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date: 29 September 2023

Southern Africa before Colonial Timesfree

Southern Africa before Colonial Timesfree

  • John WrightJohn WrightArchive and Public Culture Research Initiative, University of Cape Town


Perspectives on southern Africa’s past in the eras before the establishment of European colonial rule have been heavily shaped by political conflicts rooted in South Africa’s history as a society of colonial settlement. The archive of available evidence—archaeological finds, recorded oral materials, and colonial documents—together with the concepts used to give them meaning are themselves products of heavily contested historical processes. Archaeological evidence indicates that Homo sapiens, descended from earlier forms of hominin, was present in southern Africa at least 200,000 years ago, but many members of the South African public reject evolutionary notions of the past. From about 200 bce onward, groups of hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers were in constant contact in southern Africa. A widespread European settlerist view, based on deep-seated stereotypes of warring races and “tribes,” is that they were permanently in conflict: historical evidence shows that in fact they interacted and intermingled in a range of different ways. Interactions became yet more complex from the mid-17th century as settlers from Europe gradually encroached from the southwest Cape Colony into most of southern Africa. In some areas, settler graziers sought to wipe out groups of hunter-gatherers, and to break up pastoralist groups and enserf their members; in other areas, particularly in the shifting colonial frontier zone, mixed groups, including settlers, made a living from raiding and trading. In the 19th century, groups of settler farmers sought to subjugate African farmers, and seize their land and labor. Contrary to a common view, they had only limited success until, in the later 19th century, Britain, the major colonial power in the region, threw its weight decisively behind British settler expansion. Other Europeans—traders and missionaries in particular—worked with Africans to make profits and save souls. Some Africans sought to resist loss of land and sovereignty; others sought to take advantage of the colonial presence to seek new political allies, loosen ties to chiefs, find wage work, produce for the market, join churches, seek a book education, and incorporate Christian ideas into their politics. Even before they came under colonial domination, many chiefs sought to move from a long-established politics based on alliance making to a politics based on what Europeans called “tribal” rule.


  • Historiography and Methods
  • Oral Traditions
  • Political History
  • Southern Africa

Conflicted Pasts

In September 2015 a team of palaeontologists based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannnesburg announced the discovery of a new species of hominin at a fossil site in the nearby region known as South Africa’s “cradle of humankind.” The announcement, made to an audience that included South Africa’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, presented the species, named Homo naledi by its discoverers, as an ancient human ancestor. Perhaps predictably, palaeontologists in various parts of the world questioned whether it was actually a new species. Also predictable, given the sensitivity around issues of evolution that exists in South Africa, were the reactions of some members of the public in South Africa. “I am no grandchild of any ape, monkey or baboon,” stated Zwelinzima Vavi, former general secretary of the trade union federation Cosatu. “I [have] also been called a baboon all my life; so [were] my father and his fathers.” In similar vein, Dr. Mathole Motshekga, lecturer in law at the University of South Africa, director of the Kara Heritage Institute, and senior African National Congress member, saw the discovery as perpetuating a Western materialist theory that Africans are subhuman. “[The West] gave us the title of subhuman beings to justify slavery and colonialism,” he said.1

These differences of perspective provide a graphic example of how deeply divided people in South Africa are over the region’s history, even the history of several hundred thousand years ago, and of how sensitive they can be to slights perceived to be rooted in the politics of the past. History is always a contested terrain, but in South African society, largely shaped as it has been by a rapacious European settler colonialism and by a particularly predatory form of mining capital, conflicts over the past have, for at least two centuries, often been fierce. Understanding why this is so must inform any overview of the region’s history before the establishment of colonial domination.

People in southern Africa no doubt had differing perspectives on the past from the times—many thousands of years ago—when human societies in the region first developed historical consciousness, but there is virtually no evidence on this subject until the era of written records. Only recently have historians began to recognize the production of ideas about the past in the several centuries before the establishment of European colonial rule in the 19th century as a field of inquiry in its own right, and to bring out something of the nature of conflicts over history—“notably concentrated around succession disputes and political crises”—that took place in oral discourses in societies of the time.2

An older and more conventional historiography focuses on the writing of academic history in South Africa. It points to the pronounced differences of opinion that emerged from the early 20th century onward between different “schools” of historians—British imperialist, Afrikaner nationalist, liberal, marxist.3 And since the 1980s southern Africanist scholars have paid increasing attention to competing notions of public history produced sometimes in the wider society and sometimes in the academy—African nationalist history, black consciousness history, “people’s history,” worker history, community history, heritage—and to the often sharp lines of conflict between them and “purely” academic versions.4

From a more “global” perspective, a handful of scholars discuss disagreements about the past that have surfaced in South Africa over the last two centuries in terms of the differences between three often strongly opposed, though overlapping, “master narratives” of history—settlerist, African nationalist, and what can be called liberal developmentalist.5 Very little analysis has yet been done of the complex ways in which these narratives have related to one another historically, nor of the varieties of form to be found in each, nor of the ways in which they have changed over time.

This is something of the conflicted background to the study of South Africa’s past, including the period before European colonial domination. These conflicts show up in the very act of attempting to name this period of history. It is often labeled as “the precolonial history of southern Africa,” but, used in this way, the term “precolonial” places the coming of Europeans as the central development in the region’s history, in a teleological sequence that runs from “precolonial” to “colonial” to “postcolonial.” Moreover, it takes no account of the continuities between the “precolonial” and the early part of the “colonial,” at least, which historians are now arguing for.6 It is also an imprecise term, in that in South Africa the period before colonialism ended at points in time that vary from the mid-1600s in the southwest Cape to the 1890s in the Soutpansberg region in the far north. In this article, phrases such as “history before colonial times” and “history before the colonial era” are used as generalized terms in place of the singular term “precolonial.”

Entangled Perspectives

Conflicts over the past infuse not only the ways in which narratives of the past before the colonial era have been made, but also—as will be taken up at a number of points in this article—the ways in which the archive available on the history of this era has itself been shaped and reshaped over time in processes that themselves have a complex history. This archive falls into three broad categories. One is the body of material objects from the past that are to be found in ethnographic and archaeological collections in museums, art galleries, and universities in South Africa and elsewhere. A second consists of a body of documentary records, published and unpublished, dating from the colonial era, and scattered in archival collections and libraries in South Africa and other countries. A third, of a non-material order, consists of ideas about the past before the colonial period as held in the minds of many people, and sometimes recorded by researchers.

The archive of documentary records can itself be divided into two broad kinds. One is the body of reports on, and descriptions of, autonomous African societies written by European travelers, officials, and missionaries from the late 15th century onward. A second is the body of records of oral materials pertinent to the past before the colonial period made by officials, missionaries, and other researchers, black and white, in discussion with African interlocutors in the period from the early 19th to the mid-20th century. Effectively the history evoked in such records extends in outline from the late 17th century onward, and in more detail from about the mid-18th.

Many scholars hold to the notion that the archives of oral materials, recorded and unrecorded, are made up of “oral traditions,” that is, largely formal accounts of the past made by knowledgeable individuals and passed down, also largely formally, from one generation to the next with little change to their “core” meanings. In some societies, and in some institutional settings, people may have had reason to preserve and transmit stories in this way. In other societies and other circumstances, as numbers of researchers have described, stories about the past were not made and transmitted in formal settings but were developed, argued about, and passed on by ordinary people in everyday discourses in informal surroundings.7 Written records made of oral materials were shaped on the one hand by the particular agendas of the recorders and, on the other, by the agendas of their interlocutors. These interlocutors were drawing from, and often reshaping, historical knowledge learned from their own interlocutors, who in turn had their own agendas. Different interlocutors often gave different accounts of the same event; the differences between them can today usefully be read for information on the politics of history making in the past.8 From this perspective, the notion of “oral traditions” as histories that are largely fixed and have changed little over generations is misleading.

