Chapter 1 - State Formation in Nineteenth-century South Africa

The nineteenth century in South Africa is noted for the revolutionary processes that resulted in the formation of new states. State formation in nineteenth-century South Africa had tremendous consequences on how the different people defined or named themselves (identity formation). The processes of state formation refer to the political and military struggles that resulted in the rise of new states and the downfall of others in the period 1800 to 1870. During the 1820s and 1830s marauding invaders attacked relatively stable communities throughout South Africa, seizing land, people and livestock. Some communities were completely ruined, while others were weakened and scattered. To make matters worse, famine and internal conflicts also occurred, as local groups turned on one another in their struggle for survival. There is no denial that violence increased throughout southern, central and eastern Africa during the early decades of the nineteenth century. However, over the last decade many questions have been raised concerning the causes of this upsurge in violence. This chapter will not describe the interesting episodes of the rise of the new states, but will rather capture the debate about the nature of these events.

Early nineteenth-century history was a period of intense interaction among African communities and between the African communities and the Boers, the English colonies, the missionaries, traders and the Griquas in the interior of South Africa. The interactions between these communities brought about changes that restructured society in a fundamental way. The change included the creation of new nations with new structures for ruling themselves. While scholars of state formation have concentrated on discussions of military confrontations, many other types of relations were forged between these communities.

School textbooks should reflect a reinterpretation of this period, one that focuses on the forging of new identities and boundaries, and moves beyond Eurocentricfrontier history to a conception of new kinds of conflict, interaction and identity formation. It should emphasise co-operation and inter-dependence as well as violence and subjugation. A study of nineteenth-century state formation should not only highlight African initiative and innovation in state building, but also provide us with an insight into their interactions with Europeans before their conquest and dispossession. The significance of changes in the nineteenth century was that they were more rapid and their impact more far-reaching - they affected all communities.

Eurocentric- regarding European culture as superior and more important than others

What were South African societies like on the eve of the Mfecane?

Mfecane - a migration of southern African people, especially that of Zulu-speaking and Sotho-speaking peoples, during the nineteenth century, originating in the area between Delagoa Bay (present-day Maputo) and the Thukela River; wars associated with the period (origin: Zulu, “crushing”; sometimes called Difaqane, from the Sotho word for“hammering”) The upheaval that was the Mfecaneis thought to have been caused by increasing population pressures, drought and decreasing resources. This situation set off a pattern of alliances, conquest and both military and territorial expansion. It began in the late eighteenth century.

By the end of the eighteenth century the settlement pattern of Africans was well established. The extent of white settlement was also known. In much of Africa today, language differences between Africans have been used as markers of their cultural and political identity. By the end of the eighteenth century, Africans living in the territory could be identified by two language groupings - Bantu and Khoisan. Within the Bantu language grouping two further divisions could be discerned - the Nguni and the Sotho. However, there were other distinct African groups who were identified by the languages they spoke, namely the Venda and Tsonga.

The Sotho group divided into three sub-groups - the Southern Sotho (Basotho), the Northern Sotho (Bapedi and Balobedu) and the Western Sotho (Batswana). The Nguni also divided into Northern and Southern Nguni. The Southern Nguni comprised the Xhosa, Tembu, Mpondo, Mpondomise, Mfengu and Bomvana. It is important to note that for Northern Nguni the language and cultural labels of Zulu, Ndebele and Swati were new labels that developed out of nineteenth-century history.

This serves to indicate that cultural and language labels are fluid categories that are constructed through social and historical interactions. They are not given and static but change over time as they are used for identity formation.

Only the Northern Nguni developed into powerful states that vested immense power in the structures of the central state and developed elaborate state structures for governing their societies. The Xhosa to the south were fragmenting. The Southern Sotho were split into many chiefdoms, although a process of consolidation could be seen. The Western Sotho were divided into small chiefdoms. Among the Venda and the Pedi, the process of nation building was in its infancy. The Tsonga had been displaced by the Tembe and both were small kingdoms.

New labels such as Zulu, Ndebele and Swati developed out of nineteenth century history.

It might be important to state the obvious - that these societies were independent by the beginning of the nineteenth century and they possessed their own land. Although wars occurred and were used for political and economic purposes of gaining territory and resources, there was a relative stability in the relations between these societies.

Land was distributed on the basis of African traditions, which still held societies together. Labour was organised in line with the social organisation of these communities, through the homestead and occasionally communally through strategies such as ilima - communal work parties. Slave labour had not been a method of labour organisation among the Nguni, Sotho, Xhosa, Tswana and Khoi people.

