Vol. XXII, Issue 3 (Summer 2015): African Historiography,
A Critical Tribute to Leonard Thompson
Olayemi Akinwumi (South Africa)
For more information on AfricaUpdate
This Critical Tribute to Leonard Thompson was inspired by the 2014 edition of A History of South Africa - revised and updated by Lynne Berat of Yale University. South African historiography has been characterized by a poverty of concepts, whereby terms such as “chiefdom,” “hut,” “primitive,” “band” and other terminologies from colonial anthropology often poison the mind of the reader and inhibit serious intellectual discourse. Questionable terminologies merge with an overall Eurocentric tendency to pathologize climate, soil, culture, people and just about every aspect of African existence. So how does the 2014 revised edition of Thompson’s A History of South Africa transcend the above trends? These illuminating commentaries by Michael Blanker, Colin Berrill, Tavvia Jefferson and Terrance Griffin provide some interesting insights. This critical tribute to Leonard Thompson arose from panel discussions at Central Connecticut State University and would hopefully influence future editions of Thompson’s pioneering text. The discussions should also draw attention to some areas in need of urgent revision with respect to South African historiography.
Professor Gloria Emeagwali
Colonial racism has long distorted the historiography of South Africa. This has certainly changed with the anti-apartheid movement and the fall of the apartheid regime. Still, the influence of colonial ideology remains with the continuation of a real, though perhaps more subtle misrepresentation of South Africa’s past. Current discussions of the civilization of Mapungubwe illustrate this.
Mapungubwe was a complex society south of the Limpopo River during the 13th century. It was clearly an advanced civilization, and was likely the cultural source of the later, more acknowledged society at Great Zimbabwe - which has had its own history falsified by colonial racism. Despite this pivotal role in the development of civilization in southern Africa, Mapungubwe remains profoundly under-recognized.
Racism was common in mainstream Western scholarship on Mapungubwe throughout the 20th century. In 1938 for example, The Scientific Monthly dismissed even the possibility that Mapungubwe could have been built by southern Africans.1 Although this explicit racism has diminished in 21st century scholarly work on Mapungubwe, the influence of colonial perspectives and assumptions are still embedded in popular academic discussions on South Africa’s pre-colonial history. One example is A History of South Africa by Leonard Thompson, which has been revised and updated in 2014 by Lynn Berat.2
Thompson’s A History of South Africa
Thompson’s work is justifiably appreciated for its discussion of the entirety of South African history. As Donald Will has pointed out, Western histories of South Africa before Thompson often began with 1652 and the arrival of the Dutch, while Thompson instead addresses the pre-colonial history of South Africa as well.3 Iain Smith illustrates this, explaining that Thompson produced “the first major history of the area to stress the role of the majority African population in the country’s past.”4 Brian Willan agrees, noting that Thompson’s focus is “on the experiences of the black inhabitants of the region rather than those of the white minority.”5 Included in this focus, according to Will, is Thompson’s commitment to showing how southern Africans defended their societies and cultures from what Thompson labels the white invaders: “Thompson demonstrates how the Africans resisted every step of the way.”6 It is also important to note that Thompson rejects the use of the culturally biased concept of tribalism in discussions of pre-colonial history in southern Africa.7
Despite these alleged essential contributions, however, Thompson’s work continues to express historical distortions because he presents pre-colonial South African history as devoid of civilization. He recognizes the hunter-gatherers and early farmers of the southern part of the continent, but severely underestimates the social complexity of the region in the period before the arrival of Europeans. First, there is a preoccupation with the physical characteristics of pre-European southern Africans, especially their skin color. For instance, in describing the early inhabitants of southern Africa, he notes that they were “small people with light brown or olive skins.”8 When he discusses the first farmers he suggests they had “dark brown skin and robust physiques.”9 In addition he quotes, without comment, a 19th century English traveler’s description of native southern Africans as “innocent” and as possessing small features that constituted an “amusing novelty.”10 Although describing someone’s physical attributes is not racist, it is not clear what significance these people’s skin tones or supposed innocence have for a historical examination, and his discussion may unintentionally reflect colonial preoccupations.The terminology he uses to describe the pre-colonial societies of southern Africa reveals the assumption that social life was not complex enough to merit the designation of civilization. For example, he states that the Sotho lived in villages of up to four hundred people. He notes that several of these villages eventually coalesced into “town-like aggregations.”11 Why communities that must have numbered in the thousands are “town-like” rather than “towns” is unclear. Further, he defines territorial units with as many as 50,000 inhabitants, under the authority of hereditary leaders, as “chiefdoms” rather than the more accurate designations of kingdoms or states.12 These terms underestimate the complexity of pre-colonial southern African social organization and are derogatory.
