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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Of past events and passing shadows - Falsification and distortions of South African history

Jameson Maluleke - 2007-06-05


Explaining how Steve Biko identified the need for black South Africans to document the lives of fellow black South Africans in her moving autobiography, Ramphele (1995:67) bemoaned “the scarcity of black researchers and social scientists which made blacks vulnerable to becoming the objects of other people’s studies …”

More than thirty years have passed since Ramphele lamented the lack of black historians in the 70s. This was the era when the repressive system made it impossible for blacks to engage themselves in scholastic activities except only to parrot imperial propaganda called history.

Although the new South Africa offers a chance for black historians to put South African history in its true perspective, no black historian has seized the opportunity. Black historians seem to be few and far between. In fact, it is only a matter of time before black historians are declared endangered species – they are as scarce as rain in the Kalahari Desert. Those who happen to find themselves in this field of study by sheer accident are a “sing along” type – a true personification of a scratched record, who are happy to mimic other historians’ work.

Most black Africans despise history as one of the country’s trivia, claiming that it does not provide one with a passport to lucrative jobs, particularly in the public sector. They are of the opinion that the only discipline worth studying is political science. Any person who is an authority in politics, so they argue, is a true scholar. That research has shown there can be no study called politics without history, does not seem to bother our honourable scholars. This misconception about history has been motivated by the activism of the 70s and 80s when the country was embroiled in the struggle against the oppressive system. Black Africans became more politicised to the extent that for them, politics became the new religion, second only to soccer.

As a result of this lack of interest in history by black South Africans, our history has not yet been decolonised – it is still marooned in the past with all its distortions and falsifications, making it impossible to relate to South Africa’s modern society. The noise that accompanied the euphoria of the new dispensation, that South African history must be decolonised, de-Westernised, or Africanised if you like, was short lived. Advocates of partisan politics say the call for the country’s history to be rewritten did not emanate from historians, though, but from publicity starved politicians who were angry at Mbeki (1996) for stealing their Africanist ideology with his “I am African” epic.

Space does not allow me to engage in party-political matters – it is not even my focus anyway. Nevertheless, the voice of Africanists is evident enough that people are concerned about the sloppy presentation of our history. Our historians are supposed to take the centre stage and call for our history to be Africanised rather than to allow themselves to grope in the backwoods of the history discourse. Moreover, because our history has not yet transcended artificial boundaries created by the old regime, it remains colonial both in its context and in its intention to record the past.

In 1927, Henri Junod published two exhaustive volumes about the life of the Vatsonga people which were to have a far-reaching impact on the study of this tribe. Junod’s literary work is still regarded as an encyclopaedia of the Vatsonga by scholars in history, ethnography and cultural anthropology. This year (2007), it is exactly 80 years since the two volumes were published, yet no African historian has ever ventured to work on the foundation laid by Junod or come up with a new work on the life of the Vatsonga people. The only thing one hears from these “yes men” is a commendation that Junod has indeed written a bible on Tsonga history.

The motto embraced by almost all tertiary institutions, “Publish or perish”, does not seem to apply to our historians. They would be only too happy to be accorded senior teaching positions (professorships) without any effort from their side; after all, we are living in the age of affirmative action. According to Chris Landsberg of the Centre for Policy Studies, 95 percent of South Africa’s knowledge output is by whites and a mere 5 percent is by black South Africans (quoted by Ramogale in City Press 2006:24). Of the 5 percent knowledge output by black South Africans, it is possible that history is not represented.

Why? What is wrong with our historians? Is it because we blacks are inherently inferior as our detractors want us to believe? Is it because we have had inferior education during the dark days of our country?

A thousand times no. Our brothers and sisters possess enough intelligence to trace our history back to the Stone Age. What, then, makes our historians not to feature in scholarly world of history? Despite the fact that their fellow brothers and sisters are in power – running the country – our historians still shy away from making their voices heard in intellectual circles. They are not true to their profession – they are either sluggish or are obsessed with their calling as second-rate scholars. And what do second-rate scholars do? Don’t they shun creativity, preferring only constantly to call a strike and demand a living wage?

Some scholars concede that there is quite extensive literature on pre-colonial African history, resistance to imperialism and capitalism, social and worker history. There also has been history written in opposition to the dominant Eurocentric mode for at least the last 30 years. Yet the irony is that a lot of the progressive history that exists has not managed to penetrate the public domain (even though it has been published).

