By Hadebe Hadebe
Black people’s history in Southern Africa is a lump of half-cooked minced meat that is extremely difficult to swallow. It is not just disparaging but also lacks serious grounding and believability. Throughout the region, people have lived and survived different incursions such as the slave trade, colonialism, and apartheid. When one scrutinises historical texts, however, people’s origins are unclear and show that they are manipulated through something called ‘storytelling’.
In his famous book ‘Things Fall Apart’ (1958), renowned Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe portrays a picture of a typical African village when upon hearing the sound of a tantalising drum, villagers would congregate around the fire to listen to riveting stories. And in “Weep Not, Child” (1964), Kenyan scholar Ngugi wa Thiong’o posits that the psychological intent of exposing children to storytelling “justifies the reason for telling folktales in Africa”. This opinion piece deals with how African oral traditions were taken over by those with ill intentions to spread their puffery and to contaminate minds to accept things that are unbelievable and furthest from the truth.
Today, there are many books written by European historians that purportedly relied on storytelling as their methodology that helped them to narrate stories that never existed and to reach preposterous conclusions. Like all educated people, we have accepted these academic materials because they are ‘peer reviewed’ and published in London, Paris and New York. We also defend them as credible since they feature in the so-called top academic journals. Therefore, this article poses a question about the storytelling tradition or ritual in Africa: Does this then mean we have to accept hogwash as the truth simply because our ancestors had not embraced the civilisation of writing and reading?
This topic is not entirely new, but I wish to bring this issue closer to home, where the European presence caused long-term damage that may not be easy to repair. Many authors, such as John Clarke, have long contended that European writers have distorted African and world history to create a rationale for the slave trade, the colonial system and other forms of mischief. Using unconvincing oral traditions, the European mission in Africa recreated a people’s history to suit its five-pillar purpose: Civilisation, Christianity, Commerce, Colonialism and Conquest.
Brazilian legal scholar Tatiana Cardoso Squeff argues that this overreliance on European epistemologies presents “another type of coloniality”, which means that we continuously tell a lie designed to undermine us in the first place. This also deprives us of telling our authentic stories and betrays our mission to rise from the ashes of colonial arson and destruction. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni is correct to point out that our efforts “to make history are constrained by their entrapment in global coloniality”. This tragedy is worsened by Eurocentric scholarship and belief in fairy tales.
Basically, colonialism refused to accept that other forms of production and exchanges existed in other societies but promoted European centralism, also called eurocentrism. As a result, we cannot imagine the world outside the European purview. It does not matter whether we are dealing with science, law, politics, economics or history; the European ‘magic’ always guides how we navigate our reality but using someone else’s lens to interpret our surroundings. We are lifetime prisoners of Eurocentrism and its faults – freedom will never come. Walter Rodney rightly pointed out that Europe underdeveloped Africa in more ways than one.
European modernity, as per Ndlovu-Gatsheni, “announced its presence through the usurping of world history by Europe and [its outpost] North America”. Today, Southern African historiography is essentially a subset of the Europeanisation of the region. By this, I mean our history purportedly begins with the arrival of Europeans somewhere between 1500 and the late 1700s. According to K.B.C. Onwubiko, “the world was made to believe that the history of the African people began with the coming of Europeans to Africa in the fifteenth century.” Amongst us, very few people, if any, can recount with certainty their family history before the European arrival. Furthermore, people are categorised into ethnic groups and languages that they did not contribute to their creation.
At this juncture, we enthusiastically identify with mysterious and fictional African characters such as Malandela, Mthimkhulu and many others. How do we know if these people existed?
If they did, are the stories told about them true or not? Who made them kings, and for what purpose? These people majestically lived in parallel with the colonial conquest. But what is even more bemusing is that their names, later to be called (izithakazelo) clan names, are Biblical or warlike.