The “coloniality” of these written archives—that is, the fact that they were written down by people with positions in the colonial order—makes them a subject of controversy in South Africa as sources of historical evidence. In Africanist political and academic circles, the argument has often been expressed that colonial-made sources are inescapably contaminated by the racist biases of the European producers, and should be rejected in favor of “authentic” African sources.9 Positions of this kind are buttressed by arguments that have been put forward by a number of writers, black and white alike, that lineages of “black writing” and “white writing” in South African literature are, and always have been, clearly distinct.10

There can be little argument that black writers and white writers often come at the same issues from very different subject positions, positions shaped by the often profound differences in their lived experiences. But in writing about the past before the colonial era, white writers have from the start, some 200 years ago, inescapably had to draw on the ideas and pronouncements of black interlocutors for information on events before the arrival of European colonists. Their writings have in turn fed into the writings of black authors, to the point where it is has long since become impossible—assuming it was ever possible—to disentangle the roots of their ideas along “racial” or “ethnic” lines. This has been demonstrated most clearly in the case of ideas about the iconic Zulu king Shaka kaSenzangakhona, where Carolyn Hamilton has shown in detail that the archive of what it is possible to think and say and write about him with any credibility is the product of interactions over nearly two centuries between both black and white brokers of the past.11

The colonial era, then, has left a very particular kind of legacy on the “precolonial” period by way of source material and by way of conceptual apparatus. In aiming to provide a critical perspective on southern Africa’s history in the long era before the establishment of colonial rule, this article seeks to interweave a basic narrative with discussion of the nature and provenance of the main sources of evidence available and of the concepts which historians use to make sense of it. The period covered by the narrative dates from the beginnings of human history to the establishment of European colonial rule in the 19th century. The geographical focus is on the region covered by the modern territories of South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland, together with neighboring areas of southeastern Botswana and southern Mozambique.

Turning “Prehistory” into “History”

“Prehistory” is a term that was once commonly used to designate the long period of southern Africa’s past before the beginnings of its documented history. Most scholars are moving away from using the term, though it is still used by some archaeologists. At one level it simply underscores the methodological point that the main sources of evidence used for constructing narratives of the aliterate past differ from those used to construct narratives of the literate past. But at another level it leaves the impression that a very long period of Africa’s past is little more than a preliminary to “real” history, which begins with the coming of written records.

Writers and editors of general histories of South Africa have generally paid very little attention to the long era before the coming of European settlers in the mid-17th century. Many works begin with a chapter that gives a passing nod to the presence of “Bushmen” and “Hottentots” in “early” times and then to the supposedly recent migration into the subcontinent from farther north of “Bantu tribes.” They then pick up a narrative of history from the coming of Portuguese navigators in the 1480s and, in more detail, the establishment of Dutch settlement at the Cape in the 1650s.12

People claiming descent from “Khoisan” ancestors of many thousands of years ago are actively pressing for recognition as the “first people” of South Africa, and Khoisanist politics are becoming important in parts, at least of this country.13 If on-the-ground research into what used to be called the “prehistory” of southern Africa must remain the domain of archaeologists, writing their findings into the region’s history is becoming the responsibility of historians as well.

A very large body of archaeological research on southern Africa in the era before the beginnings of food production has been published since the establishment of professional archaeology in South Africa in the 1920s. Most of it is highly technical and difficult for historians to use as a source of information on the past without at least some understanding of archaeology as an academic discipline.14 The primary literature focuses inescapably on minutiae relating to the nature of archaeological deposits at excavated sites and to the context of the excavated material, before it moves on to questions of interpretation. Historians picking their way through the literature have to rely heavily on syntheses of research made by archaeologists themselves,15 and by popular works in a few arenas that attract a public readership, such as the search for human origins,16 and the interpretation of rock art.17 The professional syntheses remain strongly focused on the provenance of the material evidence they deal in, and on outlining the nature of the material cultures that they recognize and give names to. Historical interpretation, so far as it goes, focuses largely on what historians would call technological, ecological, and economic history, with less on political and social history and on the history of ideas.

Nevertheless, since the 1980s, archaeologists have become increasingly concerned with what the material evidence, including the subcontinent’s rich heritage of rock art, can tell them about social relations in the past and about what some researchers call “worldviews.” Historians have plenty of scope to incorporate the results of archaeological research in this field into narratives extended back in time. All the more so as, since the 1940s, scientists have developed ever-more-sophisticated techniques of dating archaeological materials.18 There is now enough by way of a reliable, if very broad, chronology of the last 80,000 or 100,000 years of the past for historians to become involved in approaching the period from their own disciplinary concern with change over time.

Among the themes that historians might engage with are the following: the emergence of anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, from hominid ancestors sometime after 200,000 years ago; social and cultural developments through the period that archaeologists label as the Middle Stone Age, dating from before 300,000 to about 25,000 years ago; the emergence in this period of people who can possibly be seen as remote ancestors to historical populations of hunter-gatherers, and who possibly spoke languages ancestral to some of the languages spoken by hunter-gatherers in recent times; the meaning, in social and cultural terms, of the shift from Middle Stone Age to Later Stone Age technologies after about 25,000 years ago; the nature of the analogue between Later Stone Age cultures and cultures of historically known hunter-gatherer groups, especially in the light of studies that highlight the variability in space and time of Later Stone Age cultures;19 and the nature of hunter-gatherer societies and cultures at the beginning of the era of pastoralism and agriculture a little before 2,000 years ago, and of their interactions with pastoralists and farmers in the ensuing centuries.

Hunter-Gatherers, Pastoralists, and Farmers, 200 bce to 1300 ce

From about 200 bce, numbers of hunter-gatherer groups living in the western regions of southern Africa began to adjust their economies, and perhaps to some extent their social and political relations, to the advent of domesticated sheep and of sheep owners. A few centuries later, other groups living in the better-watered eastern regions had to begin coping with the settlement among them of communities of farmers living in villages, cultivating sorghums and millets, raising cattle and sheep, and producing and using iron implements.20

Archaeologists and historians have long debated the origin of pastoralism in western southern Africa.21 Until the 1960s it was usually linked to the immigration from farther north in Africa, at a time unknown, of people labeled in the literature as “Hottentots.” In the 1970s the idea began to gain ground that the historically known pastoralists, or Khoi or Khoekhoe as they were beginning to be labeled, were the descendants of “Bushman” or “San” hunter-gatherers in the mid-Zambezi region who, about 2,000 years ago, acquired cattle and sheep from neighboring groups of farmers speaking siNtu (Bantu) languages, gradually took to a stock-keeping and stock-raising way of life, and spread across the western and southern regions of the subcontinent and along the southern coast.

More recently, evidence from genetics and linguistics has begun to point once again to the older idea that the first owners of livestock, in the form of sheep, were small migrant groups from East Africa.22 From them, some archaeologists argue, the practice of keeping and raising sheep diffused to communities of hunter-gatherers as far as the southern coastlands. They see these communities as “hunter-gatherers-with-sheep” rather than as pastoralists. Fully fledged pastoralism, they argue, may have begun only at a much later stage, when communities of hunter-gatherers with sheep, probably living in what is now northern Botswana, acquired cattle from siNtu-speaking farmers who had established themselves in the region during the 1st millennium ce. From there they carried pastoralism west and south.23 Very recently, other archaeologists have found evidence that cattle may have been present in western southern Africa from the beginnings of pastoralism.24 Yet others resist the idea that incorporation of livestock into a foraging economy was a relatively easy and widespread practice, and hold to the older idea that from the start there was a clear distinction between societies of hunter-gatherers and pastoralists.25

Archaeologists still have to establish the precise geographical distribution of early pastoralist societies, but they agree that the first farmers were settling in the northeastern regions of Africa south of the Limpopo from the 2nd or 3rd century ce onward. Researchers argue about the precise dynamics involved, but there is a broad consensus among them that these farmers were immigrants from eastern and central Africa who spoke siNtu languages. Within a few centuries, farming communities had expanded over most of the subcontinent’s cultivable savannah regions, reaching as far south as the Kei River.26

Older, colonial-made ideas that intruding farmers were in perpetual conflict with displaced hunter-gathers have, in more recent times, given way to examination of various forms of “interaction” between them.27 In some ways the advent of farming communities would have been a threat to the economic autonomy of local hunter-gatherer groups, in that they were competing for the same resources of game and vegetable foods. In other ways, the establishment of farmers provided opportunities for individual hunter-gatherers to provide various forms of service to homesteads of farmers, and to acquire resources in the form of sheep, cattle, metal goods, pottery, and prestige trade goods.