The situation at the Cape had produced a strong British state that controlled a huge territory. There were no Boer states in existence by 1810. Some Griquas and Korana communities wielded immense power that they had built up through trading and raiding activities on the frontiers. However, these communities had not developed into states.

There is no indication of social systems that depended on slave labour among the Bantu and Khoi occupying the country. However, a labour market had developed in the Cape which depended on imports of slave labour and conscription of the Khoi as labourers.

How has the Mfecane and its impact on state formation been re-evaluated?

Historians agree that the Mfecane was a complex process with regional variations and was not triggered by a single factor. The Mfecane has come to be widely accepted as a name for the process of political change and the accompanying wars and migrations which began in the late eighteenth century. The military and political activities that came with the Mfecane have been presented as a series of experiments in state building involving the rapid assimilationof political, linguistic and cultural elements, as well as the development of a sense of common identity and loyalty within the newlycreated states. These experiments resulted in the emergence of new states such as the Swazi and the Zulu states. They also led to the founding of new states in other parts of South Africa, present-day Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.

In the last two decades, two perspectives on the causes of the Mfecane have dominated historical debates. The first perspective is labelled by its critics as the Zulucentric perspective. The second perspective is represented by the slave trade hypothesis. The strengths and weaknesses of the two perspectives are discussed below.

assimilation- absorption and integration of the people, ideas or culture of another society

The Zulucentric perspective

The perspective that identifies the rise of the Zulu state as the motor for the historical events called the Mfecaneis referred to as a Zulucentric explanation.

By the end of the eighteenth century the Northern Nguni had consolidated into four main centralised kingdoms - the Ngwane of Sobhuza, the Ndwandwe of Zwide, the Mthethwa of Dingiswayo and the Qwabe. Historians agree that the conflicts between the Mthethwa, the Ndwandwe and the Ngwane intensified at the beginning of the nineteenth century and contributed to speeding up the process of state formation.

Of the three dominant states that had emerged at the end of the eighteenth century, Sobhuza's Ngwane were expelled north of the Pongola Valley. The Ndwandwe under Zwide had put much pressure on the Mthethwa, resulting in the death of Dingiswayo and the scattering of his forces.

Earlier historical explanations of change emphasised the military talents and ambitions of rulers like Dingiswayo, Sobhuza, Zwide and Shaka. Within this perspective Shaka, the leader of a marginal chiefdom under the Mthethwa, rose to prominence through combat and diplomacy; he is seen as the catalystof the Mfecane. This version of events claims that between 1818 and 1828, Shaka conquered most of present-day KwaZulu-Natal. He is credited with defeating the Ndwandwe and driving them north of the Pongola River. After this, Shaka begun to conquer and incorporate most of the Nguni people between the Thukela River and Delagoa Bay.

An artists depiction of Shaka, King of the Zulus.

Between 1818 and 1828 Shaka build a powerful, centralised and militaristic kingdom. He conscripted men for service in the standing army and arranged them in age regiments. Each regiment lived in stockaded villagesaway from the rest of the society. The army's rigorous training and discipline, new military strategies and new weapons - especially the short stabbing spear - lay behind the swift successes enjoyed by Shaka. His regiments swept through the country, across the southern veld and across the Drakensberg Mountains. It is important to mention that Shaka did not invent all the military and political strategies that he used; he only perfected what had been done earlier. This perspective that identifies the rise of the Zulu state as the motor for the historical events called the Mfecane is referred to as a Zulucentric explanation.

catalyst- a person or thing that causes an event or process to happen

stockaded villages- villages that were protected from attack by walls all around them. The walls were usually made from upright wooden stakes or posts

Some historians believe that the emergence of the Zulu state did not initiate the process of the political transformation known as the Mfecane, but was itself a product of a chain of events which had started earlier. It is these earlier processes that had given rise to states such as the Ndwandwe and the Mthethwa. One important example of state formation in the era before the rise of the Zulu state was the migration of Sobhuza to the Swaziland area. The initial dislocation of the Hlubi and Ngwane was also located in this period. These historians maintain that the role of the Zulu state in the Mfecane has been exaggerated.

Most of the historians of the Mfecane accept the northward migrations of groups originally associated with the Ndwandwe. Communities that could not live under Shaka fled from the Thukela-Pongola region with little or no food. The fleeing people fought against other groups that they encountered, and brought death and destruction to other parts of South Africa. Some accounts present Shaka as menacing and yet magnanimous, bullying his adversaries into submission and convincing remnants of chiefdoms to join his kingdom.

