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‘Bantu’ migration and the European myths

By Hadebe Hadebe

Semonkong, Lesotho, 2013. PIC Mdu Ndzingi

Wikipedia defines a nomad as “a member of a people, or species that moves from place to place, with no permanent home.” One thing that makes a nomad different from what is generally considered ‘normal’ is that his residence has no permanency. Using the European perspective, nomads are or were found elsewhere, and definitely not in Europe. The Romani people are treated as outsiders in Europe, hence their nomadic classification.

When the white race reached different parts of the world, it always interpreted people’s lifestyles through their own tainted lens. If something did not resemble Amsterdam, Madrid or London in some way or other, it attracted derogatory or contemptuous definitions. One of the reasons that it took so long for European invaders to penetrate the African interior is that they always saw the continent as “underdeveloped”, and its people as “not sophisticated enough” compared to other societies who showed greater semblance to Europe, say in Asia or in the Americas.

Not that the African had no advanced civilizations, there were settlements such as Great Zimbabwe, Benin City and Timbuktu. But there were great places like Mombasa and other off the coast. Europeans preferred societies who lived in densely populated cities and in places that showed permanency of some sort. Permanency means a single location, one authority, buildings, laws, etc. Nevertheless, the European interpretation of advanced society had to therefore fit this obscured definition without taking into consideration things like the environment and or lifestyles of populations they ‘discovered’.

Permanency resulted in title deeds, legal systems and taxation. So, the Europeans opted to dictate ‘permanency’ to many societies through the imposition of a Wesphalen state system – by drawing borders to contain the ‘unconventional’ living patterns demonstrated by many societies across the world, particularly in Africa and in some parts of the Americas as well as Asia. The mere fact that people could not live in one location for extended periods was never going to be acceptable to the new landlords. For them, the world had to be ‘europeanised’.

In concurrence, Alfred Moleah states in ‘South Africa: Colonialism, Apartheid, and African Dispossession’ (1993), “European colonialism… rearranged the world in accordance with a European image in a largely brutal and violent manner.” It is no coincidence that to this day Europeans always put themselves and their systems as the only yardstick to judge others. One can even argue that Europeans even see their skin and hair as better than that of other people, racism originates from this madness. American geographer James Morris Blaut, in his book ‘The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History’ (1993), rejects the notion that Europeans are “makers of history”.

Blaut’s work stood in contrast to writings by authors such as David S. Landes and Jared Diamond which explain the reasons why Europe conquered other nations. Landes’ ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor’ (1998) reasoned that Europe was more advanced in science, commerce and law and this gave it a comparative advantage in relation to other parts of the world.

Diamond in ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies’ (1987) cited factors such as geography, environment and technology as primary advantages that gave Europe an edge over other parts of the world, rather than intellect or physical attributes. As part of this Eurocentrism, according to Blaut, Europeans treated pre-colonial Africa as “an empty space which was either completely uninhabited (terra nullius) or if settled, it was by mobile, nomadic wanderers with no sense of political sovereignty, no claims to territory, and no notions of rights to property.”

From the early days of their arrival, Europeans, according to Sean O’Connell, viewed Africans “as being indolent and having an inferior culture and intellect.” This article therefore seeks to dispel longstanding myths that Africa was an empty land and Africans were backward before the arrival of Europeans.

Examining the African pre-colonial state

American author Jeff Herbst in his book ‘States and Power in Africa’ (2000), gives insights on how the pre-colonial state was organised. His thesis is that the focus of a pre-colonial state was more focused on people rather than land. Herbst claims that pre-colonial states in Africa “had all the incentives to control people instead of land.” This resulted in the African state paying more attention to controlling the “small core areas,” as opposed to the thousands of hectares.

The intention was to manage its population, and remote areas, where less or fewer people lived, were largely neglected, making it possible and easy for takeover by external forces. However, some states like the Ashanti, which covered part of present-day Ghana, attempted to control the remote areas which were kept under control through different strategies. For example, the Ashanti “built a network of roads in order to communicate and facilitate the movements of armies.” But it is necessary to point out that remote areas “were more often the object of booty of goods and people (an explanation of slave trade) or of tribute (even if no other kind of authority was exercised over them).”

“The cost of broadcasting authority was high due to environmental conditions, thus restraining state control to core areas,” argues Ivan Cuesta-Fernandez. But as the Europeans arrived and with growing populations, some states were rapidly expanding – Shaka’s small Zulu state was annexing others mainly within the grand African east coast polity to bring them under one authority.