Evidence from genetics and linguistics suggests that marriage of hunter-gatherer women with men in farming groups took place, though how widespread it was is not clear. Marriage of women from farming groups with men in hunter-gatherer communities, which were usually regarded by farmers as being of lower social status, is assumed to have been less common. Some archaeologists have stressed the closeness of relations between farmers and hunter-gatherers at different times and places. Others have argued that, whatever the nature of interactions between them, farmers would generally have seen hunter-gatherers as outsiders belonging to the domain of the “wild” as distinct from the “civilized,” and hence as always ritually dangerous.

Early farming societies seem to have traded actively, if on a small scale, with one another and with neighboring groups of hunter-gatherers. Most trade, in items like livestock, grain, metal goods, pottery, hides of wild animals and of domestic animals, and medicinal plants, was conducted locally. Items like copper, ostrich eggshell, and marine shell, which were available only in certain localities, were traded, very probably through intermediary groups, over longer distances. At particular sites as far south as the Mngeni River in KwaZulu-Natal, ivory bangles were being made in unusual numbers, probably for trading purposes, as early as the 7th century. Some of them may have been traded into exchange networks that reached as far as the coast of central Mozambique, where a maritime trade in ivory was well established.28

Trade between posts on the coast of Mozambique and the interior regions expanded after 800, and particularly after 1000, when Muslim merchants became dominant in the commerce of the western Indian Ocean.29 The demand was initially for ivory, and later for gold from what is now Zimbabwe, in exchange for beads, cloth, and brass. After about 900, rising levels of competition for control of trade goods and of trade routes in the ivory-producing middle Limpopo region led to increasing degrees of political centralization and conflict among chiefdoms of the region. By about 1200 the rulers of a chiefdom based at the hill now known as Mapungubwe had established domination over a territory that extended over the northern part of what is now Limpopo province, and into eastern Botswana and southern Zimbabwe. But after 1300 this expanded kingdom declined, possibly because its control over trade with the east coast was being successfully challenged by an expanding polity based at Great Zimbabwe to the northeast.30

The site of the capital at Mapungubwe was first investigated by archaeologists in the 1930s. Since then the site and the surrounding region have been the focus of phases of concentrated research. The “Mapungubwe” kingdom is seen as the first relatively centralized polity to have emerged in South Africa, and the first to show material signs of the emergence of social classes differentiated on the basis of wealth and power. Besides doing research into the history of settlement patterns and economy in the region, archaeologists have investigated the history of social and political relations between different “layers” of population, between the capital and peripheral areas, and between farming and hunting-gathering groups. They have also examined evidence for the development among ruling groups of the notion of sacred kingship. In wider public discourses, the hill at Mapungubwe has achieved iconic status as a national heritage site.31

Farming Societies, 1000–1750

Contemporaneously with the rise and decline of the Mapungubwe polity, the movement of new populations of farmers into the region south of the Limpopo was changing its political landscape. The evidence comes from what archaeologists see as a marked break, dated to the 1st century or so of the 2nd millennium in KwaZulu-Natal and a little later in the Limpopo-Vaal region in the interior, in the styles of pottery found on farming sites. Most archaeologists working in this field accept the argument that the break occurred when new groups of immigrant farmers from East Africa extended their political and cultural domination over the established inhabitants. The new arrivals are now generally seen as having carried ancestral forms of the languages known as Nguni and Sotho-Tswana into eastern and central southern Africa, respectively.32

These new farming groups are sometimes described as the “ancestors” of the majority of the population living in these regions today. Generally speaking, archaeologists have been more concerned with delineating the difference between the material cultures and settlement patterns of what they call the Early and Later Iron Ages than with the historical logistics of how a new set of “migrations” from East Africa might have taken place. Some archaeologists are beginning to debate the question of what kinds of relationship incoming groups established with previously resident groups, both of farmers and of hunter-gatherers. Migration and settlement would have entailed a specific kind of politics and identity making, but there is little consensus among researchers on the subject. After about 1300, groups of farmers for the first time began settling in the grasslands of the interior and uplands of KwaZulu-Natal, and after about 1450 in the “highveld” grasslands of the northern and eastern Free State. The Drakensberg Mountains were once regarded as having marked a clear dividing line between Nguni speakers to the east and Sotho-Tswana speakers to the west. Evidence from archaeology and from recorded oral materials indicates that in fact frequent movements of ideas and social practices, as well as of groups of people, took place across this line, and that identities of “Nguni” and “Sotho-Tswana” were less clearly defined than these ethnographic categorizations suggest.33

Across the eastern half of southern Africa, farmers developed a variety of settlement patterns.34 Their movement to the west and south came to an end as they reached the margins of the drier regions of the subcontinent. In a semi-arid ecological zone that extended from the Eastern Cape through the southern Free State and eastern Botswana to northern Namibia, a zone whose boundaries fluctuated over time, groups of farmers, pastoralists, and hunter-gathers all sought to make a living, sometimes in competition with one another, sometimes in alliance.

Until the 1960s the groups of farmers that inhabited southern Africa in the centuries before the colonial era were almost invariably designated as “tribes” in the literature. Since then, most scholars of the period have come to see the notion of the bounded “tribe” as inaccurate and misleading, and have progressively abandoned it. In its place they have come to use the notion of “chiefdom” as a primary organizing category, meaning groupings of people of different backgrounds who give their allegiance to a particular chief. Chiefdoms varied widely in their social composition; this is an issue to which historians have generally not given much attention. Many scholars still conceive of the societies of the period at a broader level as discrete ethnic and cultural groups, and continue to talk of the history and culture of “the San,” “the Nguni,” the “Tswana,” “the Xhosa,” and other such groups. Others use these names as a form of terminological shorthand, though the distinctions between these usages are not always clear. Some archaeologists, influenced by North American scholarship, see the emergence of new groups in terms of what they call “ethnogenesis.”

Recently other archaeologists have begun to examine questions of how sociopolitical categories and linked identities were made in southern African farming societies in ways that move beyond ethnic framing.35 Drawing variably on evidence from recorded oral materials, early colonial documents, and linguistics, historians for their part now stress the looseness of political units in the centuries before the mid-1700s, and the centrality of a politics of alliance making and incorporation of outsiders, often with different languages and cultural practices.36 Incorporation was not necessarily done in a basis of equality: ordinary people, as well as chiefs and ruling houses, were profoundly concerned with issue of status and hierarchy. But it is becoming clear that people whose societies were geared toward receiving outsiders, and making and remaking alliances with “others,” did not think of themselves primarily as closed “tribes.” Rather, they saw themselves as the descendants of individual ancestors who, within culturally set limits, which themselves were liable to change over time, could be promoted or demoted in importance according to political circumstances. Memories of ancestors and other ideas about the past were constantly contested and reworked in public discourses.37

Engagements with Europeans, 1500–1800

The farming societies that emerged in southern Africa from early in the 1st millennium ce onward were based on the production of grain and livestock in what was a region of generally poor soils and unreliable rainfall. They were constrained by these basic environmental and economic factors from producing economic surpluses big enough to underpin the establishment of large empires, and to bring rulers the wealth and power needed to embark on large-scale foreign conquests. The upshot was that when people in southern Africa came into sustained contact with people from outside the subcontinent, it was a result of the outsiders’ expansion into the subcontinent and not the other way round. This is an obvious historical point, but it is one that few Western historians of southern Africa have been concerned to explain in material terms: until recently, they have for the most part simply taken African incapacity for granted.

