*For more on the context of this particular oral history interview, see previous post.
The “myth of the empty land” is one of the most pervasive myths of South African history. In 2012, Freedom Front Plus leader and then deputy minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries Pieter Mulder declared that black South Africans had no claim to 40% of South Africa and that European settlers had not stolen the land, suggesting that land in the semi-desert Karoo and Kalahri be purchased for black South Africans.
Writing in the Mail & Guardian in response, historian Shula Marks remarked upon a sense of déjà vu . She penned the 1980 “South Africa – the Myth of the Empty Land” in History Today and now found that ignorance about South Africa’s past lingered 30+ years later despite scholarly research. Mulder’s remark reveals the longevity of apartheid ideology that justified white settlement of South African land.
An equally pervasive myth exists among dispossessed South Africans that suggests how they understand this loss of land. A year before Mulder’s claim to empty land, in a conversation between two of my interlocutors, they attempted to explain the loss of African territory in Zululand to Boer immigrants. Here, in a larger conversation about the chieftaincy, two community elders connected the perils of an uneducated leader to historical land dispossession:
GB: When Sichiza was a chief [in the 1950s], he could not write his name.
NM: If you cannot read your own name, how can you become a chief?
GB: He had an assistant to read for him and the assistant could read to him whatever he wanted.
NM: It is the same thing which happened years ago, when white people made one of the kings to sit in a rotating chair to point the whole nation to the whites.
GB: I know that thing, they put a king in a rotating chair and they pressed it while he was pointing them to a piece of land. He ended up giving them the whole nation. I think that was Dingane.
It is said that during the reign of King Dingane a group of Boers sought an audience with King Dingane for some or other land concession, they spoke to him and a demarcation of land was agreed upon. When Dingane was about to point out the parameters of the land he was asked to sit down on a revolving chair, this chair was then spun around in an act of treachery by the Boers and it was through such actions that they lay claims on the Zulu country.
Mkhize points out the myth’s entertainment value and distance from reality, speculating the story may have its origins in the 1851 creation of a wheelchair for King Mpande, ill with gout, by Norwegian missionaries.
The myth is certainly an entertaining one–everyone present giggled at its telling. But it should not be dismissed as only a myth. It does suggest a reality–how its narrators understand land dispossession as an act of deceit in which white immigrants took advantage of an unwitting king’s diplomacy. The invocation of the myth to discuss an uneducated chief reveals how these interlocutors view power and envision leadership.
“Dingane in Ordinary and Dancing Dresses,” 1836, by Captain Allen Francis Gardiner.
An 1849 portrait of King Mpande by George French Angas