Thompson on Mapungubwe
Thompson’s primary weakness on South Africa’s pre-colonial history is that he does not discuss nor even mention Mapungubwe. This omission is all the more significant since Mapungubwe falls within the geographic region Thompson defines as historical South Africa. In numerous places throughout the first chapter, he defines the northern boundary of South Africa as the Limpopo River, which thus delineates Mapungubwe as historically South African. It is true that much of the archeological evidence on Mapungubwe has only emerged since the fall of apartheid, so Thompson’s earlier editions may have partially reflected the limits of contemporary archeology. But the Third edition (2001) and certainly the fourth edition in 2014 were published after abundant research on the achievements and complexity of Mapungubwe had become available. It is therefore a historical inaccuracy to neglect discussion of South Africa’s earliest complex civilization. Indeed Jacob Tropp, reviewing the Third Edition in 2001 already identified this weakness, stating, “Chapter 1 on the history of Africans prior to European settlement… does not incorporate any scholarship more recent than the later 1980s.”13 The fourth edition has not moved beyond this position
Civilization at Mapungubwe
The archeological scholarship of the last twenty-five years has in fact fully demonstrated that Mapungubwe was a complex and sophisticated society, integrated into world trade and meriting the label of civilization. As early as 1991, Basil Davidson stressed that states with social complexity far beyond chiefdoms were developing in southern Africa. “(In) Mapungubwe Culture… along the southern bank of the Limpopo, in what is now the northern Transvaal, Shona people established themselves after about AD 1000 and built a series of Iron Age polities… working finely in cast and beaten gold… and burying their kings with a wealth of golden ornament.” Davidson additionally emphasized that Mapungubwe was not unique. “And the same state-forming process, in one degree or another, went on right across South Africa as far as its southernmost seaboard.”14 T. N. Huffman, writing in 1992 in the UNESCO General History of Africa, concurred with Davidson’s assessment. Huffman identifies many of the characteristics typically associated with civilizations as being present at Mapungubwe before the 13th century: explicit social hierarchy, the manufacture of gold and cotton, stone architecture organized to distinguish social class, centralized political authority and integration into world trade networks.15 Here, clearly, was a civilization.
Writing a decade later, Graham Connah echoes the conclusions concerning social complexity at Mapungubwe. “In conjunction with a number of associated sites, it also seems likely that Mapungubwe became one of the earliest identified states in the area.”16 Connah too is struck by the sophistication of the gold and textile industries. “The gold-covered rhinoceros figure and other objects found in twelfth-century burials at Mapungubwe are a sad reminder of the objects that must have been lost to looters… The presence of spinning would presumably suggest that weaving was also taking place and we could assume that textile manufacture was of some significance.”17 John Iliffe, writing in 2007, makes explicit that Mapungubwe was no ‘chiefdom’, arguing that by 1220 a hierarchy of sufficient wealth, complexity and centralized authority had developed to suggest “a political state no longer subject to the repeated segmentation that had restricted the scale of previous chiefdoms.”18
Mapungubwe and Indian Ocean Trade
In addition to minimizing the social complexity in pre-colonial South Africa, Thompson also asserts the region was cut off from global connections and world trade networks before the arrival of Europeans. “Although Southern Africa is at the end of the Eurasian-African landmass, it was an isolated region before humanity’s technological advances of the past few centuries.”19 Thompson maintains that southern Africa was isolated, without any cultural exchange between South Africa and the wider world.20 However, archeology and scholarship over the last twenty-five years have successfully challenged this contention as well.Christopher Ehret, writing in 2002, makes a compelling case that southern Africa was fully integrated into Afro-Asia. He posits that trade from the southern African interior regularly moved through Swahili traders from East Africa to the Indian Ocean and onto the wider Islamic and Asian world. The Swahili merchants traveled far south along the east African coast, searching for gold and ivory, items that were readily available out of Mapungubwe, and made these products integral commodities of Swahili commerce with the Middle East and India.21 “The rulers of Mapungubwe built their power in the twelfth century on their ability to channel the gold and ivory to the coast, to the Swahili merchants at Chibuene (which was just north of modern-day South Africa).”22 Huffman agrees that Mapungubwe was clearly tied into international exchange, as the ivory and gold trade directly allowed the elite at Mapungubwe to increase their political power.23 Davidson adds that Mapungubwe traded “their products for Indian cottons and other Indian Ocean imports.”24 Connah reinforces this conclusion, noting that, “Mapungubwe… by the thirteenth century had grown powerful and wealthy from its participation in long-distance trade with the Indian Ocean coast.”25 Mapungubwe was thus both a source and recipient of the complex trade and cultural diffusion that linked southern Africa, East Africa, the Middle East and India into the deep beginnings of a globalized world.