From the early centuries of the 1st millennium ce, Arabs, Indians, Swahili, and others were trading actively across the northern Indian Ocean and along its shores. In the early 1400s, the rulers of China, then the largest and most powerful empire in the world, were for the first time beginning to feel out a presence in the region, with its numerous wealthy trading ports. Several Chinese fleets reached as far as East Africa and perhaps farther, but in the 1430s these expeditions came to an end after the Chinese court had come under the domination of groups that saw the consolidation and expansion of China’s landed empire as more important. This left the way open for the penetration into the Indian Ocean after 1500 of officially backed traders and freebooters from Portugal, a small, poor country at the opposite end of the Eurasian land mass from China. For centuries before this, for reasons that cannot be discussed here, the rising postfeudal states of western Europe had been thrusting aggressively into the outer world, first in eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, then along the Atlantic coast of Africa. It was this thrust that carried Portuguese and then Dutch, English, and French navigators to the shores of southern Africa and beyond to southern and eastern Asia, and also to the Americas, in search of accumulations of wealth to loot and lucrative trade routes, particularly for spices, to break into.

The coming of literate Europeans to southern Africa generated an increasing quantity of documentary evidence on dealings between Europeans and Africans, and descriptions, often, though not always, written in unflattering terms, of Africans’ political and cultural practices. After the establishment of a Dutch settlement, which they called Cape Town, in 1652, European-made records of the geography of the Cape, and of the customs of its inhabitants gradually grew in quantity, but it was not until after 1800 that literate observers began travelling in any number into the deep interior of the subcontinent.

The Dutch toehold at the Cape was set up without any attempt to negotiate permission from the nomadic Khoekhoe pastoralists who inhabited the region.38 As the Dutch began to expand their presence, some Khoekhoe groups sought to resist but were defeated and driven out, and began breaking up. Other groups were bought off with trade goods and political alliances against rival groups, but they too soon lost their cohesion, and fragmented.

In the 18th century, in the shifting borderlands of the Cape colony, mixed groups of Khoekhoe pastoralists, Dutch graziers, or “Boers” as they came to call themselves, hunter-gatherers whom the Dutch called “bosjesmans” or “bushmen,” together with runaway slaves and deserters from the colony, herded livestock, hunted, gathered, raided, and traded. Khoekhoe pastoralists who lost their livestock had little alternative but to fall back on a lifestyle of hunting and gathering and raiding, sometimes in competition and conflict with groups of hunter-gatherers, sometimes merging with them. Or else, as many individuals did, they took service with Boer graziers as herdsmen or domestic laborers and ended up in the expanding colonial underclasses. For their part, groups of hunter-gatherers based in mountainous regions were often better able to resist the advance of the farmers, sometimes for years at a time. But in the end they too were unable to cope with the commandos of Boers and their retainers who hunted them down, killed them in large numbers, and took numbers of women and children captive.

From the 1770s, in the region around the Fish River in the eastern Cape, groups of Xhosa-speaking farmers, Khoekhoe pastoralists, and Boer graziers jostled for supremacy. Groups of hunter-gatherers and of deserters from the service of the Boers also became caught up in the politics and conflicts of this frontier zone. To the north, along the Gariep River, a similar zone of instability developed, with mixed groups from varied backgrounds, often labeled as “Korana” in the literature, forming bands of armed horsemen that raided long distances over the open plains of the interior.

Political Transformations in the North and East, 1770–1840

For the period from the early 18th century onward, oral materials on the past recorded by colonial travelers, officials, and missionaries, and also African writers, from African interlocutors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, become important sources of information for the historian of the farming societies of eastern southern Africa. In the literature, farming societies begin to be named more and more often. Writers label them, with widely variant spellings, as “the Tlhaping,” “the Basotho,” “the Zulu,” and so on. This is to give them generic tribal or ethnic names, often from the names of their ruling groups, when the evidence indicates that African polities almost always consisted of numbers of different groups that claimed different origins, spoke different dialects or languages, and had different cultural practices.

These sources indicate that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, often violent and dramatic political and social changes took place among the societies of northern and eastern southern Africa. New polities rose and fell, many older polities were broken up and disappeared, and groups of displaced people shifted back and forth across the landscape, often ending up in places far from their original homes. These events reached a climax in the 1820s and 1830s, a period of conflict and conquest that saw the emergence of a dozen or so enlarged polities that have come to be called—in English—kingdoms or states or nations in the literature.39 All these terms raise problems for scholars of the period. The distinctions between chiefs and kings is not clear; “state” implies a relatively high degree of political centralization, when the powers exercised by African leaders in these polities varied widely; and “nation” implies a degree of political unity and “national” sentiment that did not necessarily exist.

From the 1840s onward, the upheavals of the preceding years more and more came to be ascribed, by generations of African oral narrators and European writers alike, to the political and military ambitions of Shaka kaSenzangakhona, ruler after about 1816 of the emerging Zulu kingdom.40 In the scholarly world, this idea began to be modified in the 1960s, when academic historians for the first time began giving detailed attention to the events of the 1820s and 1830s, and exploring the political impact of factors such as increasing population pressure, climatic change, the spread of maize as a food crop, and the expansion of external trade. At the same time, scholars labeled what had previously been called the “wars of Shaka,” in the plural, with the singular term imfecane (in isiXhosa and isiZulu) or difaqane (a plural term in Sotho-Tswana languages), meaning something like “homeless marauders.”

These terms spread very widely in the literature and remained unquestioned until, in the late 1980s, some historians began challenging Zulu-centric explanations of change, and to argue that a thorough rethinking was needed of the colonial-era notions of history that had produced them.41 Instead, they began to explore the upheavals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as products of complex responses of African societies to the expansion of the frontier of European colonial settlement in the south and of Indian Ocean commerce in the northeast.42

By the mid-18th century, mixed groups in the Cape frontier zone were trading firearms, horses, beads, and alcohol northward to Tswana-speaking groups, and cattle and ivory southward to colonial markets. At much the same time, English, Indian, and other merchants were visiting Maputo Bay in southern Mozambique in increasing numbers, and buying increasing quantities of ivory and, later, cattle and possibly some slaves from local chiefdoms in exchange for brass, cloth, and beads. Trade routes linked these chiefdoms with others in the hinterland to the south and west.

It is likely that in the later 18th century attempts to control trade routes and the distribution of trade goods were becoming a frequent cause of conflict within and between chiefdoms. Adding to the growing political instability in the interior regions was the impact of raids made by mixed groups—Korana and sections of the groups termed “Griqua” in the literature—from the middle Gariep region for cattle and captives, particularly hunter-gatherer children, for sale to Boer frontier farmers in the Cape.43 The large settlements that grew up among southern Tswana speakers at this time may in part have been built in a defensive reaction. Evidence from oral materials recorded by European travelers and missionaries from the 1810s onward indicates that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries numbers of groups north of the Gariep became caught up in wars for local and regional domination. In the 1810s and 1820s, the expanding zones of political instability in the interior regions and in the northeast were starting to overlap. Across a wide region, chiefdoms came into violent conflict, and groups of displaced people sought to find security.