Herbst is of the view that “the diversity of state forms configured a state system that reflected the differences in environments, and forms of shared sovereignty were very common.” It makes sense to conclude that the African state showed a lot of fluidity and flexibility. In this regard one important characteristic of African settlements was that people moved from one location to another for different reasons, from changing weather patterns (climate change is not new) to skirmishes.

Thus, places with good climate and rains were densely populated and arid places had fewer inhabitants. This phenomenon holds true to the present time. When it comes to southern Africa, Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni explains in his article titled ‘The Nguni Diaspora’ (2020) that although the Ngunis, among others, moved around they “also valued their cattle, their grazing and agricultural lands, and their political sovereignty.”

Jozini Dam, KZN 2008. PIC: Mdu Ndzingi

“The story of the BaTlhaping (discussed later on in this article) and their Nguni cousins in the east were developed societies. However, Eurocentrism and quest for profits undermined all what they found and destroyed not just the economies and political systems, but also recreated the social systems in order to entrench their rule. Today, there is an entrenched belief, even among Africans, that nothing was happening in Africa and that people were just running aimlessly without anything to do.

Illogical conclusions and empty lands

Archaeological and anthropological evidence shows that little or no part of Africa was uninhabited. The African east coast, stretching from Port Elizabeth to Somaliland, has always had large populations compared to lower west coast, particularly in Namibia and Western Cape. Among others, the Dutch settlers pretended that the entire southern part of Africa was “empty”. This conclusion was hastily made without going into the interior parts of the sub-region.

This was despite the fact that the Chinese, Portuguese and others had been in contact with peoples in coastal areas and further a few hundred years prior to their arrival in 1652. Nevertheless, to this day, the South African east coast into the interior accounts for close to 70 percent of the country’s population. The combined population of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal is more than the number of people in Namibia, Botswana, North-West and Northern Cape put together.

Empirical evidence suggests that interior from Free State to Northern Cape were not always sparsely populated as they are today. The ‘emptiness’ in different parts of Africa is an outcome of protracted wars, slave trade, forced removals and other reasons. In ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ (1972), Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney described “how Africa had been exploited by European imperialists, leading directly to the modern underdevelopment of most of the continent.”

Understandably, Rodney focused on slave trade from a historical perspective and Africa’s relationship with the internationalist capitalist system as extractive. Probably, there is a need to expand Rodney’s work by focusing on colonialism that took place in South Africa with a large settler European community and how it created internal slaves, displacement and also generated profits for whites. In this regard, South Africa is quite unique among most of the formerly colonised world to this day.

South Africa’s profitability and entrenched colonialism mean that a small minority had to rely on force in the earlier days, but their major victory is on ideas – they have developed impactful theories that justify their long, unwelcomed stay. One such theory concerns treating South Africa as an isolated island from the rest of the African continent as well as that its black majority is not indigenous. Also, the effects of forceful capitalism are concealed using arguments that blacks slaughtered one another and that pre-colonial Africans had no idea about organising production.

All these ideas equal to dominance of the economy and land ownership by a minority people of European stock. Nonetheless, and contrary to Eurocentric historiography, South Africa is part of a bigger polity. It therefore implies that when analysing and dissecting Southern Africa – from the Cape to Tanzania and further afield – one needs to look beyond the current boarders of any of the newer states created by Europeans in the 19th century. The neighbours have always been more integrated with each other than it is always portrayed in most literature.

These commonalities existed long before the illogical theory of Mfecane or Difaqane, which will be treated in detail in succeeding articles. Furthermore, sovereignty and other features common in a European state such as language could not be used to define an African state; same as land, language belonged to different states. For example, a similar language was shared between various groups residing in the south (Lesotho), north (Limpopo and southern Zimbabwe) and north-west and far west (North West, Botswana, Namibia and lower Zambia).

This language today appears under different names: Sotho, Pedi, Kgalagari, Tswana and Lozi. Another feature is that the people always moved freely up and down at all times. This was a complex society that clearly showed a lot of vibrancy, but unfortunately did not mirror European living patterns.

Settlement patterns in pre-colonial Africa

Since the African polity did not resemble European settlements, the invaders concluded that the people were unrelated and or did not know each other. The area was then split between the Germans, English (Dutch) and the Portuguese to create fake European entities, later called countries. This takes us to the raging but ill-informed debate on land in South Africa.

