history, research, teaching

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Book out in South Africa!

The South African edition of To Swim with Crocodiles is now out! You can get it at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press website and soon in stores!

And on May 2, I’ll be giving the 26th Annual Alan Paton Lecture alongside Dr. Sibongiseni Mkhize.

26th Alan Paton Lecture 2019 invitation.jpg

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The Order of the Luthuli in Gold – Mhlabunzima Joseph Maphumulo

Last month, the Presidency of South Africa awarded the Order of the Luthuli in Gold posthumously to Inkosi Mhlabunzima Joseph Maphumulo. The order “is awarded to South Africans who have served the interests of South Africa by making a meaningful contribution in any of the following areas: the struggle for democracy, human rights, nation-building, justice, peace and conflict resolution.”

The award recognizes that the chief made “an exceptional contribution to conflict resolution and to resistance against injustice and oppression. He lost his life fighting for his people.” Mhlabunzima Maphumulo was the chief of the Maphumulo at Table Mountain, but the people for whom he fought extended beyond his rural chiefdom, earning him the moniker of ‘peace chief’.

I am so grateful to have been a part of nominating him and am so pleased to watch his family accept the award. You can learn more about his life in my book, now out in the U.S. and soon in Z.A.

2018 luthuli awardees SA gov

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Violence, Oral History, and Mourning

I wrote this a while ago, when I was finishing my book proofs. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to share it. But as I worked through Truth and Reconciliation Commission testimonies today for a project, I felt compelled. I was reading the Commission’s decision on South African Police officer Brian Mitchell’s amnesty application. I approached it rather methodically, looking for details about Pietermaritzburg’s infamous Riot Unit 8, when I came to the Commission’s conclusion: that Mitchell be granted amnesty for the murders of eleven individuals—eleven people caught in the crossfires of South Africa’s transition-era civil war at Trust Feeds: Mseleni Ntuli, Dudu Shangase, Zetha Shangase, Knoyeni Shangase, Muzi Shangase, Filda Ntuli, Fikile Zondi, Maritz Xaba, Sara Nyoka, Alfred Zita, and Sisedewu Sithole. I felt sick. This week, the 27th anniversary of Mhlabunzima Maphumulo’s death, I share some thoughts on studying violence, doing oral history, and mourning.


When Mhlabunzima accepted those people who ran away from their places, then [his neighbors, the Nyavu] said “Mhlabunzima is a comrade; he is together with Mandela.” But he put these people in his own place. The people of KwaNyavu refused to welcome people who left their places because of the war; they are all still alive. Mhlabunzima was a great chief because he was able to welcome people who suffered from their places.

–Mantombi Goba

They are still alive. Mhlabunzima Joseph Maphumulo is not. He was a flawed man—my book shows this—but in the last years of his life he worked to end the violence that plagued KwaZulu and Natal. He did not want people to suffer. And yet he witnessed and experienced tremendous suffering; his family did too. I have been drawn to his life, thought carefully if not obsessively about his actions, his choices, his career. I’d read this quote many times. This time, Mantombi Goba’s reflection stopped me in my tracks.


I recently read Clifton Crais’s History Lessons and was particularly drawn to his description of this career we have chosen:

In my professional life, I have a vast collection of evidence from other pasts… Virtually all of this evidence concerns misfortune. Like many of my colleagues I have been drawn to the study of conflict, oppression, suffering, slavery, peonage, landlessness, poverty, death, infant, mortality. I have spent a career among the dead, and more precisely among those who died before their time. Historians are drawn to tragedy, though we usually disavow what we find when we go looking into the past. This is our professional conundrum, running to the past and then running away from its horrors. We are students of trauma, of wars, murders, genocide, and human suffering. Ours is a prose both of longing—to witness what has happened—and of mourning—for our inability to be there (50-51).


As I read these book proofs, Mantombi Goba’s words send my mood spiraling downward. The heart feels heavy despite the sun on my shoulders that makes one forget the unusual cold spell that has us bundled up in Dallas. Moments ago I sat down and reveled in this sunshine—how the light hit the café tables, the shadows it cast. The joy I felt that this book is so close to being done, the motivation I felt to tackle the last chapter of the proofs. But a light went out in 1991. Maphumulo was brash; he didn’t always make wise decisions and he didn’t always do right. But he struggled to make life better for thousands in the Natal Midlands. As a historian, I’ve struggled to respect and give insight into his life—the good and the bad.