In northern KwaZulu-Natal, the dominant chiefdom by the late 18th century was that ruled by Zwide of the Ndwandwe people. After defeating a rival chiefdom under Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa, in a conflict precipitated in part by competition to control trade to and from Maputo Bay, Zwide faced opposition from an emerging polity under Shaka of the Zulu. Through a combination of diplomacy, political skill, and military prowess, Shaka was able to defeat Zwide in about 1819 and consolidate his authority over much of KwaZulu-Natal.44

By the later 1820s and early 1830s, numbers of disparate groups were coalescing into new polities under leaders who, in different ways, were able to attract adherents and enable them to reestablish a degree of ordered social life. North of the Vaal River, a powerful raiding polity, known in the literature as the Ndebele kingdom, emerged under the rule of Mzilikazi. Another raiding polity, the Gaza kingdom, became established under Soshangane in southern Mozambique. Agglomerations of groups organized, at least to begin with, for defense rather than raiding were formed under the rule of Sobhuza in what became the Swazi kingdom, Sekwati in the Pedi kingdom in the eastern Mpumalanga region, Moshoeshoe in the Basotho kingdom in the Caledon valley, and Faku in the Mpondo kingdom in the north of what is now Eastern Cape province. Several smaller ones were established among Tswana-speaking polities on the fringes of the Kalahari Desert.45

Engaging with Colonial Expansion, 1800–1900

The seizing of the Cape in 1806 by Britain, the world’s most dynamic industrializing power, inaugurated a new era of colonial expansion in southern Africa. Hunters, traders, and now also missionaries spread in increasing numbers from the colony into African societies across the subcontinent. From the 1820s, British settlers in the eastern Cape pushed hard for the colonial and imperial authorities to bring African societies to the north under firm domination, if necessary by violence, and to enable settlers to seize African land and force Africans to work for them.46

Some historians see these new trends as having led more or less automatically to the establishment of British colonial domination over most of southern Africa by the end of the century,47 but this is a teleological view that takes little account of the fits and starts and contingencies of the historical processes involved. Others see colonial expansion as primarily a story of conquest and oppression of Africans by Europeans in the face of heroic resistance. This view takes little account of the relative weakness of British and Boer colonial states for much of the 19th century, nor of the complexities of African engagements with the new threats and the new opportunities that they faced.

In the eastern Cape, African groups variably composed of farmers, pastoralists, and hunter-gatherers were from the early years of the 19th century embroiled in a complex politics of resisting the advance of the frontier of Cape colonial settlement, and of seeking alliances with Cape governments and groups of colonists against rival African groups.48 Numbers of individuals traded ivory and other animal products across the frontier in exchange for livestock and manufactured goods. Others found work as herdsmen and shepherds in the colony. Over time many joined groups on the colonial frontier that, in a process that still needs to be fully researched, developed an identity as amamfengu or, in ethnicized form, “Mfengu.” They are conventionally seen as refugees from the “wars of Shaka” in KwaZulu-Natal. Many of them had undoubtedly been displaced by political upheavals in that region in the 1820s and early 1830s, but recent research suggests that others were individuals from Xhosa-speaking groups who had lost land and cattle and were searching for opportunities to regain both.49

From the 1830s, numbers of African groups sought to find ways to contain the groups of Boers from the Cape who were then pushing their way into the interior of the subcontinent, and also to take advantage of the Boer presence for their own purposes.50 North of the Vaal, numbers of Africans joined Boer forces in 1837 to chase out Mzilikazi’s Ndebele, whom they saw as the greater enemy. East of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, in 1838–1840, the Zulu kingdom tried to fight off parties of Boers, then split, with a faction under Mpande allying with the Boers to overthrow the Zulu king Dingane, who, a dozen years before, had himself been party to the assassination of Shaka. Soon afterward, large numbers of individuals began moving out of the Zulu kingdom into the newly formed and weakly governed British colony of Natal, where central authority was more lightly felt.

The new statelets set up by Boer leaders in the interior in the 1840s and 1850s were too weak to establish effective domination over the African-ruled polities round them. Borders remained undefined, Boers allied with Africans against other Boers as well as other Africans, and Africans allied with Boers against other Africans as well as other Boers. Everywhere Africans and Boers traded with one another in livestock, foodstuffs, animal products, firearms, alcohol, and consumer goods. In much of the area between the Vaal and the Soutpansberg, Boers actively traded for child slaves, or “apprentices,” from African suppliers.51 From the Pedi kingdom in Mpumalanga, young men walked 1,000 kilometers or more to the Cape colony in order to earn wages with which to buy firearms and other goods.52 And in autonomous societies in many parts of the subcontinent, from the eastern Cape to Lesotho to Mpumalanga to the Kalahari, African entrepreneurs and power brokers drew on Christian ideas to mobilize followings, promote their own status, resist chiefly power, and defend territory against settler expansion.

In the arid northern frontier regions of the Cape, the British authorities pushed the colonial boundary northward to the Gariep in 1848, a move that helped give impetus to the occupation of the semi-desert region of Bushmanland by colonial graziers, white and “colored.” In the 1850s remnant hunter-gatherer groups whose members sometimes stole livestock were often hunted down and massacred by commandos of graziers in a process that has been described as genocide. The survivors became clients and laborers on colonial sheep runs. Mixed bands of raiders with guns and horses remained active along the lower Gariep River and in the desert regions to the north, but by the end of the 1870s, they had been broken up and their members reduced to clientage and service with white graziers.53

Until the 1860s numbers of African polities in the interior regions were well able to retain their political autonomy and fend off efforts of white colonists to seize their lands. But in the 1870s the balance of power began shifting in favor of the settlers, as had happened early in the century in the eastern Cape, when Britain, the leading imperial power in southern Africa, started intervening decisively to firm up its authority and influence in the subcontinent as a whole. The prime impetus was the shift in global politics that began taking place from the late 1860s, with the emergence of the United States and a newly united Germany as major players in international politics, and the rapid growth of both as industrial powers rivalling Britain. The growth of Japan, Russia, France, and a number of smaller European countries as industrializing nations also served to heighten international rivalries. Older imperial powers like Britain and France sought to tighten up their hold on their existing empires and to extend them farther, while rising powers like Germany and the United States sought to carve out new empires and spheres of influence.

In southern Africa, Britain began intervening more actively, if at first spasmodically, to contain the expansion of the Boer-dominated Orange Free State and the South African Republic, and to bring African polities, by this stage generally labeled as discrete “tribes” in the literature, under its direct control.54 This move was given particular subcontinental impetus by the discovery of diamonds in the region of the Gariep-Vaal confluence in the late 1860s, the sudden appearance of Germany on the southern African political scene with its annexation in 1884 of what became the colony of South West Africa, and the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in the South African Republic in 1886.

In the final three decades of the century, one territory after another was brought under British rule, often with Africans fighting on the side of imperial and colonial forces: Lesotho in 1868, Griqualand West in 1871, most of the region between the Kei and Natal in the 1870s, the Pedi kingdom in 1879, the Zulu kingdom between 1879 and 1887, Bechuanaland in 1885, and Southern Rhodesia in the 1890s. Meanwhile the South African Republic was engaging in its own acts of aggrandizement against African polities on its borders. In the 1890s the Portuguese defeated the Gaza kingdom and established control over southern Mozambique. Finally, in 1899, Britain forced war on the two Boer republics, and annexed them the following year.

Over the next decade, British politicians and mine owners, in alliance with Boer landholding interests, reorganized their hold over the subcontinent. The new order was given constitutional status with the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. The place of Africans in it was primarily to provide unskilled labor for the mines and farms owned by British capitalists and European-descended colonists.55

The increasing pressures exerted on African societies by the expansion of European colonialism in the 19th century saw the beginnings of the making of “tribes.”56 Autonomous chiefs faced greater and greater incentives to define the boundaries of their polities more closely, to establish more clearly who was and was not subject to their authority, and what cultural practices their adherents-becoming-subjects were expected to follow. Under colonial rule, many chiefs found advantage for themselves and their immediate followings in adapting to systems of tribal administration that in certain ways mapped onto African political practices, and that confirmed favored chiefs’ positions of authority and strengthened their rights to control specific territories.

Europeans had seen African farmers as living in “tribes” from the time of their first contacts; in the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonial-made tribal system not only established how Africans were ruled but also helped shape the conditions in which, over time and for a range of reasons, they came to see their own histories in tribal terms. Colonial-made ideas about tribe and tradition also deeply inflected the making of the major source materials that historians use for evidence on the history of the period before colonialism. Scholars have begun to develop a critical “post-tribal” methodology to read for this evidence in ways that enable them to move decisively beyond ethnic framings.