Recent Scholarship on Mapungubwe
In 2007, Huffman produced a major work focused on the pre-colonial archeology of southern Africa.26 He examines additional areas of social development at Mapungubwe. First, he suggests that the social complexity and economic advancements at Mapungubwe by the 13th century were partially driven by a dramatic population increase, with perhaps a tripling of inhabitants since the 9th century.27 Huffman further argues that the wealth derived from this increased population and from long distance trade led to intensified social inequality and a corresponding development of a bureaucratic class.28 Finally, Huffman speculates that the relationship between Mapungubwe and the later civilization of Great Zimbabwe was a direct one. Although he does not suggest that the people of Mapungubwe moved to and created Great Zimbabwe, Huffman contends that the society and culture of Great Zimbabwe were directly inherited from Mapungubwe. “The successor to Mapungubwe was Great Zimbabwe.”29 David Killick has additionally argued that metallurgy was present in southern Africa by the 4th century,30 while Duncan Miller has presented evidence for metal casting, especially of copper and tin, at Mapungubwe in the 13th century.31
Writing in 2009, Iris Berger summarizes the conclusions to be drawn about the civilization at Mapungubwe from the last two and a half decades of archeological research. “In the mid-1990s, archeologists working in the northeast corner of South Africa… began to excavate a stone wall and royal grave site, one of more than five hundred hilltop stone remains scattered along the Limpopo River basin. Their discoveries… revealed relics of southern Africa’s earliest centralized states, whose leaders based their power and wealth on international Indian Ocean trading networks that connected them with the Middle East and India.”32 Undoubtedly, Mapungubwe was a southern African civilization that pre-dated European arrival by hundreds of years.
Thompson’s work is not alone among general academic histories of South Africa in under-recognizing Mapungubwe. Robert Ross, in A Concise History of South Africa, does mention Mapungubwe and he labels it a state. But he strongly underestimates its importance, granting it only a sentence as he indirectly describes it as small and as headed by a chief.33 These omissions concerning Mapungubwe may be the result of an ongoing, subtler form of colonial assumptions and biases: the vacant land myth.
Western universities and public education no longer express the explicit racism that was common 50 years ago. But academia still exists among elites within American, European and South African social orders based on privilege generated through colonialism. To appreciate the poetry or art of previously colonized peoples is no longer seen as an ideological threat to socially advantaged Western elites. But to accept that pre-colonial peoples had civilizations implies their descendants have a deeper historical claim to the land and wealth that has been expropriated by Western colonialism than depicting them as hunter-gatherers would. If the land was vacant, or at least vacant of complex, highly populated societies, Western nations have a less challenged claim to the wealth, privilege and social development they have gained through colonialism and imperialism. This misrepresentation of pre-colonial history is not limited to South Africa, however. An established U. S. history textbook currently common in American public high schools presents the native North American civilizations of the Anasazi, Hopewell, Mississippians and others in three sentences in a thousand page work.34 Like in South African history, the pre-colonial civilizations of Native Americans have been minimized, and the triumphalist narrative of U.S. Western expansion remains less challenged because of it. Acknowledgement of pre-colonial civilizations on the other hand, whether in the United States or in South Africa, means granting that world historical outcomes other than Western ascendency were possible. This recognition makes historically justifying Western privilege intellectually untenable. It is therefore hoped that in future editions of A History of South Africa these distortions will be recognized and an appropriate discussion of the complex and accomplished civilization of Mapungubwe will be included.
Leonard Thompson’s A History of South Africa was written with a fuller historiography of South Africa in mind than just the modern Apartheid and post-Apartheid eras. It explores the cultural, political, military, and economic aspects of the region from the ancient and pre-colonial eras up through the 21st century. In his pursuit of such a broad scope of history, Thompson makes both mistakes and impressive strokes, when examining the societies of southern Africa. Both the good and bad of his historiography can be seen, within the first four chapters of his book, which discusses the pre-colonial era up to the turn of the 20th century and British domination of the region. This period, roughly outlined by the author, from the ancient era up to approximately 1910, will be the focus of this discussion, since it encompasses much of the best and worst that Thompson has to offer about South Africa. Within the context of this time and place, Thompson struggles most with outdated Eurocentric viewpoints; his own vague, inaccurate language about indigenous political traditions; and a series of startling omissions that hamstring some of his later arguments. It will also be relevant to briefly visit and refer to one of Thompson’s contemporaries, John Omer-Cooper, who in the process of writing History of Southern Africa also creates several familiar pitfalls of Eurocentric voice and language. Despite this, however, the authors do excel at elucidating the complex political chafing in colonial South Africa, eventually giving broader, global context to events, and generally providing deeper explanations for population movements – including immigration, forced or otherwise. The issues to be discussed here are meant as an examination of how such errors arise, particularly in histories of South Africa and why their impact on the tone and direction of the entire narrative is relevant.