To decipher the underlying messages or meanings that seek to manipulate the mind, one needs to read the so-called sources of the oral tradition, i.e., praise names, clan names, poetry, tradition and custom, with an incisive eye. About my clan name, I discovered something disturbing and shocking the scriptwriters of our fake history inserted Christianity everywhere and anywhere. My ancestors identified with the Christian faith before the 1800s, according to the records of the white man. The R/Hadede clan names are as follows:
Umkhulu Nkulunkulu kodwa awunganga Bhungane! <Lord you’re Great but not as Bhungane!> Unkulunkulu uziqu zintathu kodwa uBhungane uziqu zingamakhulukhulu, (God has three pillars [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] but Bhungane has hundreds of them)
It is claimed that Bhungane (or Bhungan’omakhulukhulu) was the king of the AmaHlubi tribe from 1760 until his death in 1800 and that he was the father of Mthimkhulu, Langalibalele’s father. The bitterness of the stew is such that this man, who was supposedly born before his people had embraced Christianity; his praise names were about God. How is this possible? The response by those in the know will tell you they obtained this information from oral sources. This is precisely the manipulation I am referring to; they might as well have allocated Julius Caesar or Herod as my ancestor!
The twisting of history is also found in other clan names as well. There was a man called Sibiside who was the king of the Embo people. It is claimed that this ancestor fathered many sons, including Njanya, Dlamini, Mkhize and Mpondomise. I will not discuss the vulgar entailed in the Sibiside fiction, who is said to be the ancestor of the Dlamini (Sibalukhulu), Mpondomise and the Swati. However, the crafting of the history of the Mpondomise and the Faku clan shows the intentions of historians that ‘blacks’ displaced the ‘San’ in the near Cape.
Sibiside or Sibalukhulu may not have existed after all – the name has to do with a feather (usiba (Zulu/ Xhosa) or lesiba (Sotho)). There is a postulation that the name may mean a European missionary who used a quill, or feather pen, to write the history that was not even there in the first place. Mastery Lesiba (as I call him) is the person who created the fictitious Nguni and Sotho identities that led to the mega tribes we have today, e.g., Zulu, Sotho, Tswana and Xhosa. He claimed that the so-called Nguni tribes trace their lineage to Mnguni, the king of the unified Nguni nation in South Africa. Apparently, this nation included Zulus, Xhosas, Ndebeles and Swazis, among others.
But these Nguni mega tribes are a recent creation not exceeding even three centuries ago – nobody called himself Zulu, Xhosa or Ndebele before 1750. Mnguni is an imaginary person represented in a work of fiction by Mastery Lesiba. The Sotho conglomeration, with three broad divisions — Basotho – Southern Sotho, Pedi – Northern Sotho, and Tswana – Western Sotho, is also based on the same falsehood. In the article ‘Debunking the Eurocentric mega tribe construct in Southern Africa’, I argue that the present identities of Pedi, Tswana, Swazi, Ndebele, Shona, etc., are a colonial construct. Mastery Lesiba and missionary entourage already envisaged governing Southern Africa at some point by building common ancestors that may not have existed in the first place.
In the book ‘The Tongue Is Fire: South African Storytellers and Apartheid’ (1996), Harold Scheub claims that “the rural storytellers resisted apartheid in their own way, using myth and metaphor to preserve their traditions and confront their oppressors”. However, these stories were diluted with filth and treachery to justify two things: ‘black’ people are not indigenous to South Africa, and that land was largely unoccupied. Scheub narrates how the Mpondomise left the country of Natal to settle in a place between Mzimkhulu and Mthatha rivers. The intsomi (myth) about the Mpondomise gets interesting with an attack by Shaka.
When one studies the praise names of Shaka, one gets a sense that they were written by people who wanted to portray that Africans were savages and also to entrench the Mfecane- Difaqane mythology. The praise names have colourful and violent-oriented words: Ferocious, raged, madman, voracious, attacker, devoured, stabber, raid, thundered… To conceal the slave trade and other atrocities, an impression made is that Shaka attacked many tribes from the Ndwandwe in the north and the Mpondomise in the south in just over ten years that he allegedly ruled his mythically powerful Zulu kingdom.
UGasane, kade lubagasela Lugasel’ imizi yamadoda (The attacker’s been long attacking them)
Lugasel’ uPhungashe ezalwa kwaButhelezi (He attacked Phungashe of the Buthelezi clan)
Lugasel’ uSondaba woMthand’ ehlez’ ebandla (He attacked Sondaba of Mthanda as he sat in the council) Lugasel’ uFaku eMaMpondweni (He attacked Gambushe in Pondoland)
Lugasel’ uGambushe eMaMpondweni (He attacked Gambushe in Pondoland).