Discussion of the Literature

The great majority of publications on the history of South Africa in the period before colonialism have so far been written by white men—and a few women. Only since the establishment of constitutional democracy in 1994 have black students in this country begun to study archaeology in any numbers, and only in recent years have black archaeologists begun to establish themselves as senior scholars. For their part, black historians in South Africa have been active researchers and writers since the late 19th century, but in the eras of segregation and apartheid, they were very largely sidelined from working in South African universities. Outside the academy, and in exile, black scholars wrote and published copiously on the history of black oppression by European colonialism and apartheid, and on the struggles of black people for political liberation. Only recently have black historians in South African universities begun to research and write the country’s history before the colonial period.

Archaeology was established as an academic discipline in South Africa in the 1920s. Over the next forty years, the handful of trained archaeologists in the country focused mainly on excavation of hunter-gatherer sites of what they called the “Stone Age.” Their prime concerns were with the classification of stone artifacts and identification and description of variant regional and temporal Stone Age cultures. In the 1960s, in the era of decolonization in Africa, archaeologists began paying attention to excavating “Iron Age” sites associated with “Bantu” farming peoples. Their focus was on delineating the broad outlines of farming economies, settlement patterns, and site layouts, as well as classification of pottery remains.

These approaches chimed with the interests of the first generation of academic historians to research the history of African societies in southern Africa. In what was an era of “nation building” in Africa, their main interest was in describing and explaining the emergence and subsequent histories of kingdoms or “states,” such as those of people who, in the literature, are labeled as Zulu, Swazi, Pedi, Basotho, and others. As sources, these historians used mainly colonial documents, including records of oral materials, and, in some cases, oral materials that they recorded themselves. They focused on political narrative and on changes in political and economic institutions, and to some extent on changes in social institutions. It was not until the 1980s that the history of ideas, ideologies, and identity making began to attract attention, particularly as it related to the KwaZulu-Natal region in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Academic research in South Africa in the 1980s took place against the background of intensifying political conflict, which led many people inside and outside academia to see the history of the period before colonialism as increasingly irrelevant. Most historians of South Africa, including many who had been actively researching earlier periods, came to concentrate their interests on political and social issues in the 20th century. Research into the past before the colonial period continued among archaeologists, and also among historians of the KwaZulu-Natal region. This was partly because of the degree to which the ever-popular history of Shaka and the Zulu kingdom became politicized by the Zulu nationalist movement Inkatha, partly because of the impact of debates about the mfecane, or the “wars of Shaka,” in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and also because, from 1976 onward, copious source material on the period was becoming available in the successive volumes of the James Stuart Archive.

In contrast, archaeological research continued to be pursued broadly across South Africa. In the 1980s and 1990s, some archaeologists were moving away from researching ecological and economic issues to examining material remains, including rock art, for clues to cognitive life in the past, and to political and social relationships. In the process, they tended to shift from a concern with historical processes to buttressing their arguments with ahistorical analogies drawn from ethnographies published in the 19th and 20th centuries. Other archaeologists, influenced by the often angry “Kalahari debates” or “Bushman debates” of the time, moved in a different direction to take up studies of historical “interactions” among hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers. From the 1990s, yet others were beginning to embark on research into what has broadly been called “historical archaeology,” dealing with the period of contacts between African and European colonial societies from the 17th to 19th centuries.

In the first decade and a half of the new century, archaeologists and historians were beginning to work together for the first time on any scale on both empirical and methodological studies. Researchers in both disciplines continued to develop ideas about political categorization and the making of identities in the KwaZulu-Natal region and on the highveld. Historians were opening up a relatively unexamined field in the form of critical historical analyses of their main sources of evidence.


This article draws on ideas discussed over a long period with Carolyn Hamilton. My thanks to her and to Cynthia Kros and Gavin Whitelaw, and also to an anonymous reviewer, for critical comments on drafts of the article.

Primary Sources

    Archaeological and Ethnographic Collections

    Important archaeological and ethnographic collections are held in the following South African institutions: Albany Museum, Grahamstown; Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History and Ditsong National Museum of Natural History, both in Pretoria; Iziko South African Museum, Cape Town; KwaZulu-Natal Museum, Pietermaritzburg; McGregor Museum, Kimberley; National Museum, Bloemfontein; the University of Cape Town; the University of Pretoria; the University of South Africa in Pretoria; and the University of the Witwatersrand. Major collections of ethnographic objects from southern Africa are held in the British Museum in London and the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford.

    At a more specialized level, the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand holds a large and internationally known collection of hominid fossils, and the Rock Art Research Institute, also at the University of the Witwatersrand, is the home of the largest digital archive of rock art in the world.

    Documentary Collections

    The most important documentary collections are to be found in the archives of mission societies that worked in autonomous African societies in the 19th century, and in the records of oral materials pertinent to the past before the colonial period made by researchers in discussion with African interlocutors in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

    Major mission archives are those of the London Missionary Society in the SOAS Library, University of London; the Methodist Missionary Society, also in the SOAS Library; the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society in the Maison des Missions in Paris and in the Morija Museum and Archives, Lesotho; the Berlin Mission Society in the Kirchliches Archivzentrum in Berlin; the Swiss Mission in Lausanne; and the Norwegian Missionary Society in Stavanger.

    Collections of Recorded Oral Materials

    A large collection of oral materials recorded in Cape Town from/Xam and !Kung interlocutors by Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd in the period 1870–1884 is to be found in the various Bleek and Lloyd Collections. These are lodged in several institutions, mainly the University of Cape Town and the National Library of South Africa in Cape Town. A comprehensive DVD is available in a set of essays contextualizing the collections, edited by Pippa Skotnes.

    The James Stuart Collection, lodged in the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban, contains the notes made by Natal colonial official James Stuart in the years 1897 to 1922 of his conversations on the past with some 200 interlocutors, most of them elderly African men. Renditions of his notes have been published in a series of volumes edited by Colin Webb (until his death in 1992) and John Wright.

    The papers of the Swaziland Oral History Project include records of oral materials pertaining to the past before the colonial period made in discussions with several dozen interlocutors by Philip Bonner and Carolyn Hamilton in the 1970s and early 1980s. They are lodged in the library of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Links to Digital Materials

South African Rock Art Digital Archive. University of the Witwatersrand.

The Bleek and Lloyd Collection, University of Cape Town.

Swaziland Oral History Project, University of the Witwatersrand.

Methodist Missionary Society Collection, School of Oriental and African Studies.

Further Reading

  • Blundell, Geoffrey. Nqabayo’s Nomansland: San Rock Art and the Somatic Past. Uppsala: Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, 2004.
  • Etherington, Norman. The Great Treks: The Transformation of South Africa, 1815–1854. Harlow: Longman, 2001.
  • Hamilton, Carolyn. Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Hamilton, Carolyn, and Nessa Leibhammer, eds. Tribing and Untribing the Archive: Identity and the Material Record in Southern KwaZulu-Natal in the late Independent and Colonial Periods. 2 vols. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2016.
  • Hamilton, Carolyn, Bernard Mbenga, and Robert Ross, eds. The Cambridge History of South Africa, volume 1: From Early Times to 1885. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Landau, Paul. Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, 1400–1948. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Legassick, Martin. The Politics of a South African Frontier: The Griqua, the Sotho-Tswana, and the Missionaries, 1780–1840. Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, 2010.
  • Mitchell, Peter. The Archaeology of Southern Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Penn, Nigel. The Forgotten Frontier: Colonist and Khoisan on the Cape’s Northern Frontier in the 18th Century. Cape Town: Double Storey Books, 2005.
  • Webb, C. de B., and J. B. Wright, eds. The James Stuart Archive of Recorded Oral Evidence Relating to the History of the Zulu and Neighbouring Peoples. 6 vols. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press/University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 1976–2014 (in progress).


  • 1. Quotations from Sarah Wild, “Race, Space and Sexual Diversity,” Mail and Guardian, December 23, 2015, 34. See also Paige Williams, “Digging for Glory,” New Yorker, June 27, 2016; and Christa Kuljian, Darwin’s Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2016), 274–284.