The movement of militarised communities is widely recognised - Mzilikazi's Ndebele in the highveld across the Transvaal, Botswana and finally Zimbabwe; Matiwane and his Ngwane across the Drakensberg and onwards to the highveld across the Orange River; Sebetwane with the Kololo all the way into western Zambia. These events were not made up by historians.

The slave trade and the anti-Afrocentric perspective

Julian Cobbing is considered to be the first historian to discredit the longestablished idea that an internally-generated process of political change underlay the wars and migrations of the 1820s and 1830s. Cobbing insisted that he was not offering another interpretation but that his 1988 article, “Mfecane as Alibi”, was a clear call to abandon both the term and the concept Mfecane. Cobbing rejects any analysis that excludes European activities. He rejects the idea that the Mfecane was caused by factors that were internal to African societies. Cobbing believes that liberal historians failed to mention the role of whites in the Mfecane. He called for the reinsertion of Europeans into a history in which they had been involved.

Cobbing argues that the wars and migrations of the 1820s and 1830s were caused primarily by an increasing demand for African slaves by European traders and settlers. Cobbing joined other scholars such as Alan Smith, David Edges and Philip Bonner who said that trade was responsible for the political change, migrations and state-building activities in the Delagoa Bay and Thukela corridor. The argument here is that the slave trade at Delagoa Bay was slow to pick up, until the beginning of the nineteenth century when the demand for slave labour increased in Brazil and other markets. African leaders such as Zwide of the Ndwandwe responded to the demand for slaves by mounting aggressive slave-raiding campaigns into the south where they came into conflict with Dingiswayo's Mthethwa. The defeat of the Mthethwa at the hands of the Ndwandwe provided an opportunity for the rise of a new state, the Zulu state. The rise of the Zulu state, in this perspective, is seen as a defensive reaction against the slave-trading activities of the Ndwandwe.

According to this view, the Mfecane was caused by the external trade radiating from Delagoa Bay. It is claimed that this explanation undermines the thesis that the Mfecane was essentially an African phenomenon. Cobbing intended to demonstrate that there was nothing like “a selfgenerated internal revolution” within Northern Nguni-speaking societies; rather it was the external causes of the slave trade that were responsible for the change in Northern Nguni territory.

“My plea is for an integrated history dealing with the interactions between races and unequal economic systems that occurred, and for a depiction of the early nineteenth century history of the entire sub-continent within the framework of the world economy.”

Julian Cobbing, Ousting the Mfecane: Reply to Elizabeth Eldredge. In The Mfecane Aftermath: Towards a New Paradigm. Johannesburg, Witwatersrand University Press, 1991, p.4.

In addition to the slave trade as the motor for the movements in much of the coastal and highveld areas in the early nineteenth century, Cobbing suggests that the white penetration into southern African in the early nineteenth century - which had devastating consequences for African societies - was driven by the need to solve the massive demand for slave labour in the Cape Colony. According to this view, in order to meet the labour demands from the Cape European traders, officials and missionaries organised raiding parties to capture Africans for sale as slaves and labourers in the Cape. Cobbing presented two case studies - of the battles at Dithakong and Mbholompo - as evidence for such raiding parties.

Cobbing suggests that the officials, traders and missionaries not only deliberately underplayed their slaving activities but went further and invented the “myth” of the Mfecane as an alibi. These raiding activities were also responsible for the chain reactions of violence and destruction that engulfed the sub-continent and gave rise to new states and the destruction of others. Cobbing sees only white agency of change. In his view, it is only the activities emanating from Delagoa Bay and Cape Town which provide the motor for change. African activities at the coast and in the interior are only reactions to the economic interests of the various white communities.

Can the Mfecane be seen as an African process of state formation?

The trade and politics theme is well-established in African historiography. It tried to demonstrate that Africans were also actors who initiated historical change. As Omer-Cooper aptly puts it,

It still remains the case that the series of experiments in state building was undertaken by African leaders, employing existing institutions of their own society in new ways in the light of the critical situations in which they found themselves, rather than borrow alien European models. 2

historiography- the study of the writing of history and of written histories

Having noted the breakthroughs and freshness of Cobbing's thesis, Carolyn Hamilton commented that there are some difficulties associated with it. She makes a perceptive observation when she argues against Cobbing's anti- Afrocentricism:

‘By arguing that Europeans ‘invented’ the myth of the Mfecane and its component elements, Cobbing assumes that the production of history in the nineteenth century was carried out by Europeans only independent of the historical consciousness of the Africans with whom they were in contact. The implication of this assumption is that nineteenth century Africans were without an intellectual history of their own and that they were unable, or at least failed, to produce history in the service of complex ideological objectives worthy of comparison with European neighbours.... In other words Cobbing's case against the Mfecane is doubly focused on European activities at the expense of those of Africans....Cobbing repeats the separation of black and white history in as serious a way as the myth of the Mfecane itself does’. 3

Other objections to Cobbing's explanation show that Port Natal was not a centre of slave trading activities. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the Zulu were involved in such activities.