In order to determine where Thompson hurts and helps himself, it is best to analyze the beginning of his narrative in Chapter 1 in his focus on ancient and pre-colonial southern Africa. His discussion of this era presents itself as troublesome almost immediately. The expansive, influential kingdoms of Thulamela and Mapungubwe are absent - and part of the narrative rides on the story of Portuguese explorers discovering a supposedly “isolated”1 society - of course, from whom they were isolated is not mentioned. As Thompson attempts to introduce the reader to more of South Africa’s roots, he gets himself into even more trouble; terms like the undefined “chiefdoms” and Dutch slurs for the indigenous peoples are thrown around with reckless abandon, even after he confesses the derogatory nature of such epithets.2 Rather than providing a wealth of insight on these countries and kingdoms, the author gives the idea that South Africans did not even have international trade routes.3 Archeological evidence available to the author at the time of writing, points to conclusions that are antithetical to those of the author, such as the discovery of ancient Chinese porcelain shards in South Africa. These kinds of omissions take away from Thompson’s basic narrative arc and historiography. (It should be noted that more archeological discoveries have come about recently). The care with which Omer-Cooper treats his discussion of San artistic achievements throws Thompson’s struggles with the pre-colonial period into light and illustrates an important theme of this critique - that without a fully fleshed out, nuanced understanding of the early peoples of southern Africa, the efficacy of the later narrative – meant to build on precedent and create a strong historiographic link between past and present – is diminished and ideas such as cultural lineage and history are more difficult to portray.4 In point of fact, Omer-Cooper drives this point home in his reference to San rock art. Thompson’s parochial treatment of southern African artistic achievements leaves the reader and scholar with a false sense of the rock paintings’ craftsmanship, rather than appreciation and understanding of what they represent.
With a failure to engage with indigenous sources and perspectives on the significance of San art, Thompson launches into one of the book’s only considerations on the topic, and a poor one at that, saying, “When European arrived in Southern Africa, they found that the pastoralists were not as adept in music and rock painting and engraving as the hunter-gatherers.”5 The issue here represents a recurring theme of Thompson’s pre-colonial discussions, which almost completely give way to European narratives without the due consideration owed to indigenous sources. This begs the question of whether or not the reader of history is being asked to always assume European superiority and rightness of opinion, even when these western sources are dealing with an entirely new paradigm of artistic expression in a culturally distant society they are unfamiliar with. The extreme deference towards Eurocentric sources creates an undercurrent of undue bias (even in a discipline which recognizes bias as a necessary part of critical inquiry) in which imperialist letters, memoirs, edicts, and speeches are taken with little to no accompanying commentary to delimit the authority that they should hold in building an argumentative point.
Eurocentric narratives of history do not exist solely in the realm of historical inquiry either, as Omer-Cooper and Thompson both struggle to find an appropriate paradigm for the development of southern African civilizations and end up with the problematic phrasings of “stone age” and “iron age”- which do not responsibly reflect material and cultural achievements. To envision southern African societies on a Eurocentric timeline which demands specific mineral/material advancement is to feed into the toxic narrative of backwardness or primitiveness which has been foisted upon colonized peoples by the apologists of imperialism and European supremacy. Omer-Cooper in particular entertains these definitions in his section on “Iron Age Peoples,” failing to take the change in these societies on their own terms.6
Throughout the following three chapters, similar problems abound for Thompson, especially in his considerations of European-African conflict. This is perhaps most glaring in chapters 2 and 3, in which the author contradicts himself while offering up two erroneous historical theories. These chapters deal largely with Dutch (and some British) invasions of the lands belonging to Khoisan and Xhosa peoples. While indigenous resistance receives a few token references, the narrative offered in this book is largely one of trekboer commandos rolling over helpless and frankly ineffectual Africans who laid down without much of a fight.7 Then, in chapter 3, during Thompson’s discussion of the Mfecane, the Europeans suddenly disappear; as if by some magic trick, the nations (Great Britain and the Netherlands) which have been the primary vehicles of advancing Thompson’s story are conspicuously absent from the section titled, “The Zulu Kingdom and the Mfecane”.8 Within the following 7 pages where the events of the Mfecane are dissected, only a singular oblique reference to the Dutch or English can be anywhere found, in this case right at the beginning, with their role in the crisis quickly swept aside in the line, “This transformation [migrations leading to a population shift north of Cape Colony] was in essence an internal process within the mixed farming society in southeastern Africa.”9 Should the reader of this book really take this assumption at face value, that population growth of native peoples alone were responsible for brewing tensions, and not the least bit a result of European land-grabbing?
