The Journal of African History

South Africa: the Birth of a Legend

The Mfecane as Alibi: Thoughts on Dithakong and Mbolompo1

Julian Cobbinga1

a1 Rhodes University, Grahamstown

The ‘mfecane’ is a characteristic product of South African liberal history used by the apartheid state to legitimate South Africa's racially unequal land division. Some astonishingly selective use or actual invention of evidence produced the myth of an internally-induced process of black-on-black destruction centring on Shaka's Zulu. A re-examination of the ‘battles’ of Dithakong and Mbolompo suggests very different conclusions and enables us to decipher the motives of subsequent historiographical amnesias. After about 1810 the black peoples of southern Africa were caught between intensifying and converging imperialistic thrusts: one to supply the Cape Colony with labour; another, at Delagoa Bay, to supply slaves particularly to the Brazilian sugar plantations. The flight of the Ngwane from the Mzinyathi inland to the Caledon was, it is argued, a response to slaving. But they ran directly into the colonial raiding-grounds north of the Orange. The (missionary-led) raid on the still unidentified ‘Mantatees’ (not a reference to MaNtatisi) at Dithakong in 1823 was one of innumerable Griqua raids for slaves to counter an acute shortage of labour among Cape settlers after the British expansionist wars of 1811–20. Similar Griqua raids forced the Ngwane south from the Caledon into the Transkei. Here, at Mbolompo in 1828, the Ngwane were attacked yet again, this time by a British army seeking ‘free’ labour after the reorganisation of the Cape's labour-procurement system in July 1828. The British claim that they were parrying a Zulu invasion is exposed as propaganda, and the connexions between the campaign and the white-instigated murder of Shaka are shown. In short, African societies did not generate the regional violence on their own. Rather, caught within the European net, they were transformed over a lengthy period in reaction to the attentions of external plunderers. The core misrepresentations of ‘the mfecane’ are thereby revealed; the term, and the concept, should be abandoned.

Footnotes

1 My thanks to Robert Berold and Elsabé van Tonder for help with improving earlier drafts, to Martin Hall, Patrick Harries, Paul Maylam, Robert Morrell, Andrew Roberts, John Wright and Dan Wylie for critical comment, and to Oakley West for the maps.