This chapter maintains that the Mfecane was primarily an African process that was accentuatedby external factors. The origins of the process of political change that strengthened and expanded political organisations and was accompanied by heightened military conflict can be traced back to the area between the Thukela River and Delagoa Bay during the eighteenth century. It has already been shown above that no other part of South Africa experienced as much political centralisation as in the Northern Nguni territories. The use of the initiation age regiments for defensive purposes and for military purposes such as expanding a chiefdom's range of grazing, cultivating and hunting land had been practiced widely in southern African societies. However, it was in the Northern Nguni states that the initiation age regiments were increasingly brought under the centralised authority of powerful kings and used as standing armies for military campaigns in state-building experiments.

accentuate- to make more noticeable or prominent

A further reason to strengthen the argument that the Mfecane was primarily an African process is the observation that a series of state-building experiments involved a common set of African institutions - the use of imitation age regiments in the army, the use of royal households as military and administrative centres, and the appointment of officials to key roles. This had commenced long before the warfare of the 1810s and 1820s. To a larger extent, these developments were a common feature of Sotho and Nguni societies. However, what was new and made the difference was the making of the age-mate systems into standing armies controlled and exploited by political leaders for political and economic gains. The strategy of incorporating and assimilating members of previously-separate political communities into the new states was typically a southern African strategy adopted by the Zulu, Sotho, Swazi and Kololo.

On the other hand, two external factors accentuated the severity of the Mfecane. First was the Portuguese trade in ivory and slaves based in Delagoa Bay. Second was the coloured frontier people from the Cape called the Griqua, who attacked communities and captured women and children to sell as labourers or slaves to the colonial farmers.

This perspective makes an important point by highlighting the contribution made by the Voortrekkers, the Griqua, Kora and the British to the tempo of military activities that culminated in the formation and fall of states in the interior. However, it also poses the danger of presenting the causes of the so called “Great Trek” in simplistic terms. The discussion of Anglo-Boer relations in the next section shows the complexity of the processes of state formation involving the British and the Voortrekkers.

What were the foundations of British colonial identity in South Africa?

British policies at the Cape must be seen as yet another process of state formation. From as early as 1806, the British had decided to drive the Xhosa from the areas shared with the trekboers. In 1809 the British ordered the Boers to dismiss all the Xhosa living and working on their farms. The British conquest and expulsion of the Africans from the area west of the Fish River in 1811-1812 marked the beginning of the conquest of the Southern Nguni. This process was marked by wars, advances of colonial boundaries and forced removals of Africans from the land that they used to occupy.

The colonial wars of conquest were extremely brutal as many of the British soldiers and settlers did not think of the Xhosa as fully human. Nevertheless, the Xhosa put up long and often heroic resistance, fighting desperately in 1819, 1834-1835, 1846, 1850-1853 and 1877-1878, by which time they were a conquered people.

The British exploited existing divisions in African societies. Conflicts between chiefdoms and the lack of a central state contributed to rapid loss of independence and territory. The British adoption of a strategy of forging alliances with certain African and coloured groups in the wars of conquest of the Xhosa opened up rivalries and new splits in Nguni society. The dividing of the conquered land into farms for white settlers and the creation of African reserves demarcated new cultural and political landscapes for the formation of identities. The Transkei - that is, the territory east of the Kei - remained in African hands.

The British employed several strategies to consolidate control of the area. As early as 1820 the British brought 5 000 British immigrants to occupy the newly-conquered land in Zuurveld, between the Bushman River and the Fish River. They also appointed magistrates to head district administrations in conquered territories. Initiatives to anglicise the Cape included judicial reforms, founding of government schools, introduction of English as the medium of instruction in schools, English syllabi that emphasised British history and culture, and the importation of Scottish ministers to serve the Dutch Reformed congregations. These efforts clearly were directed towards creating a British identity and the exclusion of other identities.

The imposition of a British identity in the Cape fractured white identity into British and Dutch (or Boer, later to become Afrikaner). The division in white identity formation that emerged at the Cape laid the foundation of a divided South African white ethnicity.