Thompson continues by placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of population density, a famine in the region north of Cape Colony, and Shaka Zulu himself.10 While this argument could be made soundly by relying on the proper evidence, Thompson’s refusal to even mention the European factor in the same breath as the Mfecane comes across as misleading and dishonest. While it is not the author’s responsibility to report every popular interpretation of a historical event, the complete exclusion of the European element in the Mfecane indicates a clearer refusal to engage this period from all possible angles. This is also the springboard which Thompson uses to condemn Shaka, implying an unjustified militarism on the King’s part, despite the fact that the region was being squeezed tightly by continued, violent Dutch incursions northward and implicitly continuing a theme of non-recognition for native resistance; here he implies that Shaka was an instigator and the exception in a supposedly peaceful region, further solidifying the King’s blame in the crisis.11 Although the finer points of his argument deserve another discussion, Omer-Cooper apparently follows a similar train of thought as Thompson, and also does not address European encroachment and the effects of land-stealing, which forced many indigenous peoples to move out of the Cape and to the east and north towards Kwazulu-Natal.
These chapters are not without their good moments. Thompson reels in much of his more racist language in chapter 2 and provides great detail on Dutch enslavement of the Khoikhoi and the awful conditions of bondage, including rape and lack of legal protections for these individuals. On this same thread, the “coloured” population is recognized by the author as being descendants of Khoi women raped by Dutch slaveholders. 12 An aside here for Omer-Cooper is again required. Omer-Cooper writes of Cape slavery: “As white men long outnumbered white women in the colony, sexual relationships between persons of different race were very common. Three-quarters of the children born to slave women at the Cape up to 1671 were of mixed descent.”13 As a strict recitation of racial demographics, this passage is acceptable, but Omer-Cooper comes dangerously close to turning the rape of enslaved women into the more innocuous “sexual relations” which, lacking a specific negative connotation, threatens to erase the crimes committed against these indigenous people by their captors, and to completely destroy the contextual narrative of mixed-race persons in South Africa – where rape as a systemic racial, gendered, and politically motivated crime takes place it must be explicated recognized as such and not substituted for gentler, inaccurate phrasing.
In chapter 2, Thompson disregards and does not make use of any African oral or historical traditions and instead takes quotes solely from Europeans, leading to a considerably one-sided narrative. This story continues into chapter 3 and the formalizing of Dutch and British control over the Cape Region. Here, apart from his shortcomings about the Mfecane, the author manages to capture the political dynamics at play well. The British pushing the Boers northward and eastward into conflict with groups like the Xhosa is explained thoroughly and with an eye to all involved parties and factors.
Chapter 4 of A History of South Africa deals primarily with the “mineral revolution” in the Boer Republics of Orange Free State and Transvaal and the fallout from European imperialist conflicts. This is where Thompson shines most brightly and is most illuminating about the origins of modern South Africa. He adequately discusses the rise of Germany, its rivalry with Britain, and the scramble for Africa – overall, a part of the narrative which successfully brings a global context to regional politics.14 Britain’s desire to maintain global supremacy in industrial capacity and propensity to quarrel with the Boers over mineral deposits is of paramount concern in the region in the late 19th century and so requires a finer examination of European rivalry, specifically. That said, the author also pays a good deal of attention to the indigenous Africans, who would be placed in dangerous mining sites, suffered casualties in the wars, and continued to try and slough off the colonial European elites. Thompson also mentions the influx of South Asians brought from overseas and who still leave a significant demographic mark on areas like KwaZulu-Natal today.15 Errors in these chapters are minimal repetitions of those mentioned previously, but this part of the narrative arc is treated to an exceptionally high quality discussion by Thompson, who captures the nuances of questions concerning mineral resources, and land rights that intersect European and African claimants, and illustrates where indigenous people fell in this equation.16
Thompson has his ups and downs across this text, and so it is important to keep in mind that even with the Berat revision in 2014, few issues plaguing histories of South Africa are appropriately reconsidered or addressed, such as a dismissal of indigenous sources and archaeology; racially-biased and inaccurate language; and a failure to engage these regions outside the scope of Western political and cultural traditions and imperialism. Here also, a point of redemption for Thompson is necessary: the first edition of A History of South Africa was written and published prior to or at least very near to archeological discoveries at the Blombos Cave on the southern coast and more extensive research at Mapungubwe in the north, and so Thompson could only be expected to give the ancient history its proper due with the information available to him -nonetheless, this does not justify the total absence of recognition for the existence of such ancient and pre-colonial kingdoms in chapter 1.
It is more surprising that the fourth edition in particular still lacks an addendum on these new clues to the historical context of pre-colonial polities and societies.
