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South Africa: New Books | the Land Wars

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In this timely history, John Laband carefully examines how white settlers in the Cape systematically dispossessed African societies of their land.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from The Land Wars: The Dispossession of the Khoisan and AmaXhosa in the Cape Colony (Penguin Random House, 2020) by John Laband.

In the presence of members of the Sandile Traditional Council, on 31 May and 1 June 2005 a team from the Department of Anatomy at the University of Pretoria respectfully exhumed a grave on remote farmland between the villages of Keiskammahoek and Braunschweig in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, about 35km north of King William’s Town. The excavation required the initial removal of a granite slab placed over the grave, on top of which stood a memorial plinth crowned by a sculptured bust of an African man. An inscription on the monument reads: “In Memory of Paramount Chief Sandile, (AA Mgolombane) Son of Ngqika, Born in 1820, Died and Buried on the 9th June 1878.” The monument had been erected in 1972 at the request of Paramount Chief Apthorpe Mxolisi Sandile, who insisted that his renowned ancestor, who had died while fighting British troops and Cape colonial forces, deserved a fitting memorial as a hero of Xhosa resistance against colonialism.

The exhumation had been prompted by the pervasive oral tradition that, before the British buried his body, Sandile’s head had been cut off and that Lieutenant Frederick Carrington had carried the skull away to England as a grisly trophy. For many amaXhosa this narrative rang only too true. The barbarous and disrespectful decapitation of Sandile symbolised the many atrocities committed against their people in the colonial era, outrages that were accompanied by the dispossession of their land and the destruction of their way of life.

The investigating team found the skeletal remains in poor condition, but they were indubitably those of an African male in middle age, as Nkosi Sandile had been. He was known always to have walked with a limp, and what confirmed the skeleton as his was the abnormal left tibia (shinbone) which indicated a congenital weakness in the lower leg. Sandile’s skull was still in place, conclusively laying to rest the legend of its removal. The team retrieved fragments of broken bottles on a stone cairn below the 1972 memorial, consistent with the cultural practice of placing food offerings on a grave. Cartridge cases were also uncovered, confirming the contemporary report that those who had buried Sandile fired a military salute over the grave.

Nkosi Sandile perished of a gunshot wound during the last of a series of nine wars that had been waged intermittently over the course of a century – from 1779 to 1878 – between the Xhosa people and the encroaching forces of colonialism, initially Dutch and then British. This sequence of conflicts succeeded and partially overlapped with another which began further to the west with the First Khoikhoi-Dutch War of 1659-1660. These wars that recurrently flared up over the space of 200 years in what became the Cape Colony had one feature in common, a characteristic that remained constant over time and was not fundamentally modified by advancing technology or any other factor. All were wars of dispossession. During their course the colonial frontier steadily advanced north from Table Bay to the Orange (Gariep) River and east to the Kei River and the lands beyond. In the process, the indigenous peoples were defeated and driven from their territory, which colonists from Europe then settled. Their independent existence under their own rulers terminated, the survivors scattered into the interior of southern Africa, were sucked into the new colonial space as labourers, or were left to survive on sufferance in the cramped reserves set aside to accommodate and control them.

It is both inevitable and natural, therefore, that this bitter legacy of dispossession calls urgently for redress. As Lubabalo Ntsholo of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has expressed it, “Land dispossession targeted a particular racial group, Africans, alienated them from their land which was a source of not only their livelihood, but a basis of their culture, spirituality and dignity.” At its 54th national conference in December 2017, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) adopted a resolution concerning the current ownership of land in South Africa which was published on 26 March 2018. It read: “Expropriation of land without compensation should be among the key mechanisms available to government to give effect to land reform and redistribution.” The government has accordingly moved forward to implement this resolution, and with the Constitution 18th Amendment Bill of 2019 it has introduced the required legislation.

The purpose of this book is not to debate the current, continuing process of land restitution in South Africa. Rather, its intention is to examine how the indigenous inhabitants of one particular region, the Cape Colony (now the three provinces of the Northern, Western and Eastern Cape), were dispossessed of their land in the first place. In a sense their story is not unique. Right across the bloodstained span of history, and on every continent inhabited by humans, there have been countless defeated peoples who forfeited their land to their conquerors, along with their independence, and to whom the Latin tag vae victis, or “woe to the vanquished”, can justly be applied. Nevertheless, this truism can take nothing away from the specific pain and loss experienced by the dispossessed in each and every case, and so it was with the various indigenous peoples of the Cape.

As in each of history’s many sagas of human migration where the winners gained new lands at the expense of the losers, the process of dispossession in the Cape was more multifaceted and less straightforward than a lofty overview might suggest. Of all the peoples residing in South Africa today, only the San are considered to be autochthonous – that is, still living in the same region as their ancestors when they evolved into modern humans aeons ago. Everyone else involved in this story were settlers, people who came later, whether migrating from further north in Africa like the Khoikhoin and the Southern Nguni-speakers, or arriving by sea from Europe like the Portuguese, Dutch, French, British and Germans, or from Madagascar, the East Indies and elsewhere in Africa if they were slaves.

Before the Dutch encountered the amaXhosa, they clashed with the Khoikhoin and San who occupied all the vast tracts of land between the Cape of Good Hope and the Xhosa chiefdoms to the east. As early as 1488, passing Portuguese mariners had the very first armed brush with these people, but it was the Dutch who settled on the shores of Table Bay in 1652 who went on to defeat and dispossess them, incorporate them as labourers and menials, or drive them away north across the Orange River. And once the outriders of European settlement reached what would become the eastern frontier zone of the Cape, they found that the Khoikhoin and San who were living alongside the amaXhosa were being forcibly pushed back or assimilated by the Xhosa chiefdoms as they expanded westwards. Caught between two advancing fires, the Khoikhoin and San were forced to make strategic choices in the wars along the eastern frontier. Some joined the amaXhosa in resisting the encroaching forces of colonialism, or rebelled against colonial rule once it was imposed. Others, though, threw in their lot with the settlers, and formed a significant and generally loyal segment of the colonial armed forces. At times, even some of the amaXhosa allied themselves with the settlers against their African rivals.

That they did so should be no cause for surprise. It was typical of all wars of imperial conquest that some of the indigenous peoples considered their interests lay in cooperating with the invaders rather than in opposing them. And for their part, since the number of white troops and armed settlers deployed in the colonies was always small, the imperial powers depended on local levies and auxiliaries to beef up their military establishment. During the later wars on the eastern frontier, the amaMfengu played an especially prominent military role on the British side, making up the single largest element of their armed forces. Likewise, the abaThembu sometimes came out in support of the British, although on other occasions they fought against them. The wars in the Cape were therefore never a simplistic clash of races, nor a clear-cut case of colonial intruders ranged against the solid ranks of the indigenes.