Politically, the colonists gained control of the Cape in 1853 when they achieved a representative government through the transfer of power from the British to the colonists. The Cape became a self-governing territory. Whereas in the African kingdoms the principles of incorporation and granting membership to new groups on the same footing as conquerors was entrenched and used as a method of nation building, the British excluded the Africans by such criteria as the qualified franchise in the Cape, ascribing lower status to the conquered. The foundations of racial discrimination were laid quite early within the Cape Colony.

Cobbing has argued that white penetration into southern Africa in the early nineteenth century was driven by the need to solve the massive demand for slave labour in the Cape Colony. However, the extent to which the conquest and establishment of British authority in the Cape was driven by this need appears limited. The reasons for the wars of conquest in the Eastern Cape are complex. They revolve around the need to secure the Eastern Frontier from Xhosa attacks, the colonists' desire for more fertile land and the need for a steady supply of labour.

Both the abolition of the slave trade in the Cape in 1807 and the Hottentot Code of 1809 were aimed at restructuring the labour market from a slave-based one to one where employment was regulated through the pass system. The Hottentot Code required Khoisan and free blacks to carry passes showing where they lived and who their employers were. Employers were required to issue written contracts to their workers. The restrictions of the Hottentot Code were only removed in 1828 by Ordinance 50, which allowed Khoisan and coloured workers the basic right to move around the Cape and choose their employers, or to become independent farmers. In 1834 slavery was abolished.

Contrary to promoting slave labour, there is an indication of a consistent shift to a free wage labour force, which was seen as a better solution to the perennial labour shortage than a restricted or enslaved one.

What was the relationship between the Boer trekkers and state building?

The Voortrekkers

In the late 1830s, several thousand Boer families and their servants trekked northward, away from the Cape Colony. This movement has been glorified by Afrikaner historians as the “Great Trek”.

The link between the labour policies at the Cape and the emigration of frontier Boers northwards is a strong one. However, there were also other reasons. The increasingly English nature of the Cape threatened Boer cultural identity and ways of life. Restrictions on land acquisition within the Cape, as well as administrative and judicial reforms, also made the Boers unhappy.

Norman Etherington has warned against labelling the Voortrekkers as having a pre-capitalist mentality that excluded them from the realm of capitalist production. 4This approach only perpetuates the view that the Voortrekkers left the Cape because they wanted to maintain and defend their pre-capitalist way of life. Clearly, Cobbing's thesis - that the white penetration into southern African in the early nineteenth century was driven by the need to solve the massive demand for slave labour in the Cape colony - is not only a simplification of the motives behind the emigration of the Boers into the interior but a perpetuation of the “English” view of the trek as “a march against civilisation”. For Afrikaner historians, the trek was “a touch of civilisation” against countless savages and deceitful enemies. 5

The Voortrekkers were more concerned with solving their own labour problems than those of the Cape Colony. The view that the Voortrekkers brought to the interior their cultural traditions of slavery should not imply that commodity production was not important to them. The Voortrekkers, argues Etherington, were aware of the advancing forces of capitalism and shared universal capitalist ideas about owning, farming and selling land. He characterises the Voortrekkers as a part of the intrusive forces arising from the advancing agents of the world economy. The challenge the Voortrekkers faced was how they would participate in the market economy, given their adherence to individual instead of communal landholding and unfree instead of free labour. The political states that the Voortrekkers built were based on the principles of expropriating African land and keeping Africans as contract labour.

By the time the Boers were setting out in numbers in the 1830s, Africans had already established strong chiefdoms. African settlement and resistance determined the direction and positioning of the Boer republics. Voortrekkers tended to chose routes and places of least resistance. This meant that they scouted for relatively under-populated areas.

The frontier

The new territories occupied by the Voortrekkers in the interior have been referred to as the “frontier”. Hermann Giliomee has identified three types of frontiers - the transcolonial, the pioneer Afrikaner frontier, and the closing frontier. 6

The transcolonial frontier refers to a frontier that lay way beyond any white settlement, beyond the frontier. This type of frontier is represented by the example of the English traders who established a trading post at Port Natal in 1824, and by Coenraad de Buys, an Afrikaner who became the patriarch of a distinct mixed group which came to be known as the Griqua. The Khoisan responses to the trekboers’ encroachmenton their lands began the process of withdrawing from the colonial society into the interior. Several Khoisan groups such as the Kora, the Orlams and the Griqua withdrew beyond the colonial boundaries. It is acknowledged that a number of these people were of mixed Khoi, slave and European parentage who had found themselves rejected by the colonial society. Leaders such as Jan Bloem who led a group of Kora along the middle Orange River and Jager Afrikaner who led a group of Oorlams were among the earlier transcolonial frontier men.

encroachment- gradual and steady intrusion on a person’s property or rights

In relation to the Khoisan, more of them resigned themselves to the conditions in the colonial society. However, those that resisted and moved into the interior were to play an important role in the formation of new societies in nineteenth-century South Africa.