In writing this book, Leonard Thompson deserves recognition for what amounts to, in the full course of the narrative, an incisive, thoughtful appraisal of South Africa in the 20th and 21st centuries. In addition, his pre-colonial history is not one so fraught with error as to have his entire argument compromised. The problems of racially-charged language and inaccurate, unfitting descriptions of African political and social traditions are clearly so embedded within the discipline that even a scholar of Thompson’s stature has fallen prey to it. As expressed above, John Omer-Cooper, another luminary of historical research in the region, was himself not immune to the same problems as Thompson. A larger argument about potentially flawed academic research on South Africa far exceeds the scope of a critique of these chapters, but it is a relevant discussion in which A History of South Africa should be mentioned. Recognizing and addressing these issues and how they might be redressed, if necessary, is important for scholars like Berat to take on.
” Many historians of the white establishment start their history books with a brief reference to the voyage of Vasco da Gama round the Cape of Good Hope in 1497-98 and then rush on to the arrival of the first white settlers in 1652,” says Leonard Thompson. Other historians are so committed to emphasizing the role of capitalism as the molder of modern South Africa that “they ignore the processes that shaped society before Europeans began to intrude in the region.” Nonetheless, Thompson, in his own work, virtually ignores the fact that there were kingdoms in South Africa. Instead, Thompson calls them “clans” and uses racial epithets as well in his writings. Why was the history of ancient South African kingdoms not documented more in the past? According to Mokhtar, “since the European Middle Ages were often used as a yardstick, modes of production, social relations, and political institutions were visualized only by reference to the European past.It was not until the nineteenth century that descriptions of societies within South Africa were fully documented. In the late 1930’s research was started by archaeologists that would reveal significant information about South Africa’s past. However, this pertinent information was hidden from the world for decades in order to validate the erroneous claim that whites discovered South Africa. Today South Africa is considered a “cradle of civilization”.
In Ancient South Africa, there were many kingdoms and empires. The Mapungubwe and Thulamela kingdoms, and the Zulu empire were among the many successful societies found in South Africa. I will attempt to prove that there were ancient South African kingdoms before the twentieth century and to discuss the common features among them. This is relevant because it will prove that South Africa has a rich and glorious history that needs to be shared with the world.The ancient city and kingdom of Mapungubwe was once one of the largest and successful kingdoms in South Africa. Mapungubwe is located in the Limpopo River Valley and borders Botswana and Zimbabwe. The kingdom dates back to over one thousand years and is one of the world’s civilizations endowed with gold. The earliest inhabitants of Mapungubwe included the Shona, Tswana and Sotho peoples. The Shona were Bantu speaking people who were mainly cattle farmers that established a successful trade system on the northern coast of South Africa. “The civilization thrived as a sophisticated trading center from around 1200 A.D. to 1300 A.D., trading gold and ivory with China, India, and Egypt.”5
This magnificent city was abandoned around the 14th century and was excavated in 1933. Remains of South Africa’s glorious past and history were found and kept hidden from the world. “The findings were kept quiet at the time since they provided contrary evidence to the racist ideology of black inferiority underpinning apartheid.” “These remarkable finds, regarded as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries on the African continent, prompted the University of Pretoria to acquire excavation and research rights to protect the site from further pillage as well as to take immediate custodianship of the artifacts.” Some of the items found at the site were extraordinary gold jewelry, golden scepters, gold bowls, and the golden rhino.
Copper and silver items, clay pots and colorful ostrich eggshells were buried in Mapungubwe as well. Various types of glass beads were also found which provides evidence of the trade relationship that existed between South Africa and China. The Chinese Map from the year 1389 that was found in Africa also proves that South Africans had contact with other people around the world before the arrival of Europeans.
The ancient kingdom of Thulamela is located in northeast South Africa in what is now called Kruger National Park. Like ancient Mapungubwe, Thulamela also sits upon a hill. Thulamela is a Venda word that means “the place of giving birth.”8 However, Thulamela was built about eight hundred years ago and thrived between 1350 A.D. and 1650 A.D.9 The site was found in 1981. The inhabitants of Thulamela also used trade and cattle farming as a primary source of wealth. The trade network extended through the central regions of the continent that included Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and central Africa.10 Like Mapungubwe, the inhabitants of Thulamela traded gold and ivory with Arabs, Europeans, and the Chinese for tools, spices, and porcelain objects. Today, there is no evidence that reveals why the city was abandoned but it may have been due to climate change, or the depletion of natural resources.
