history of
later precolonial times will tempt post-apartheid authors of a revised
history of this period - especially the writers of new South African history
textbooks - into replacing unproblematically black villains with white
villains, instead of encouraging them to come to grips with the full
complexity of relations of domination, subordination, resistance and
interaction within and between the various societies of precolonial southern

Clearly, in the aftermath, Mfecane/Difaqane (in any of its old or new
usages) cannot be taken for granted.

For anyone interested in the many facets and debates around this matter, do
refer to "The Mfecane Aftermath" edited by Carolyn Hamilton. For more on
"the full complexity of relations of domination, subordination, resistance
and interaction within and between the various societies of precolonial
southern Africa," I would recommend the book I referred to over the weekend
by Jean and John Comaroff, "Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity,
Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa" (1991) - in which monolithic
accepted-as-given categories of the kind that Hamilton questions (above) are
consistently deconstructed. (Indeed, as family historians, we hardly need
reminding how individuals depart from the roles ordained by stereotype).


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