Transcolonial frontier men were usually white males living on their own among the Bantu-speaking people far beyond the colonial borders. The men married black wives, adopted indigenous customs and built up a following just like African chiefs did. There was a loss of white identity as they lacked the numbers and institutions to withstand the pressure of a vigorous indigenous culture.

The second type of frontier, referred to as the pioneer Afrikaner frontier, was opened by the so-called Great Trek which started in the mid-1830s. This process resulted in the creation of the Voortrekker states of Natal, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. On the pioneering frontier, with its abundant land, the Afrikaners could start farming without much capital, practising near-subsistence farming on an extensive scale and drawing on the indigenous people for labour. The pioneers initially occupied land not yet claimed by other whites. The land was registered with the new Afrikaner authority, and an annual payment called quitrent was charged. Under this system, colonists acquired huge chunks of land.

African and Afrikaner interdependence

The myth that when the Voortrekkers moved into the interior they found the land empty as a consequence of the Mfecane should be exposed and discredited. It is clear that wherever the Voortrekkers went they found African societies that were better organised than they were. It was the balance of power between the African communities and the Afrikaner frontiersmen that determined whether the Africans could retain a large measure of independence or whether the whites could impose their authority and forms of involuntary labour.

The Great Trek

The movement of Boers into the interior was reconstructed in the Afrikaner imagination as a founding event in Afrikaner culture and nationalism.

However, there was no single great trek. In fact, what took place was a series of relatively small, separate treks, grouped around influential and wealthy Boers who emerged as leaders. These Boer groupings were wracked by rivalries and found it difficult to unite. The only thing that united them was their quest for freedom from British control and also the yearning for free access to vast stretches of new land.

Most of the Boer trekkers came from the eastern frontier where the desire for more land could not be met due to British policies and the Xhosa resistance.

Political order in these pioneering frontiers was characterised by the lack of a single controlling authority. Transfrontier alliances were used by factions as a way of dealing with internal challenges. In order to strengthen their weak political bases the Griqua, the Voortrekkers and the English in Natal all made alliances with African chiefs. Afrikaners often intervened in succession disputes, as in the case when the Voortrekkers supported Mpande against Dingane, the Zulu king, in 1838.

In the same way, the Africans had learned to take advantage of disunity in Afrikaner society. In the Soutpansberg in northern Transvaal, Africans intervened effectively in disputes between white factions. Voortrekkers also sought African help against fellow Afrikaners. For example, Hendrik Pogieter, leader of the northern Voortrekkers, obtained the help of Sekwati of the Pedi against his Voortrekker enemies. Andries Pretorius, leader of the Transvaal Republic, regarded Moshoeshoe of the Basotho as his ally against the British. More often than not Voortrekkers and Griquas became partners against African communities. For example, the Griqua struck alliances with the Voortrekkers and Tswana in the fights against Mzilikazi's Ndebele in 1837.

The picture emerging from the nineteenth century is that the balance of power between Afrikaner and African societies was fairly equal in the period before the 1870s, although the Voortrekkers had the advantage of access to guns and ammunition. Another image is that of interdependence and cultural exchanges between these societies. Because power was relatively balanced, the cultural exchanges did not lead to domination. Indeed, what was happening was the meeting of different cultural identities without resulting in the victory of one powerful cultural and political force, as there was none.

The cultural identities of the African and Boer communities during this period were in constant negotiation.

Voortrekker states in the interior

Two Voortrekker states emerged in the interior. The Orange Free State, between the Orange and Vaal Rivers, had its capital in Boemfontein. The South African Republic (later known as the Transvaal) was established between the Vaal and the Limpopo Rivers. Its capital was Pretoria

Two Voortrekker states emerged in the interior - the Orange Free State and the South African Republic. The two republics both had weak administrative structures with very few salaried officials. Neither republic was capable of establishing a system of government that would generate sufficient money to pay for the running of government. Local administration was in the hands of unpaid officials. The situation was made worse by the Voortrekkers’ reluctance to pay taxes. However, the Orange Free State stabilised under the leadership of J.H. Brand. Stability in the Transvaal had to await the discovery of minerals.

Both republics adopted constitutions that confined citizenship to white men. The foundation for denial of political rights to Africans and coloureds was laid in the history of the nineteenth century.

