Whose words do we trust?

2012-02-27 00:00

I’D like to reply to the article by Motsoko Pheko in The Witness of February 23 titled “Desperate colonial madness”. A most interesting title and article. It exemplifies a certain approach to the history of South Africa. One that is, however, short on accurate detail and reliable references.

Not to say that Pieter Mulder is correct. I am still waiting to see the documentation that he claims substantiates his point of view. Unfortunately, the real academics in South Africa who should be involved in this debate have yet to say anything. They are probably too scared to rock the boat that is academia under the new order.

Pheko mentions a date — September 20, 1909, — which was the date of the South Africa Act. An act of the British Parliament which created the Union of South Africa. Union was actually implemented on May 31, 1910. I, however, have not been able to find any reference to Azania in the act. Perhaps Pheko could point this out?

In fact, it would appear that the first reference to Azania in a South African context was in reports from the investigation into the ancient civilisation of Mapungubwe in the Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo Province), but perhaps I have missed something

In any case, Africa and Azania are not African words. Their etymology lies elsewhere.

Unfortunately, there is no record of any written language in this part of Africa in the time periods referenced (before Jan van Riebeeck). I do not dispute that there was an active oral tradition. However, Western science lays much store by the written word and we therefore have to try to ascertain what early travellers said about their experiences while residing or travelling in these areas.

Many books were published but these old manuscripts are now Africana and are either in private collections or national libraries.

The obvious rebuttal is that these are the twisted words of the colonial dispossessor. This approach throws the whole provenance of original documentation into limbo. It would make the work of eminent scholars (Pheko mentions Professor Shula Marks from the School of Oriental and African Studies) impossible.

If a written version of an oral history is inadmissable, then any history is impossible, even a Marxist interpretation, a hallmark of the Marks school. I shudder to think what Professor Pipa Skotnes would feel if her work on Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd was called into question.

The Empty Land Theory applies, as Pheko has indicated, to land traversed by the Voortrekkers. There is no dispute as to the occupation of the Cape regions — which has a separate and complex history.

Scholars refer to this theory of the empty land as the Mfecane, a debate to which many academics have contributed, both local and international.

The best summation of these debates are contained in a book titled The Mfecane Aftermath, edited by Professor Carolyn Hamilton (UCT). The dust has not yet settled on this debate and we await the final verdict on just how empty this land was.

Pheko quotes a Professor James H. Evans from the United States whose qualifications would I assume be in divinity (not American history).

I wonder if this gentleman would be happy telling us about the dispossession (genocide) of the original aboriginal inhabitants of North America. Would he be happy to be referred to as a colonist ? After all, he is a black man and therefore belongs back home in Africa.

Would he like to tell us about the history of Manhattan Island? Sold in 1626 to Peter Minuit by the Lenape Indians for 60 guilders. (Please note the date: 1626. The first annexation of the Cape took place on July 3, 1620, by a British sea captain but was not ratified by King James.)

The treaty/letter from Peter Schaghen referencing the purchase of Manhattan is held by the Rijksarchief in Den Haag. (Unlike the treaty between Dingane and Piet Retief) Should the Dutch now reclaim, post hoc, the island of Manhattan from the Americans?

Perhaps Evans could explain what happened later in the move West by the colonists in North America?

Perhaps he could tell us why Americans are not referred to as colonists, or attract the wrath of Pheko (born in Lesotho — a country that owes its independence to the advice of French missionaries).

Should we place as much store in what Pheko says, as the officials in California and Hawaii put into degrees awarded by Kensington University? The university from which Pheko obtained his doctorate. Should we trust him to be accurate and unselfserving as much as the PAC, who fired him and expelled him from the party?

Desperate madness indeed.


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