The Zulu kingdom is one of the most famous kingdoms on the African continent. The Zulu kingdom was located in the east close to the Drakensburg Mountains. The word “Zulu” means sky and was the name of an ancestor that founded the royal line.11 The land of the Zulu empire is located between the Drakensberg Mountains and the Indian Ocean.12 The Zulu people also raised cattle and other livestock as an economic source. The Zulus also participated in global trade. Under the leadership of King Shaka Zulu, the Zulu state became one of the largest and dominant empires in South Africa due to its military power. Shaka, who ruled from the 1810 to the 1828, is often considered the first Zulu king, because he was the first to extend Zulu overrule to most of the other polities in Kwa Zulu-Natal. His reign also saw the first settlement of Europeans in the area, when British traders established Port Natal at the site of present-day Durban in 1824.13 The original language is IsiZulu and is still spoken today by many South Africans. The empire declined after the death of Shaka in 1828. This decline was also due to the occupation of the British and their splitting up of the empire into numerous political entities under the Shepstonian system.14 Even so, the Battle of Isandlwana of 1879 marked one of the major, devastating defeats of the British ever.
Most indigenous South African kingdoms before the 20th century shared many other common features such as an identifiable ruling elite. Royal family power was passed down from generation to generation. The kingdoms or empires consisted of societies that were based on class. Usually the royal family and nobles were housed away from the common citizens. For example in Mapungubwe and Thulamela, the royal family lived on top of a hill overlooking the kingdom. Thulamela was surrounded by a stone wall. In the graves that were excavated, the skeletons of what appears to be members of a royal line were found. The skeletons were found to be in a sitting position with various valuable objects surrounding them. Among some of the objects were gold bangles, gold necklaces, a golden scepter, and the famous golden rhino. “Mapungubwe is probably the earliest known site in South Africa where evidence of a class-based society existed.”15 This information is relevant because before these sites were excavated, many historians claimed that Africa had no class based societies.
Religion was extremely important among the various kingdoms and empires. Religion was used as a way to try to explain the phases of life and to learn how to cope with the environment. It was common to believe that one was able to communicate with the ancestors through various ways such as psychic energy, songs, and dance. Specifically, in the case of the Zulus, ancestral spirits were important and offerings and sacrifices were made to the ancestors for “protection, good health, and happiness”. It was believed that ancestral spirits returned to the living in the form of “dreams, illnesses, and sometimes snakes.”16
Today South Africa is considered one of the places where civilization
began. Mapungubwe was named a world heritage site in 2004. The
magnificent contributions of ancient South Africans are being revealed
to the world.
Leonard Thompson’s A History of South Africa aims to be an accurate and unbiased history of South Africa from the earliest known human inhabitation to the present. This is a most ambitious endeavor. Thompson quickly begins to set the stage for his grand venture by mentioning repeatedly the shortcoming of his colleagues on the topic of pre-colonial South Africa. The reader is quick to expect some rare detailed information about this great land. Then the first chapter comes up completely flat. He makes no mention of recent discoveries at the Blombos cave sites. These discoveries include many historical firsts for mankind, possibly the earliest known use of fishing, cosmetics and also drawings that hint at early writing. Additionally left out was potential early use of tools, specifically the first bifacial spearhead, first use of paint and even early chemistry. These are first accomplishments, not just for Africans but all of mankind. Also completely absent are the great kingdoms of the pre-colonial region: Mapungubwe followed by Thulamela and the Great Zimbabwe. These kingdoms were very impressive complex societies whose accomplishments directly contradict many of Thompson’s claims. He claims that Africans of this time lacked the pre-requisite knowledge to harness the great natural resources of the land and fails to mention that Mapungwbe was a place of great mining for gold, which was used in a variety of ways including bead making and jewelry. In fact he doesn’t mention Mapungwbe at all. So when he calls the area extremely “isolated” and says that there was no real marketplace or merchants for trade it is not surprising that the evidence proves him wrong. There were strong trade links in the area both domestic and international; how else could the musical instruments from western Africa and beads and porcelain from Persia, India and China be discovered? With all this evidence going completely unmentioned and ignored in place of overly simplistic blanket statements, it just seems that Thompson is another historian rushing to get to the colonial era and that is specifically what he claimed he would avoid. The first chapter could easily be the preface for a book entitled ‘History of South Africa from 1652 to the Present Day’.
Thompson’s first chapter speaks of great writing ambition and aims to undo all the wrong of other historians in terms of indigenous South Africans then quickly disappoints the reader by doing exactly that. Generalizations and lazy blanket statements that aim to quickly simplify the land and its people before the arrival of Europeans are prevalent. It’s simple math: a whole thirty pages about the thousands of years before the colonists, then 250 pages plus about the four hundred years after their arrival. This is another disappointing example of non-European history written by a European, which inexplicably puts Europeans at the center of the narrative. That said, in the two hundred pages that follow, would he improve or does he continue to badly disappoint?