What was the role of the Griqua and Kora in the highveld?

Another source of destabilisation of African societies in the interior came from the slave-raiding activities of the Kora (Korana), the Griqua and the trekboers who were supplying the Cape Colony labour market. The Kora and Griqua were of mixed Khoi, slave and European parentage. Rejected by colonial society, they moved into the interior. Between 1800 and 1830 they settled on the Transorangia frontier. The nature of the Griqua and Kora contribution to the state formation process has not been examined sufficiently. Their destabilising activities indicate that in addition to the rise of the Zulu state there were other sources of the violent activity that engulfed the sub-continent.

Although disruptive, the plundering activities of the Griqua in the highveld did not give rise to widespread disorder. It was only after 1823 that the Griqua raiding activities contributed in a major way to the dislocation of life in the region of the Orange Free State and Lesotho. The Griqua successes against the African communities were based on their military tactics. They organised themselves into small raiding bands of mounted gunmen. (These tactics were quickly adopted by the Basotho). Through speed and use of firearms the Griqua overwhelmed small African communities, capturing their members and selling them as slaves to the Cape Colony in return for guns and ammunition.

The Griqua did not manage to create big states in the interior. They only founded two fragile states, Griqualand East and Griqualand West. It is important to mention that the Griqua made alliances with the Voortrekkers and the Tswana in the fights against Mzilikazi's Ndebele. The Griqua played a role in driving both the Ndebele under Mzilikazi and the Ngwane under Matiwane away from the highveld. The disruption caused by the Ndebele and Ngwane incursions made it easier for the Voortrekkers to occupy the territory, as African societies had been weakened.

However, the myth of the Voortrekkers coming across empty land must be debunked. African polities that had repulsed the Ndebele and the Ngwane continued to occupy these territories. The Kora and Griqua presence and resistance delayed trekboer settlement in Transorangia.

What is the relationship between state formation and South African identity formation?

Racial identity and alliances

Christopher Saunders makes an interesting point concerning African perceptions of their own identity. 7He observes that there was no welldeveloped sense of racial identity among Africans. He further maintains that though whites may have been divided they had a clearer perception of the struggle as a racial one, although they were ready to use African allies in order to extend their influence beyond the limits of their formal control.

Instances of Africans forging alliances to fight against the white intruders are limited. Moshoeshoe is reported to have called on Sekonyela to join forces against the Voortrekkers by saying, “We are both black and of one nation”. This construction of a racial identity among Africans was very unusual. The pattern of black working with white against black has its origins in this period.

An important issue that is flagged in the closing of the frontier - Giliomee's third type of frontier - is that most of the treaties that were signed with African chiefs and kings were on white terms. Despite the remarkable negotiation skills possessed by outstanding leaders such as Moshoeshoe and Mswati, both the Voortrekkers and the British often repudiated the agreements to advance their interests.

The importance of names and boundaries

Another important feature of the nineteenth century is that the historical processes led to the rise of towns and the naming of parts of the country by the conquerors. The naming of places portrays an image of a society that was driven by a high sense of nationalism. Many South African towns were created and named in the nineteenth century. The names are mostly Afrikaner and English - often the names of generals, military leaders or battle sites from the white perspective. This has become South Africa's heritage which speaks of the divided past. Towns in South Africa displayed a growing European orientation, and became centres from which a Western way of life slowly began to extend outward, carried by traders, missionaries and migrant workers. The names of towns and political boundaries in South Africa tell the story of the conqueror, while the names of the conquered were limited to the reserves and excluded from the annals of history. Indeed it was the story of the hunter telling the story of the hunt.

The processes of political formation discussed above took place in periods of intense drawing and redrawing of boundaries of different kinds. To begin with, the foundations for regional peculiarities were laid down in the nineteenth century. Regional boundaries were demarcated through wars and conflicts. In the Eastern Cape as well as in Natal, the British initiated the system of establishing native reserves as locations for African settlement. This process of limiting African access to land became a monumental feature of South Africa.

Trade, guns, land and labour

An area that should be flagged in the history of the nineteenth century is the role of the ivory trade. The demand for ivory drove European traders and hunters into the interior of southern Africa. Guns for ivory and slaves was a formula that increased warfare and led to declining political stability. In South Africa, no specialised African trading class emerged as it did in east and central Africa. The nineteenth century commercial history of South Africa is clearly underdeveloped.

South Africa, like any other African country, saw an increase in the use of slave labour. The circumstances that produced this trend may have been varied, but resulted an increased demand for slave labour by the Voortrekkers and Cape colonists. Clearly, there was an increase in commodity production for the market throughout South Africa.