An acquaintance who did his MA degree in History in the 90s once revealed to me that had he dared to write about the poor taste of the old South African history, he might not be awarded his degree. The rule, he pointed out, was to write about history as it was presented by the imperial historians, and not try to change or analyse it. Today my friend is a proud owner of an MA in History cum laude.

As a result of this insistence that new scholars stick to the old version of history writing, our school children have to be content to learn a history which they find ridiculous to say the least. These up and coming students of history also find it confusing that Tsietsi Mashinini does not feature in history books, even though he is reputed to be the leader of the 1976 Soweto Uprisings. Robert Sobukwe also remains obscured in our history books, though he was a struggle stalwart who change the cause of history. As long this field of study is not righted, it will continue to be a big joke for many aspiring students for some years to come.

The Chief Tshwane bungle

Any black historian worth his salt should be ashamed to have allowed the story of Chief Tshwane to be blown out of proportion without investigating it with a view of putting the record straight. Millions of people are said to be in doubt of the existence of a chief called Tshwane. The doubt was voiced by Sowetan readers soon after a R1 million statue of Chief Tshwane was recently erected in a public square in Tshwane Pretoria:

First Mayor Gwen Ramokgopa missed its unveiling because she was watching soccer at the World Cup finals in Berlin. The residents scratching their heads, ask themselves who this man, Chief Tshwane is? Boingotlo Seema said: I had never heard about this man until I saw him in the newspaper and on television. Another resident, Teboho Nkosi, said if the chief discovered Tswane then he must have been the person who sold it to whites. Angelic Sanna could not believe that the Tshwane metro council can so easily impose a person on the citizens without consultation. – Sowetan (2006:9)

Who is Chief Tshwane, who are his followers? Where exactly did he reside in the Pretoria area? Why is it that he comes out from obscurity only now? Perhaps the most poignant question to be asked is: Why did historians allowed the Tshwane debacle to come to this point without doing some research? Scholarly investigation would have prevented the whole issue from turning into a circus. For instance, some reports in the media claim that Tshwane was a Ndebele chief, while others say that Tshwane is not a name of a person, let alone a chief, but simply a Setswana word for “we are the same”. Others maintain that the word refers to “little ape” in Setswana, obviously a corruption of tshwene because of the river Apies which flow through the city.


The more things change, the more history remains the same

Glaring distortions in our history are there for everyone to see. But I have chosen King Shaka Zulu’s life history as a prototypical example to illustrate my point. Shaka is reported to have acquired his military genius and training from Dingiswayo (Roberts 1974:39) who in turn got it from a white man called Dr Cowan, “the army surgeon who had so mysteriously disappeared in the unexplored territory in 1808”. This incident seeks to imply that Shaka’s military genius is not original, but indirectly comes from an imperial doctor.

Shaka is also portrayed as an unrelenting and bloodthirsty monster. Yet when the first white settlers (Henry Francis Fynn, Nathaniel Isaacs and James Saunders King) arrived in Zululand, Shaka and his people treated them like “kings”, offered food, heads of cattle, herd boys, women servants and elephants’ tusks. They were even shown a piece of land for their own use. “In a lengthy document drawn up by Farewell, the white men were formally presented with a stretch of land, extending 100 miles inland and 25 miles along the coast, including Prot Natal” (Roberts (1974:69).

Not long after Shaka has bequeathed a piece of land to Farewell, the whole of Zululand became officially known as Natal. Zululand ceased to be the land of the indigenous people, but for Farewell and his descendants.

The arrival of Francis and his cohorts in Zululand foreshadowed the decline of the Zulu monarchy. First Shaka was murdered in a palace coup by Dingaan and Mhlangana, yet it was not long before his successor Dingaan was forced into exile in Swaziland. Though King Mpande was an exception, King Cetshwayo was dethroned and banished. King Dinizulu was banished to Saint Helena, whereas King Langalibalele was banished to Robben Island.

It is tempting to suspect a conspiracy here. Henry Francis Fynn and his followers might have had a hand in destabilising the Zulu Kingdom. On his dying bed, Shaka prophesied, “You think you will rule this country, but already I see the swallows coming. You will not rule it when I am dead. The white people have already arrived" Ritter (1955:349).

Perhaps he was aware that some how or other the new sojourners had a long-time plan to seize his fatherland.