The Eurocentric ‘logic’ states that certain people moved from Central Africa to South Africa, yet dismally fails to provide a coherent and understandable explanation of why groups in the Eastern Cape share similarities with people living in Tanzanian villages. There is a story that is often told that something called ‘bantu’ moved downwards to occupy land. And therefore, this thing called ‘bantu’ does not belong to South Africa, which was founded just over a century ago.

William Clifford Holden was amongst the first people to advance the mythology that South Africa was an ’empty land’ to justify why Europeans were rightful owners of the land. Articulated in his book, ‘The Past and Future of the Kaffir Races’ (1866), Holden’s flawed thesis is that “Europeans and the Bantu tribes had entered South Africa at roughly the same time and that up until that point South Africa had mostly been an ‘empty land’.”

Holden’s ‘theory’ holds that the Bantu “had begun to migrate southwards from present day Zimbabwe at the same time as the Europeans had begun to migrate northwards from the Cape settlement, with the two movements finally meeting in the Zuurveld region between the Sundays River and the Great Fish River.” European logic fails to appreciate that African living patterns were too complex for the settlers to understand.

South Africa is a European construct which did not exist until as recent as 1910. So, it does not predate the old settlements across the landmass. The creation of South Africa and other colonies disturbed a large polity and separated it from its counterpart to the north of Tongaland. Suddenly, the people of Zwide in northern KZN and Mpumalanga, for example, were removed from their cousins in Mozambique, and the lower Zambezi.

If the thesis that people moved up and down the east coast at any given time, what then led European historians and anthropologists to the conclusion that this thing called ‘bantu’ belonged elsewhere other than South Africa? It appears that European settlers imagined that all places in South Africa were similar to the much dry western coast, where they first established settlements. They noted the low populations in the area, and subsequently concluded that the entire place was never occupied. But they got a shock of their lives when they reached the Fish River to find the lower part of the African east coast polity, which always had populations as attested through artifacts and other evidence.

In her article, ‘The Myth of the Empty Land’ by Shula Marks’ (1980), South African historian Shula Marks observed that, “Excavations at Silverleaves and Eiland in the northeastern Transvaal, and Enkwazini near St. Lucia Bay on the Zululand coast have given dates for Iron Age settlements as early as the third to fourth centuries AD.” The African east coast polity boasts historical sites like Mapungubwe, Maputo, Mombasa, Zimbabwe ruins, and many other settlements. Its vibrancy is documented in most Arab and Chinese literature. In fact, African east coast polity shares borders with Nubia and Kush in the north. An equally thriving polity in the interior existed from the lower western interior to central parts of Africa.

The BaTlhaping state, economy and trade relations with its neighbours

This brief historical account sought to highlight that Europeans utilized extreme measures to empty the land in order to feed their vacant land narrative. Even with all their brutality they failed to erase the fact that thriving nations like the BaTlhaping existed in the area that stretches between the Molopo (north) and Senqu (south) rivers. In ‘Precolonial Economic Change among the Tlhaping, c. 1795-1817’ (1984), Gary Y. Okihiro states that BaTlhaping ran a super organised economy which was based on agriculture (cattle herding, crop production) and industry (mining, manufacturing of leather and skin goods) as well as hunting.

Okihiro adds that mining and manufacturing of metals plus commodities including iron, copper, tobacco, dagga and beads formed the core of the trade relations between BaTlhaping and other nations BaRolong, BaHurutse, Nama, and the Chochoqua Khoi. Nancy J. Jacobs, in her book ‘Environment, Power, and Injustice: A South African History’ (2003), also refers to the vibrant BaTlhaping trade. She adds that the Cape colonists “first learned about the Goat People [Tlhaping] from Khoikhoi on their frontier.” That was the beginning of the end for the BaTlhaping, BaTlharo and other nations who were later ominously combined to create a single mega tribe Tswana, which was the basis for the creation of the Bophuthatswana homeland in 1977.

Untangling the notion of SA as a vacant land, Afrikaner nationalism and First Nations

Despite finding people in Africa, the Europeans settlers incessantly argue that South Africa was not inhabited. This is of course to rationalize their winner takes all strategy, and this deceptively underlies Afrikaner nationalism. In this regard, Dutch descendants, who were previously known as the Voortrekkers or Boers, decided to call themselves Afrikaners (or Africans) as a way of mounting a flag in a land that has never belonged to them. This new ethnic group “was mobilized and a sense of nationhood was created through language, culture, religion, historiography, social and ethnic demarcation.”