Nineteenthcentury South Africa witnessed an increase in commercial activities. Africans participated in commodity production and the ivory trade so that they could buy guns which they saw as necessary for the defence of their nations. The use of guns made a difference in the Sotho, Tswana and Pedi wars against the Voortrekkers and determined the extent of political independence retained in 1870.

Both the Mfecane and the Great Trek were quests for land. The land had been the foundation on which traditional society rested. It has been demonstrated that the new African states - the Zulu, Ndebele, Sotho and Pedi - incorporated conquered communities into their societies; their land rights were secured as long as they pledged political loyalty. On the other hand, the Voortrekkers and British privatised land and prevented Africans from purchasing it. They even deprived them of any political rights of belonging to the new societies. Deprived of ownership, Africans still remained on the land as squatters, tenant farmers and labourers. The events of nineteenth-century South Africa resulted in Africans assuming a subservient position as servants, where their meagre share of their labour was determined by others.

The changing face of South Africa

The Transvaal constitution bluntly stated:

“The people are not prepared to allow any equality of non-White with the White inhabitants, either in the Church or State”.

The Mfecane and the Great Trek changed the face of South Africa, devastated traditional society and threw black and white into a complex mutual interdependence. It must be clear, though, that the white colonists controlled the economy and politics and most whites embraced a racist ideology. Although they depended on the labour of Africans and coloured inhabitants, they refused to accept them as equals. The interdependence between these communities existed but was skewed towards white colonists.

Contacts between Africans and Europeans led to scattered instances of intellectual, religious, economic and military change. Missionaries of several Protestant and Catholic denominations created mission stationsin which they taught Christian theology in combination with nineteenth-century British cultural values. The missionaries denounced local customs such as initiation, polygamy and payment of lobola. These measures were carried out in peaceful times but went a long way to undermine the foundations of African solidarity. At times resistance to erosion of traditions took on dramatic proportions. The rise of prophets invoking religious beliefs to resist conquest, as in the case of Nongqawuse and the cattle killing of 1857, is such an example.

The other source of western influence were the traders who sold commodities such as sugar, tea, blankets and iron pots. Africans came to regard these as necessities. The mission stations, trading stations and district headquarters became centres of new social groupings of Africans who weakened their links with traditional society and adapted to the presence of their conquerors.

Earlier in the chapter we noted that Voortrekkers resisted British acculturation through migration into the interior. However, more people who considered themselves Boers remained in the Cape. The history of South Africa has been dominated by the movement of a small group of Voortrekkers at the expense of those that remained in the Colony. The same could also be said about African societies - the majority of the people lived outside mission and trading stations and continued with their way of life. Although new cleavages emerged in society as a result of interaction with whites - such as rivalry between chiefdoms and ethnic groups, and opportunities for young men to weaken the elders' stranglehold on their lives - the extent of white presence in the period was limited.

lobola- a bride-price, usually paid in cattle


This chapter presents the period of 1800 to 1870 as one dominated by the formation of new states. The states developed out of complex processes on which historians are not agreed. In this chapter we have shown how the process of state formation among the Northern Nguni built on political activities that had seen centralisation of power in four states even before the rise of the Zulu state. It has been maintained that the Mfecane was not an alibi; it happened, and its motor was more than the rise of the Zulu state.

Other sources of state formation were traced to the rise of British power at the Cape, and the various motivations for the Voortrekker founding of the Afrikaner states of the Orange Free State and Transvaal. It was pointed out that the Kora and Griqua contributed to the desolation of the highveld but did not succeed in establishing durable, strong states. The chapter has not dealt at length with the rise of the Tswana and Pedi states, owing to the limited space. However, it has looked at other forms of identities emerging from the interactions of the nineteenth century. It has attempted to flag the foundation of racial discrimination in the practices of the British and the Boer communities in the nineteenth century.

The chapter has also indicated that the nineteenth century was important for its role in identity formation. State formation gave rise to certain identities that continue into the present. There were also important instances of cultural identity formation in frontier communities, where whites lost their white identities as they became absorbed in African communities and also created new coloured communities such as the Griqua. Centres of new ways of life included the mission stations, trade stations and new administrative centres that emerged and eventually grew into towns.

The chapter concludes with an acknowledgement that although the new towns, missions and trading stations were sites for the construction of new identities, many African people lived outside these centres and continued with their old ways of life.

The restructuring of African societies accompanied the discovery of minerals (the mineral revolution) and the colonial conquest of African societies, outlined in the following chapters.

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Yonah Seleti1