Nonetheless, the conception of traditional leadership under Western domination is another mischief. African history is a design of Westerners to explain everything that happened to date; chiefs were central in the colonising mission either as opponents or collaborators. Besides skirmishes here and there, the chiefs remodelled themselves as the necessary cogs under colonial administrations. Therefore, it is possible that they (kings or chiefs) were created to support the slave trade enterprise and the colonial project instead of fighting them, as is always argued. Anything to do with the so-called traditional (mis)leadership and related institutions must be rejected as poisonous flowers on the dung heap of virulent colonialism.
The modern history and identity of southern African peoples hinge on a bemusing concept of Mfecane-Difaqane, in which we are told that Shaka and his mates Mzilikazi, Mokotjo, Ngqika, Sekwati, Soshangane and others were responsible for the destruction of their neighbours. The stories fail to explain why the actors suddenly acted in the manner they did. These mythical African super-heroes were created to aid the colonising mission in terms of material dispossessions and the mental capacity to question nonsensical propaganda called history. For example, has anyone asked why the European historians, cartographers and anthropologists took it upon themselves to tell the stories about us? Obviously, this was not to assist Africans in preserving their history as it often claimed.
I wholeheartedly agree with Franz Fanon, who observed: “The colonised man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope.” Our biggest challenge is that Eurocentric scholarship has completely destroyed and obliterated our history using bogus stories. The abuse of the notion of the oral tradition leaves much to be desired. Elders have become reservoirs of toxic waste that is presented as oral history. I have not experienced any elder who narrates a different story that reduces book knowledge to waste. This shows that the mind was captured together with the land and other possessions. Nothing remains; we are walking naked and have no preserved memories.
I believe African people may have relied on storytelling as a ritual and for passing stories from one generation to the next. But the concern is that colonialists and missionaries could have manipulated this tradition over time to advance their discourses and carry out the ‘civilising’ mission. These efforts entailed propaganda, lies and justification of violence meted out on Africans, including Mfecane-Difaqane as a direct offshoot of the slave trade enterprise and early days of colonialism and conquest.
The propaganda was also about dispossession and the displacement of a people, both physically and mentally. “African peoples in South Africa trace their roots in central Africa” is one such story that has been embraced as the truth. Many people go to some length in explaining how they originated from the Congo or Ethiopia. The problem with these fables is that they are not supported by indisputable evidence and records. Some would quickly point out that black people did not write or read. So what?
History and stories are intertwined as people and their land. In his prose called ‘Named For Africa’, Achebe asserts that the African writers take to the tradition of folk storytelling, which “had had the immemorial quality of the sky and the forests and the rivers.” In the absence of land, rivers, mountains and forests that are now ‘preserved’ as the Kruger National Game Park, Simangaliso Wetland Park and Pilanesberg, as well as large rivers and dams, the African is in no man’s land. He is forced to accept that his actions are detrimental to the environment after many years of prohibition and destruction by the colonialists.
Robert Pogue Harrison, in his book ‘Forest: The Shadow of Civilization’ (1992), demonstrates that imperialism was accompanied by deforestation and the heavy consumption of natural resources. History books do not tell how the imperialist actions disrupted the African’s romance with the environment he treasured so much. The African presently fumbles under the shadows of global capitalism in attempts to reclaim his cultural heritage, which today is quite hard to separate from conspicuous consumption. Our write-up titled ‘How much does the ‘economy of amadlozi’ contribute to the GDP?’ explains how our cultures were destroyed and or mutilated (disfigured) to support the colonial project.
Africans easily believe fairy tales like global warming and climate change because they are not only used to being blindfolded via storytelling but also do not understand how much the colonial project ravaged their environment. It is almost embarrassing to see young women and men posing inside water streams as sangomas. In contrast, that umbilical cord between an African and his surroundings was broken many years ago. Indigenous knowledge is patented overseas as intellectual property of multinational corporations. At the same time, we are unaware that a plant such as moringa is not even indigenous to this part of the world but is native to the sub-Himalayan parts of Northern India.
The journey of searching for our history will not be easy due to the misconceptions and misinterpretations in the Western discourse that we proudly inhale, gobble and celebrate at universities as development and progress. At worst, what remains of oral tradition and storytelling are possibly the biggest weapon that ensures propaganda never stops. The linkages between African cultural practice and the European civilising mission are simply difficult to ignore.
Siya yi banga le economy!