It was built on the lands that black people were killed and maimed. To this day, Afrikaner fundamentalists remarkedly believe that they are the rightful owners of the land that was “unoccupied”. This lie has sustained them throughout the twentieth century, especially during apartheid, but wheels are quickly coming off since they are no longer in change of the state and critical channels such as education, to push through their propaganda. In recognition of this, Afrikaners have adopted populations in the Cape (or Coloureds) as partners in their ownership of the ‘First Nation’ propaganda which, in the main, seeks to undermine land restitution in South Africa.

If indeed there was a first nation in South Africa, it should be no different in Namibia, Lesotho, eSwatini, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and other states. The selection of South Africa alone by this movement is suspicious considering the interconnected history of the place. What is quite fascinating is that many of the so-called Coloured population especially in places such as Cape Town and Port Elizabeth recognize their European heritage more than their African roots. O’Connell’s ‘The Story of the Griqua Re-visited’ (2013) supports this view by stating the Coloured “totally cut off from their Hottentot [derogatory term for Africans] roots and saw themselves more as ‘Europeans’ and so attempted to imitate the settlers’ culture, religion, and lifestyle.”

It is quite plausible that today these people could term themselves as South Africa’s First Nation. Also, a sizable number among them were brought to the Cape of Good Hope as slaves from far flung places such as Malaysia and India. Hence, they were comfortable to be second class citizens ahead of blacks during apartheid. The Cape people’s claim that they are the original owners of the land is as bizarre as Afrikaner nationalism. These groups would not admit that their ancestors were responsible for the genocide of mass killings and enslavement of the Khoi and San peoples.

There is evidence that the Griqua ancestors were involved in deadly slave trade in their forays in the interior. Elizabeth A. Eldredge in ‘Sources of Conflict in Southern Africa, c. 1800–30: The ‘Mfecane’ Reconsidered’ (1992) asserts, “white frontiersmen supplied renegade Griqua and Korana with the guns and ammunition they needed to raid neighbouring Africans for cattle and slaves which they traded back to the farmers.” Griquas and Europeans contributed to the loss of political stability and peace for Sotho and Tswana speaking Africans in the west of the Drakensburg.

The history of the Cape is too complex to be misused and many people are yet to account for it, particularly the Europeans and their vassals. As to be expected, white historians have not only repeatedly denied that the San were exterminated and displaced but they have tried all tricks in the book to separate them from their broader African family by insisting that “other blacks” do not originate from South Africa. German historian Miklós Szalay in his book ‘The San and the Colonization of the Cape’ (1995) maintains that the San were not killed.

His view is that the idea that these Africans of the southern Cape were exterminated is a “stereotype” although white atrocities and brute are well documented. In ‘The Anatomy of a South African Genocide: The Extermination of the Cape San Peoples’ (2010), University of Cape Town’s Mohammed Adhikari remarks, “…from 1700 until 1890 thousands of San perished at the hands of commandos organised by frontier farmers, not always white, and that an untold number of women and children were forced to become serfs of the murderers or their families.” The story of the San resembles the disappearance of the Taino and other indigenous peoples in the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas who died from harsh treatment and hard labour.

The smallpox outbreak in 1713 is blamed for the deaths of the African’s in the southern Cape. The dispossession and extermination of the San were later extended to and replicated in other areas in the northern parts of South Africa. All this was done to create a white-centered economy and to entrench whites as ‘first occupiers’ of the place they would later call South Africa. Many people cannot imagine the depth of colonialism in South Africa in relation to the rest of the continent. Central to this project is the uncanny ability to persistently lie that land was unoccupied.

Nonetheless, it is strange that Afrikaners today speak about ‘plaasmoorde’ (farm murders) without acknowledging their role in atrocities that their forefathers committed starting from 1652. Adhikari is of the strong view that the Cape hunter-gatherer societies were killed in genocide-style. Hopefully next time Afrikaner groups such as AfriForum and Solidarity appear before the United Nations’ Committee for the Eradication of Racial Discrimination (CERD), they will tell the world about the gross violations that they have committed over four centuries in Africa.


Africa was not a tired, boring and underdeveloped place when Europeans started to ‘civilise’ it. It simply did not fit a caricature of what was understandable to them and their thuggish behaviour. The argument by the likes of hallucinating Patrick Lekota that Africans must provide title deeds to prove that they owned land is ahistorical and is advanced to further oppress the colonised. Thabo Mbeki’s 30- page pamphlet which opposed the expropriation of land without compensation will always remain a lowest point in insulting indigenous peoples of Africa since it trivialises the race element in how Africans were dispossessed their land throughout history.

To be continued

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