This moment I need to mourn for him.

MJM (2)

This feeling is not unusual. It comes often as I read, research, write about this long history of violence and dispossession. It also comes when a friend writes to me to inform me of the death of someone we’ve interviewed. You think momentarily that it is maybe strange to be so affected by the death of someone with whom you’ve only spent six or eight hours. But measuring this in time does not do justice to the intimacy of those hours—hours spent sharing life’s details, life’s losses, driving around rural areas devastated by violence or shaped by colonial and apartheid rule. Or to the impact of another man, now gone too, who helped awaken a love for oral history, a love of the method that on good days outweighs the harder interviews and difficult tasks. These losses take you to that moment; you can see so clearly their joy or pain in sharing these stories.

History is a humanities discipline. These humans are everything.



Local Elections and the Legacies of War

This is the fourth of an oral history scraps series.* 

When commentators consider the contemporary state of South Africa, they discuss it as a country still transitioning from apartheid. Not enough is made of the fact that parts of the country are also recovering from civil war sponsored by the apartheid state. Between 1985 and 1996, at least 20,000 people died; 13,000 in KwaZulu-Natal alone. Conservative estimates suggest 200,000 were made homeless, internal refugees in their own country.[1]

Less then twenty years since the end of the war, my oral history interviews were riddled with insight into how people are–or are not–rebuilding their lives in the wake of war. Many spoke to human losses and the financial ramifications. They attested to the need to start anew, building new homes, buying new wardrobes, but never being able to recover wedding keepsakes and photographs of children. One person remembers being forced to continue to make payments on new furniture long after that furniture was destroyed by fire. Some still are unable to return home after the war, where new residents built on their homestead sites.

In light of the upcoming August local elections in South Africa and recent political violence (such as the political killings of ANC politicians in the Natal Midlands earlier this month or this past weekend’s shooting in Pretoria), I offer some oral history insights into how rural South Africans connect elections to the country’s civil war.

One woman suggested that every election cycle brings fear and unwanted memories:

Every time when we go for elections, I get nervous because people are getting emotional.

Another woman spoke to her subsequent ambivalence about voting:

I did not understand anything about the [political] parties [during the war]. Even today I still do not have any idea about the organisations’ issues. I do vote because everyone has a vote. What made me hate the organisations is that many people died. Those who knew what they were fighting for are living a life of luxury while we are still suffering and they got this life through other people’s blood. Personally, I do not know why I am voting. I accompany those who know what they are doing and I do not want to know because it is not going to help me.

And as the continuing assassinations of candidates and ward councilors suggest, political violence is still a very real phenomenon in South Africa, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.


Source: “Special Police Task Force to Probe Political Killings,” Mail & Guardian, June 5, 2016.

While many rightly make connections between these attacks and those of the civil war, the less obvious legacy is the prevalence of weapons in these communities. One man, who asked to be anonymous due to the sensitivity of our conversation, made this explicit:

A: There are still many guns that were distributed by Philip Powell [a white apartheid agent connected to the IFP and Eugene de Kock]. He gave them to someone [affiliated with Inkatha] who was going to help distribute them. That was XX. Then other guns were given to this boy XX.

Q: The guns were only distributed to IFP members?

A: Yes and a lot of people received them. XX still has G3s. I have no idea how the police do not get a hold of those guns.

The legacies of South Africa’s civil war are as much a part of contemporary life as apartheid.

*Everyone who participated in the oral history project gave oral or written consent for use of their interviews in publications and eventual archival deposit.

[1] Mary de Haas, “Violence in Natal and Zululand: The 1980s,” in The Road to Democracy in South Africa, vol. 6 [1990-1996] (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2013), 88–152.

For more on the recent assassinations, check out these Mail & Guardian stories:

Killings Signal the Start of the Battle for Power,” May 27, 2016

Politics Becomes a Deadly Game in KZN,” May 27, 2016

Special Police Task Force to Probe Political Killings,” June 6, 2016


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Dispossession & Land Myths

*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.

Zanokolo Mkhize, who works at the Zulu Historical Museum in Eshowe and blogs about Zulu history, explained the dispossession myth in further depth:

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

Further Reading:
Marks, Shula. “South Africa – ‘The Myth of the Empty Land.’” History Today 30, no. 1 (1980).