Thompson began his second chapter,” The White Invaders”, by briefly describing the minor presence of Portuguese mariners in South Africa and then quickly moves on to 1652 and the arrival of the Dutch. The Dutch East India Company and its merchants, who were the most successful businessmen in Europe at the time, established a settlement at the Cape as a stopping point on long distance trading voyages. Then came Dutch settlers from the lowest and least successful classes who came to work for the company. Thompson explains that soon the indigenous Khoikhoi of southwest Africa were bearing the brunt of Dutch invasion. He states that using superior weaponry the colonial government established control. Thompson calls the Khoikhoi political system fragile, and says that the “chiefs”, a European term incorrectly applied to local leaders, became pathetic clients of the company. Next the British arrive in 1795 and also “slaves” from all over the colonial world are brought in to what he describes as a place that was quickly becoming a complex racially stratified society.
The third chapter was actually quite interesting. Here Thompson explains that as the settlers continued eastward, they soon encountered the mighty Xhosa. A series of three significant conflicts occurred, and in all three the Xhosa held their ground. The detail of the circumstances and complexities is well explained and as is that of the colonists’ next great foe, the great Zulu kingdom and its charismatic leader, Shaka. The kingdom was explained as being very powerful with a great standing army. Zulu warriors were well trained and well equipped. Thompson explains that one reason for the eventual victory of the colonists was that whites were able to exploit the cleavages in African society more successfully than Africans could exploit the cleavages in white society. That said he explains that the Africans did prove to be remarkably resilient and that in 1870 despite the colonial onslaught Africans still had control over the majority of the land.
Next are the discoveries of gold and diamonds that just happened to coincide with the peak of British imperialism. The British who had earlier given lip service to improving conditions for Africans, now had an economic interest in maintaining the racial status quo. The diamond mines actually made conditions worse. Many Africans had to leave their homes and families to work in the mines and were eight times less financially compensated then their white counterparts, who had the protection of a union. Thompson says of this time that the Africans were unable to unite in self-defense and calls it a “conquest complete”. He makes an unnecessary point of explaining that the Swazi people made a habit of signing documents that gave away land and resources that they didn’t understand.
The Segregation Era, which began in 1910, told of a time after the Boer War when the British and Dutch seemed to forget their past differences and reunited to further oppress the Africans. The Native Lands Act of 1913 limited African landownership to the reserves and was the beginning of a series of segregation laws. Thompson did a fine job of explaining the political climate of the following decades that led to the triumph of Afrikaner nationalism. This brought the book to 1948, with the victory of Malan and the National Party, and the quick emergence of apartheid. South Africa was transformed into a republic comprised of four racial groups: White, Coloured, Indian, and African. The whites received the lion share of freedoms and resources, while the Africans received nothing.
When speaking on the African resistance to apartheid, the author goes into detail about both the PAC and ANC. However, only a few brief sentences are devoted to Steve Biko. Thompson only speaks of Biko’s death in relation to the anti-apartheid movement. He missed the mark badly by not including more about Black Consciousness and the role that students played in the fight, saying only that at that time, the black resistance had become more formidable than before. He was then quite concise when he explained the United States and its relation to the fledging apartheid regime. He calls Ronald Reagan misinformed and a victim of Pretoria’s propaganda. How else could one explain the US policy and its inability to impose meaningful sanctions? As the USSR was beginning to disintegrate finally the apartheid government began to talk reforms and an eventual transfer of power.
May 10th, 1994 was as Thompson described one of the finest achievements of the twentieth century. While the author was very complimentary of Nelson Mandela and spoke very highly of just how great an accomplishment, for the Africans, ending apartheid was, he seems to get quickly side tracked. In the 9th chapter, entitled The New South Africa, Thompson began to try to give the reader overviews of the country in the years immediately following apartheid’s end. All the reader really gets is a variety of statistics about where the new South Africa ranks in the world on subjects like crime, economics, health, and safety. Should it be a surprise to anyone that the new country ranks low on all these measures when compared to nations that have been independent for centuries? After all the negative statistics and a thoughtful section about Mandela leaving office, Thompson strangely changed course again and departs by saying that in the year 2000 the still very new nation was richer, more peaceful, and more humane than any country in mainland tropical Africa.
The 10th chapter was the revised and updated additions of Lynn Berat. Sadly, she added almost nothing new, just a continuation of the poor national statistics on law, the economy, health care, education, crime, and so on. Berat was particularly interested in the corruption claims that plagued the nation’s presidents after Mandela. When Mbeki and Zuma insisted that the accusations could be racially motivated and were untrue, she writes as if she knows to the contrary. She claims that Mbeki’s obsession with racism was crippling his ability to deal with social issues. The rest of the chapter finishes with more poor statistics, attacks on political leaders, and thoughts of what could have been. She adds nothing of real value and is way too hard on a nation still in its infancy.