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Alex Callinicos


Dance of death

(October 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 168, October 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People
Noel Mostert
Pimlico £15

One of the many luxuries Europe’s rulers have given themselves is that of reflecting – in retrospect, of course, not at the time – on the pathos and tragedy of the various peoples they have conquered. In southern Africa the destruction by Britain of the great Zulu kingdom has attracted the most attention.

Arguably, the story of the Xhosa people, the confederacy of chiefdoms in South Africa’s eastern Cape, is an even greater tragedy. They formed the first organised African political unit of any strength which the Dutch settlers encountered as they expanded beyond the original white colony at the Cape during the 18th century.

It took almost 100 years of war, from 1781 to 1878, for the Cape Colony finally to defeat the Xhosa people and to incorporate them and their land. No less than nine wars – white historians used to call them the ‘Kaffir Wars’ but they tend now to be known, more euphemistically, as the Frontier Wars – were required to break Xhosa power.

They began as minor border skirmishes over land and cattle between Xhosa chiefdoms and trekboers, settlers straying outside the control of the Dutch East India Company at Cape Town and developing a way of life based on cattle herding and hunting quite similar in some respects to those of the Xhosa and other African peoples. As the Marxist historian Martin Legassick pointed out in a pathbreaking essay, relations on the frontier in the early days were not ones of naked racism, but involved cooperation as well as conflict, and sometimes intermarriage among Afrikaners, Africans and Khoikoi (the ancestors of the modern ‘Coloureds’).

It was the incorporation of the Cape Colony into the British Empire, temporarily in the 1790s, definitively in 1806, which changed this pattern. Although the British colonial authorities introduced legal equality between the races and abolished slavery, they also planted a large settlement of British colonists in the eastern Cape in 1820. English speaking sheep farmers in the eastern Cape, producing wool for the booming British market, began to assert their need, in even more strident terms, for Xhosa land and labour.

It was indeed British military power, directed by a succession of Peninsular War veterans such as Benjamin D’Urban, Charles Napier, and Harry Smith, which gradually broke the Xhosa. Xhosa leaders such as Magoma waged brilliant guerrilla campaigns against the lumbering redcoats, but British firepower, and the use of methods to become familiar in 20th century counterinsurgency warfare – the destruction of crops and the seizure of cattle to starve the Xhosa into surrender – wore them down. Each war left the Xhosa worse off than the last. They and their cattle were bottled up on less land, with magistrates and missionaries interfering ever more intrusively into their traditional way of life.

The most tragic episode of all came in 1856–8. A young woman called Nongqawuse claimed to have had visions which announced that if the Xhosa killed all their cattle and emptied their cornbins, the dead would be resurrected, the slain cattle would be replaced with interest, and the whites would be swept away. It is a sign of the deep despair into which the Xhosa had fallen – cattle played an absolutely indispensable economic and cultural role in pre-colonial African societies – that many believed the prophecy and slaughtered their cattle.

In the last desperate hope it represented a leap back into the past. The cattle killing resembled the Ghost Dance movement among the American Plains Indians at the end of the 1880s. It had even more disastrous consequences. Perhaps 40,000 people died in the ensuing famine. The British governor, Sir George Grey, unscrupulously used the Xhosa’s appalling plight to incorporate many of them as wage labourers within the colony. Although one final war was to follow, the Xhosa were finished as an independent people. Their chiefs were imprisoned on Robben island, where Nelson Mandela – himself a prince of the Xhosa speaking Thembe – was to spend so many years.

The conquest of the Xhosa is an epic story, and Noel Mostert does his best to give it an appropriate treatment. Himself a Cape Afrikaner, he writes of the Xhosa and their suffering with great sympathy. His book has, however, been overpraised. The Wall Street Journal compares it to Gibbon and Macaulay. But Gibbon and Macaulay were superb prose stylists, writing vigorous and elegant English. Mostert’s sentences, by contrast, tend to cut themselves loose from the rules of logic and grammar, and meander on until they make very little sense. He is overgiven to fine writing, repeats himself, and includes much irrelevant material. The result is a book which, at more than 1,300 pages, cries out for a good, tough editor.

Self indulgent writing tends to reflect sloppy thinking. Gibbon and Macaulay had behind them the self confident rationalism of the Enlightenment. Though Mostert makes quite good use of the latest historical research, his head is full of the intellectual bric-a-brac of the 20th century. Behind his babble about Jung and the African ‘sense of wholeness’ looms the shadow of Prince Charles’s asinine South African mentor, Sir Laurens van der Post. The Xhosa deserve better than this.

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