  • 2. Carolyn Hamilton, Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Historical Invention (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Carolyn Hamilton, Bernard Mbenga, and Robert Ross, “The Production of Preindustrial South African History,” in Cambridge History of South Africa, vol. 1: From Early Times to 1885, eds. Carolyn Hamilton, Bernard Mbenga, and Robert Ross (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 1–62; John Wright, “Thinking beyond ‘Tribal Traditions’: Reflections on the Precolonial Archive,” South African Historical Journal 62.2 (2010): 268–286; Carolyn Hamilton, “Archives, Ancestors and the Contingencies of Time,” in Laute, Bilde, Texte: Register des Archivs, eds. Alf Lüdtke and Tobias Nunz (Göttingen, Germany: V&R unipress, 2015), 103–118. The quotation is from Hamilton, Mbenga and Ross, “The Production of Preindustrial South African History,” 6.

  • 3. Christopher Saunders, The Making of the South African Past: Major Historians on Race and Class (Cape Town: David Philip, 1988); and Ken Smith, The Changing Past: Trends in South African Historical Writing (Johannesburg: Southern Book Publishers, 1988);

  • 4. See the essays in Belinda Bozzoli and Peter Delius, eds., “History from South Africa,” thematic issue of Radical History Review 46.7 (1990); and Hans Stolten, ed., History Making and Present Day Politics: The Making of Collective Memory in South Africa (Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2007).

  • 5. John Wright and Cynthia Kros, “Working with South Africa’s Pasts 1500–1880” (paper presented at conference on historical archaeology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, 2014).

  • 6. Hamilton, Terrific Majesty; Paul Landau, Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, 1400–1948 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); also the essays in Carolyn Hamilton and Nessa Leibhammer, eds., Tribing and Untribing the Archive: Identity and the Material Record in Southern KwaZulu-Natal in the late Independent and Colonial Periods, 2 vols (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2016).

  • 7. David Cohen, “The Undefining of Oral Tradition,” Ethnohistory 36.1 (1989): 9–18; and Isabel Hofmeyr, “We Spend Our Years as a Tale That is Told”: Oral Historical Narrative in a South African Chiefdom (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1993).

  • 8. Hamilton, Terrific Majesty; Carolyn Hamilton, “Backstory, Biography, and the Life of the James Stuart Archive,” History in Africa 38 (2011): 319–341; and Hamilton, “Archives, Ancestors.”

  • 9. This was very much the position asserted by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi in the heyday of Zulu nationalism in the 1980s and early 1990s. Anecdotal evidence comes from academics relating current experiences in university classrooms and conferences. See also Julian Cobbing, “A Tainted Well: The Objectives, Historical Fantasies, and Working Methods of James Stuart, with Counter-Argument,” Journal of Natal and Zulu History 11 (1988): 115–154.

  • 10. Daphna Golan, Inventing Shaka: Using History in the Construction of Zulu Nationalism (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1994); Lewis Nkosi, “Postmodernism and Black Writing in South Africa,” in Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970–1995, eds. Derek Attridge and Rosemary Jolly (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 75–90; and Dan Wylie, Savage Delight: White Myths of Shaka (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2000).

  • 11. Hamilton, Terrific Majesty. See also Patrick Harries, Butterflies and Barbarians: Swiss Missionaries and Systems of Knowledge in South-East Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007).

  • 12. Hermann Giliomee and Bernard Mbenga, eds., New History of South Africa (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2007); and Fransjohan Pretorius, ed., Geskiedenis van Suid-Afrika van Voortye tot Vandag (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2012).

  • 13. Andrew Bank, ed., The Proceedings of the Khoisan Identities and Cultural Heritage Conference … 12–16 July 1997 (Cape Town: Institute for Historical Research, University of the Western Cape, 1998); Hamilton, Mbenga, and Ross, “The Production of Preindustrial South African History,” 56–57; June Bam, “Contemporary Khoisan Heritage Issues in South Africa: a Brief Historical Overview,” in Papers from the Pre-colonial Catalytic Project, eds. Lungisile Ntsebeza and Chris Saunders (Cape Town: Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town, 2014), 123–135; and Garreth van Niekerk, “The Khoisan Revolution,” City Press (Johannesburg), March 6, 2017, 6–7.

  • 14. The author’s thanks to Gavin Whitelaw for discussion about this issue.

  • 15. For example, J. A. J. Gowlett, “Archaeological Studies of Human Origins & Early Prehistory in Africa,” in A History of African Archaeology, ed. Peter Robertshaw (Oxford: James Currey, 1990), 13–38; Janette Deacon, “Weaving the Fabric of Stone Age Research in Southern Africa,” in A History of African Archaeology, ed. Robertshaw, 39–58; H. J. Deacon and Janette Deacon, Human Beginnings in South Africa: Uncovering the Secrets of the Stone Age (Cape Town: David Philip, 1999); Peter Mitchell, The Archaeology of Southern Africa (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Geoffrey Blundell, Christopher Chippindale, and Benjamin Smith, eds., Seeing and Knowing: Understanding Rock Art with and without Ethnography (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2010).

  • 16. Himla Soodyall, The Prehistory of Africa: Tracing the Lineage of Modern Man (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2006), Geoffrey Blundell, Origins: The Story of the Emergence of Humans and Humanity in Africa (Cape Town: Double Storey, 2006); and Kuljian, Darwin’s Hunch, are three in a long list.

  • 17. David Lewis-Williams, Images of Mystery: Rock Art of the Drakensberg (Cape Town: Double Storey Books, 2003), is a graphic example in a large field.

  • 18. Mitchell, The Archaeology of Southern Africa, 28–32.

  • 19. Mitchell, The Archaeology of Southern Africa, 161–191; and Justin Pargeter, “The Later Stone Age is not San prehistory,” The Digging Stick (South African Archaeological Society) 31.3 (2014): 1–4, 23.

  • 20. This section draws heavily on Mitchell, The Archaeology of Southern Africa, chs. 9 and 10; and John Parkington and Simon Hall, “The Appearance of Food Production in Southern Africa 1,000 to 2,000 Years Ago,” in Cambridge History of South Africa, vol. 1, eds. Hamilton, Mbenga, and Ross, 63–111.

  • 21. The subject is discussed in detail in the essays in Karim Sadr and Francois-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar, eds., “Khoekhoe and the Origins of Herding in Southern Africa,” thematic issue of Southern African Humanities 20.1 (2008).

  • 22. See the discussions in Alan Morris, “Going full circle on Khoekhoe origins,” The Digging Stick 31.1 (2014): 1–4; Marlize Lombard, “Human DNA and Stone Age archaeology,” The Digging Stick 31.2 (2014): 6–7; and Andrew Smith, “Khoekhoe Origins: The East African Connection,” The Digging Stick 31.3 (2014): 15–16.

  • 23. Karim Sadr, “Invisible herders? The Archaeology of Khoekhoe Pastoralists,” Southern African Humanities 20.1 (2008): 179–203. See also Judith Sealy, “Isotopic Evidence for the Antiquity of Cattle-Based Pastoralism in Southernmost Africa,” Journal of African Archaeology 8.1 (2010): 65–81 (the author’s thanks to Gavin Whitelaw for this and the next reference).

  • 24. Jayson Orton et al., “An Early Date for Cattle from Namaqualand, South Africa: Implications for the Origins of Herding in Southern Africa,” Antiquity 87 (2013): 108–120.

  • 25. Andrew Smith, “Pastoral Origins at the Cape: Influences and Arguments,” Southern African Humanities 20.1 (2008): 49–60. See also Alan Barnard, “Ethnographic Analogy and the Reconstruction of Early Khoekhoe Society,” Southern African Humanities 20 (2008): 61–75.

  • 26. Thomas Huffman, Handbook to the Iron Age: The Archaeology of Pre-Colonial Farming Societies in Southern Africa (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2007), 331–359.