Both Wylie (2006) and the present Zulu monarch, King Zwelithini (not a historian), refuted this kind of agreement as part of the general distortion of the country’s history. King Zwelithini said he was convinced that the Zulu history in particular was falsified and wanted it to be rewritten, saying that stories of kings signing away land could not be true because they were illiterate. Zwelithini has now set up a team of experts to investigate how the KwaZulu-Natal region's history was "falsified". He is also advocating for Zululand to become KwaZulu rather than KwaZulu-Natal as it is presently known.

Wylie (ibid) has dealt the edifice of lies hammer blow after hammer blow. He succeeded in demolishing the notion that Shaka and his followers were the epitome of African savagery. He reveals this kind of portrayal as the imperial strategy to consolidate its gradual power in Zululand of yesteryear.

Analytic historians like Wylie are a treasure to our country as they can enable our school children to see the lie that we black South Africans are from the Great Lakes in Central Africa, although Ms/Mr Ples (one of our ancestors) had trodden the breadth and the length of our country a million years before Christ. (As most of us know, Ms or Mr Ples – the gender has not been agreed on – is a human skull discovered by Robert Broom in 1947 at the South African site of Sterkfontein. Ples is believed to be about two million years old.)


Perhaps we should stop and allow ourselves (historians included) a moment of retrospection to revise our notes about the significance of history in nation-building. The importance of history in a fast developing country such as ours cannot be over-emphasised. A country not familiar with its past doesn’t have a future. It is through history that we learn how our forefathers faced the challenges of epidemic such as TB and smallpox, how they governed themselves, their failures and achievements, their defeats and triumphs. In short, history enables us to learn from their mistakes so that we may improve our own performance. The following lines will also help us understand exactly how useful history is to a growing nation:

Knowledge of history is the precondition of political intelligence. Without history, a society shares no common memory of where it has been, what its core values are, or what decisions of the past account for present circumstances. Without history, we cannot undertake any sensible inquiry into the political, social, or moral issues in society. And without historical knowledge and inquiry, we cannot achieve the informed, discriminating citizenship essential to effective participation in the democratic processes of governance and the fulfilment for all our citizens of the nation’s democratic ideals (Google.com. Significance of History for Educated Citizens).

I've quoted the above lines in full as I am convinced that it will shed more light for those of use who take history for granted.

It is absurd for us to think that we can develop our country by focusing on politics and economics alone. Studies such as history need our attention as part of our national heritage. Once we know our past, then it will be easy for us to know where we are heading. A mere casual study of history, if this is what our historians are doing, is a danger to our national development. We need true historians (not copycats) to harmonise and harness all our intellectual, political, social and economic activities to form one solid development that is South Africa.

All South Africans, particularly those still living in the past, must bear in mind that the time for imperial historians is nigh. Our country cannot afford to be inhabited by whingers and wiseacres masquerading as historians. We need genuine historians for nation building - development is the name of the game.


Henri Alexandre Junod, Swiss Protest Missionary and Anthropologist noted for his ethnograpgy of the Tsonga (Thonga) peoples of South Africa.

Mbeki, T. 1996. "I am an African." Statement of Deputy President TM Mbeki on behalf of the African National Congress on the occasion of the adoption by the Constitutional Assembly of The Republic of South Africa Constitution Bill, 1996.

National Standards for History. Grade 5–12. Developing Standards in United States and World History. Significance of History for Educated Citizen.

Ramphele, M. 1995. Mamphela Ramphele, A life. Cape Town: David Phillip. 

Ritter, EA. 1955. Shaka Zulu, The Rise of the Zulu Empire. London: Greenhill Books.

Roberts, Brian. 1974. The Zulu Kings. London: Hamish Hamiliton. 

The Star. Mrs Ples meets Taung child at exhibition. April 26, 2006.

Sowetan. July 14, 2006. So who is this bronzed chief nobody knows?

Sunday Times. "Sipho Khumalo". June 26, 2006 at 09:34 am, King Zwelithini addresses a land restitution function for the Gumbi community in Pongola at the end of June.

Ramogale, Marcus. 2006. "The Native Club needs to bat for Afrocentricity." Johannesburg. City Press.

Wylie, Dan. 2006. Savage Delight. Myth of Iron, Shaka in History. Durban. University of Kwazulu-Natal Press.