The Khoi-Xhosa Wars of Repossession

By Katlego Mereko

“Study the past if you want to define the future,” 

so goes a famous quote by Confucius. A considered glance at the South African society will leave you with no doubt that its struggles are linked to historical events. And yet, history is still an understudied and, as a result, undertheorised subject in the country, exposing us to a danger that leaves us ill-equipped to define our future as Confucius warns.

For decades now, there have been varied attempts to construct not only a historiography but also a philosophy of South African history by African scholars.  This is largely due to the problematic accounts recorded in the formerly dominant White settler history and liberal history. From scholars such as the late Prof Archie Mafeje and Prof. Ben Magubane to Prof. Mogobe Ramose down to your Prof. Nomalanga Mkhize and Ndumiso Dladla, there has been a concerted effort to reconstruct our history from an African perspective.

Research done by Prof. Nomalanga Mkhize reveals interesting dimensions to the frontier wars that happened between 1779 until 1879. She reveals, for one, that in her findings the oft-accepted version that the wars were sparked by colonial pressure into the inlands is only partially true. Rather, the indigenous people attacked colonial and missionary posts as they realised the theft that was taking place on their watch. This is an interesting find that shows that there was an awareness of surroundings not previously awarded to the indigenous people. It also demonstrates the agency and decisiveness the indigenous Africans were capable of. 

Mkhize has therefore refashioned the event as wars of repossession. The indigenous people attacked colonial posts to repossess their land during the ensuing land dispossession by European forces.

Often when we speak of Robben Island’s political prisoners, we think of politicians incarcerated during the apartheid phase of colonisation, however, we have two prominent figures in Khoi-Xhosa history who were imprisoned in the islands in the 1800s for political reasons. These are David Stuurman and Makhanda ka Nxele of Khoi and Xhosa tribes respectively. A theory from an African perspective is that there was no strict rigidity between the Khoi and the Xhosa, such that in fact there was a tribe called amaGqunukhwebe, which seemed to be a mixture of Khoi and Xhosa tribes.

Indeed, linguistic research has proven that the three clicks contained in the Bantu languages of Sesotho and Nguni clusters stem from intermarriages and inter-cultural relations with Khoekhoe and the San, which only could have happened over a period of about 1000 to 1500 years.

The colonisers also created a working class through employed labour after they had dispossessed land, and heavily exploited the indigenous by employing them for capitalist ends. By doing this the Colonisers precipitated the beginning of a struggle for survival never seen in indigene life under the culture of Ubuntu. Suddenly, survival was contingent on employment rather than labour (labour as a fundamental requisite for life in agricultural settings), and thus begun poverty, the claws from which are yet to free ourselves.

A lot yet must be done in the ever-growing call for a decolonised curriculum. In a society where education plays a big role, a comprehensive history from an African perspective may yet lead us to solutions to some of the pressing ills of our society, most of which can be linked to the original sin; colonisation.


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