  • 27. Aron Mazel, “People Making History: The Last Ten Thousand Years of Hunter-Gatherer Communities in the Thukela Basin,” Natal Museum Journal of Humanities 1 (1989): 132–152; Mitchell, The Archaeology of Southern Africa, 292–297; and Gavin Whitelaw, “‘Their Village Is Where They Kill Game’: Nguni Interactions with the San,” in The Eland’s People: New Perspectives in the Rock Art of the Maloti-Drakensberg Bushmen: Essays in Memory of Patricia Vinnicombe, eds. Peter Mitchell and Benjamin Smith (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009), 139–163.

  • 28. Ashley Coutu et al., “Earliest Evidence for the Ivory Trade in Southern Africa: Isotopic and ZooMS Analysis of Seventh-Tenth Century AD Ivory from KwaZulu-Natal,” African Archaeological Review, published online October 1, 2016. The author’s thanks to Gavin Whitelaw for this reference.

  • 29. Peter Mitchell, African Connections: Archaeological Perspectives on Africa and the Wider World (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2005), 99–133; and Marilee Wood, Interconnections: Glass Beads and Trade in Southern and Eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean—7th to 16th Centuries (Uppsala: Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, 2011), 24–35.

  • 30. Huffman, Handbook to the Iron Age, 361–392; Sian Tiley-Nel, ed., Mapungubwe Remembered: Contributions to Mapungubwe by the University of Pretoria (Johannesburg: Chris van Rensburg, 2011); and Alex Schoeman, Michelle Hay, and Rachel Brown, eds., Mapungubwe Reconsidered: A Living Legacy—Exploring beyond the Rise and Decline of the Mapungubwe State (Johannesburg: Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, 2015).

  • 31. Tiley-Nel, Mapungubwe Remembered.

  • 32. Mitchell, The Archaeology of Southern Africa, 344–379; Huffman, Handbook to the Iron Age, 428–453; and Simon Hall, “Farming Communities of the Second Millennium: Internal Frontiers, Identity, Continuity and Change,” in Hamilton, Mbenga and Ross, eds., Cambridge History of South Africa 1, 112–148.

  • 33. Simon Hall, “Identity and Political Centralisation in the Western Regions of Highveld, c. 1770–c. 1830: An Archaeological Perspective,” Journal of Southern African Studies 38.2 (2012): 305–309.

  • 34. T. M. O’C. Maggs, Iron Age Communities of the Southern Highveld (Pietermaritzburg: Natal Museum); and Peter Delius, Tim Maggs, and Alex Schoeman, Forgotten World: The Stone-Walled Settlements of the Mpumalanga Escarpment (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2014).

  • 35. Hall, “Identity and Political Centralisation,” 301–318; and Gavin Whitelaw and Simon Hall, “Archaeological Contexts and the Creation of Social Categories before the Zulu Kingdom,” in Tribing and Untribing the Archive, eds. Hamilton and Leibhammer, 146–181.

  • 36. Paul Landau, Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, 1400–1948 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Carolyn Hamilton and John Wright, “Moving beyond Ethnic Framing: Political Differentiation in the Chiefdoms of the KwaZulu-Natal Region before 1830,” Journal of Southern African Studies, 43.4 (2017)

  • 37. Landau, Popular Politics, 17–22; and Hamilton, “Archives, Ancestors and the Contingencies of Time,” 103–118.

  • 38. The paragraphs that follow draw on Richard Elphick, Kraal and Castle: Khoikhoi and the Founding of White South Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977); Nigel Penn, The Forgotten Frontier: Colonist and Khoisan on the Cape’s Northern Frontier in the 18th Century (Cape Town: Double Storey Books, 2005); Robert Ross, “Khoesan and Immigrants: The Emergence of Colonial Society in the Cape, 1500–1800,” in The Cambridge History of South Africa, vol. 1, eds. Hamilton, Mbenga, and Ross, 168–210; and Martin Legassick, The Politics of a South African Frontier: The Griqua, the Sotho-Tswana, and the Missionaries, 1780–1840 (Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien, 2010).

  • 39. Carolyn Hamilton, The Mfecane Aftermath: Reconstructive Debates in Southern African History (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1995); and John Wright, “Turbulent Times: Political Transformations in the North and East, 1760s–1830s,” in The Cambridge History of South Africa, vol. 1, eds. Hamilton, Mbenga, and Ross, 211–252.

  • 40. John Wright, “Beyond the ‘Zulu Aftermath’: Migrations, Identities, Histories,” The Journal of Natal and Zulu History 24–25 (2006–2007): 1–36.

  • 41. Hamilton, Mfecane Aftermath; Dan Wylie, Savage Delight: White Myths of Shaka (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2000).

  • 42. Wright, “Turbulent Times.”

  • 43. Elizabeth Eldredge, “Slave Raiding across the Cape Frontier,” in Slavery in South Africa: Captive Labor on the Dutch Frontier, eds. Elizabeth Eldredge and Fred Morton (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994), 93–114.

  • 44. John Wright, “Rediscovering the Ndwandwe Kingdom,” in Five Hundred Years Rediscovered, eds. Natalie Swanepoel, Amanda Esterhuysen, and Philip Bonner (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2008), 217–238.

  • 45. Wright, “Turbulent Times.”

  • 46. The paragraphs that follow draw on Norman Etherington, The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa, 1815–1854 (Harlow, U.K.: Longman, 2001); and Martin Legassick and Robert Ross, “From Slave Economy to Settler Capitalism: The Cape Colony and Its Extensions,” in Cambridge History of South Africa, vol. 1, eds. Hamilton, Mbenga, and Ross, 253–318.

  • 47. E.g., Stanley Trapido, “Imperialism, Settler Identities, and Colonial Capitalism: The Hundred-Year Origins of the 1899 South African War,” in The Cambridge History of South Africa, vol. 2: 1885–1994, eds. Robert Ross, Anne Mager, and Bill Nasson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 66.

  • 48. Jeff Peires, The House of Phalo: A History of the Xhosa People in the Days of Their Independence (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1981); J. B. Peires, The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856–7 (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1989); Neil Mostert, Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People (London: Pimlico, 1993); and Martin Legassick, The Struggle for the Eastern Cape 1800–1854: Subjugation and the Roots of South African Democracy (Johannesburg: KMM, 2010).

  • 49. Wright, “Turbulent Times,” 232–234.

  • 50. This paragraph draws on Etherington, Great Treks, 243–325; and Norman Etherington, Patrick Harries, and Bernard Mbenga, “From Colonial Hegemonies to Imperial Conquest, 1840–1880,” in Cambridge History of South Africa, vol. 1, ed. Hamilton, Mbenga, and Ross, 319–391.

  • 51. Philip Bonner, eds., Kings, Commoners and Concessionaires: The Evolution and Dissolution of the Nineteenth-Century Swazi State (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 69–84; Eldredge and Morton, eds., Slavery in South Africa; and Peter Delius and Richard Cope, “Hard-Fought Frontiers: 1845–1883,” in Mpumalanga: History and Heritage, ed. Peter Delius (Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2007), 146–151.

  • 52. Peter Delius, The Land Belongs to Us: The Pedi Polity, the Boers and the British in the Nineteenth-Century Transvaal (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1983), 62–79.

  • 53. Kevin Shillington, Luka Jantje: Resistance Hero of the South African Frontier (Johannsburg: Wits University Press, 2011); Mohamed Adhikari, ed., Genocide on Settler Frontiers: When Hunter-Gatherers and Commercial Stock Farmers Clash (Cape Town: UCT Press, 2014); and Martin Legassick, Hidden Histories of Gordonia: Land Dispossession and Resistance in the Northern Cape, 1880–1990 (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2016).

  • 54. Etherington, Harries, and Mbenga, “From Colonial Hegemonies to Imperial Conquest”, 376–391; and Trapido, “Imperialism, Settler Identities, and Colonial Capitalism,” 73–101.

  • 55. Shula Marks, “War and Union, 1899–1910,” in Cambridge History of South Africa, vol. 2, eds. Ross, Mager, and Nasson, 157–206.

  • 56. Harries, Butterflies and Barbarians; Landau, Popular Politics; and Hamilton and Leibhammer, eds., Tribing and Untribing the Archive.