The case against the Mfecane

Show simple item record Cobbing, Julian 2010-08-24T08:48:52Z 2010-08-24T08:48:52Z 1984-03
dc.description African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented March, 1984 en_US
dc.description.abstract By the 1970s the mfecane had become one of the most widely abused terms in southern African historical literature. Let the reader attempt a simple definition of the mfecane, for instance. This is not such an easy task. From one angle the mfecane was the Nguni diaspora which from the early 1820s took Nguni raiding communities such as the Ndebele, the Ngoni and the Gaza over a huge region of south-central Africa reaching as far north as Lake Tanzania. Africanists stress the positive features of the movement. As Ajayi observed in 1968: 'When we consider all the implications of the expansions of Bantu-speaking peoples there can he no doubt that the theory of stagnation has no basis whatsoever.' A closely related, though different, mfecane centres on Zululand and the figure of Shaka. It has become a revolutionary process internal to Nguni society which leads to the development of the ibutho and the tributary mode of production. Shaka is a heroic figure providing a positive historical example and some self-respect for black South Africans today. But inside these wider definitions another mfecane more specifically referring to the impact of Nguni raiders (the Nedbele, Hlubi and Ngwane) on the Sotho west of the Drakensberg. This mfecane encompasses a great field of African self-destruction extending from the Limpopo to the Orange. It allegedly depopulated vast areas of what became the Orange Free State, the Transvaal and, with the aid of the Zulu, Natal, which thus lay empty for white expansion. Dispersed African survivors clustered together and in time formed the enclave states of Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana. What Omer-Cooper terms the 'general distribution of white and Bantu landownership' in South Africa was thereby established. On these African-created foundations rose the so-called Bantustans or Homelands of twentieth-century South Africa. These conceptual contradictions coexist within mfecane theory with contrasting definitions of timing. As an era of history the latter 1trans-orangian' mfecane invariably begins in about 1820 and ends in either 1828 with the departure of the Ngwane, or in the mid-1830s with the arrival of the French missionaries and the Boers. The Zulu-centred mfecane, on the other hand, begins with the career of Dingiswayo at the end of the eighteenth century and often continues until the end of the Zulu kingdom in 1879. Subcontinental mfecanes sometimes continue until the 1890s. In short, there is no one definition of the mfecane. It can refer to people, to an era, to a process of internal development. It can be constructive, destructive; pro African, anti African; geographically narrow, or subcontinental. Not all of these contradictions can be resolved. Their existence requires an explanation, since their origins are by now well buried in the historiography. In the first part of this article my intention is to unravel the development of mfecane as it has been handed down in South African historiography. Many writers have had a hand in creating the mfecane. The poor taste of the dish derives from the poor quality of the initial ingredients. In the second part, I suggest some lines of attack on the pillars of mfecane mythology, and leave it to the reader to decide whether the concept is worth salvaging. en_US
dc.language.iso en en_US
dc.relation.ispartofseries African Studies Institute;ISS 88
dc.title The case against the Mfecane en_US
dc.type Working Paper en_US

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