From the book: Book 1: Ancient Civilizations and Global Trade commissioned by The Department of Education

After 1994 politicians, historians, educators and parents were included in the debate about the content of history and especially South African history in the school curriculum. Why was this so important? Is there any relationship between politics, social values and history? Does it make any difference which history textbook is prescribed for school use? Does it really matter what sort of history is taught in schools?

This chapter examines some of these questions. First it looks at some key principles in the interpretations of Africa and South Africa's history before European conquest. Secondly, it looks at the new historiography from the 1960s to the present, particularly the use of archaeological and oral evidence to make a strong case that Africa had a dynamic history that was characterised by complex social and political institutions. Finally, it reflects on the new methods, especially oral history, that has made it possible for historians to write the history of the continent from the perspective of the majority - the Africans.

What are some of the key misconceptions about the African past?

Before the “wind of change” swept through the African continent during the 1960s, the history books which were used in schools, colleges and universities throughout Sub-Saharan Africa told the story of Africa from the point of view of the European colonialists and missionaries.

Winds of Change

This phrase comes from a speech made by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, when he visited South Africa in February 1960. He was speaking to the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town. “The most striking of all the impressions I have formed since I left London a month ago is of the strength of this African national consciousness”¦. The wind of change is blowing through this continent.”
In the decade that followed, many African colonies gained their independence.

The coming of independence from European colonial rule was an important watershed in the way that historians looked at Africa. Nevertheless, with the exception of a few prominent universities and some private schools, the old myths of Africa's past continued well into the 1990s. With minor exceptions, it was mostly historians from other countries who tried to expose the distortions, ignorance and misunderstanding of African history.

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

watershed- an event or period marking a turning point in a state of affairs

anthropologist- someone who studies humankind, including the comparative study of societies and cultures, as well as the science of human evolution

Several common assumptions were made in the official interpretation of African and South African history before European conquest, and this version remained largely unchallenged until the 1960s. The first is the belief that Africa was characterised by savagery and chaos before Europeans arrived. Therefore, European conquest was seen as a good thing because it had brought “civilisation”, “progress” and Christianity to “dark places”. Historians believed, as did almost all colonialists, that Africans would have destroyed themselves if they had been left to themselves. This version was widely believed in the whole of the Western world.

The second assumption was that Africans did not have a history and could not possibly have a past worthy of preservation or study by historians. Thus the study of African societies became the responsibility of anthropologists. During the colonial period, most of these anthropologists were academics but some were colonial officials. They were driven not only by intellectual curiosity but also by the need to find mechanisms for effective colonial control of Africans. The view that Africa did not have a history was based on the general conviction in the West that Africa is and has always been unchanging and primitive. Africa was seen as lacking in the basic elements of a civilised society - for example, literacy.

Social Darwinism
is a pseudoscientific theory developed during the mid-nineteenth century by Western scholars to establish a hierarchy of humans. Africans were defined as racially inferior while Europeans were seen as superior, with a sophisticated or welldeveloped material culture.

The third key principle of the standard interpretation is the idea that historically Africans lived in isolated, self-contained and distinctive “tribes”. This implies that contact and relationships between Social Darwinism different societies, language groups and regions were is a pseudoscientific unimportant. Usually, tribes are assumed to be politically theory developed during the undeveloped as they are based on ties of kinship and mid-nineteenth century by genealogical descent. The characterisation of African societies as tribes implied that they were primitive Western scholars to compared to the sophisticated Western societies that establish a hierarchy of had complex political and social institutions.

An additional implication of the tribal approach is that conflict took place between different tribes (hence the notion of tribal warfare), but not within tribes. This tribal conception of the African past is inadequate because it glosses over the importance of inter-regional relationships, it pays no attention to the complexity of African cultures, and it overlooks the importance in African life of conflict between social classes, genders and generations.

The standard interpretation also pointed to a lack of industrialisation as proof of African backwardness. The West came to be seen as dynamic and the non-West as changeless, static and primitive.

Linked to this was the belief in the racial superiority of Europeans. This idea was developed to justify European enslavement of Africans and the subsequent colonisation of the African continent. It was supported by pseudoscientific racism or Social Darwinism.

These beliefs created a major dilemma for historians and Western scholars in general: If race is linked to culture, and culture centres around material culture or technology, how could they explain the sophisticated irrigation systems uncovered in the Nile valley and dating to ancient times? How could they account for the ruins of Timbuktu, which attest to the presence of very well-planned cities in ancient West Africa before colonialism? How could they explain Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe and other examples of development and change in southern Africa? Colonial historians were not willing to accept that indigenous Africans were capable of such innovation or sophistication. Thus they attributed these complex developments to external forces. They argued that “Phoenicians” and “Hamites” were behind the sophistication in Africa.

Since Africans were perceived as not having a history, the beginning of any meaningful history in Africa came to be associated solely with the actions of Europeans. This also had to do with the fact that the Europeans in Africa kept written records of their activities - diaries, journals, official correspondence and letters that European colonial officials and missionaries wrote to their superiors, friends and relatives back in Europe. Historians drew upon these to write their version of the history of Africa. As a result, the colonial textbooks used in African schools and universities before 1960 came to see the history of Africa as essentially about the accomplishments of Europeans in Africa - male white colonial administrators and generals, missionaries and mining bosses. Africans hardly featured in these stories except as a “native problem” to be solved by whites. It was believed that Africans could not possibly have a history worthy of serious study because they did not have a civilised society; they could not even read and write.

Strictly speaking, it is absolutely incorrect to say that there were no literate societies in Africa before European conquest, or that there are no written sources which historians could draw upon to tell an authentically African history. In Ethiopia, for example, a written tradition called Ge’ez developed after 50 AD when the Axumite civilisation started. This is an important source of historical information about the region before European conquest. There are also the Swahili Chronicles of Kilwa on the East African coast, which tell about the region's history and its connection with other parts of the world. Moreover, from as early as 400 AD there had been a great deal of trade and movement of people and goods across the Sahara. Some of the activities associated with this period have been captured in writings about the travels of Ibn Batuta, an early Arab explorer.

However, even in the absence of written texts, African societies possessed rich non-written histories - oral traditions. African societies were non-literate (not to be confused with illiterate), but had sophisticated ways of transmitting historical knowledge from one generation to another. They developed memory skills that could be drawn upon to tell about the African past. Because of their racial and cultural arrogance, Western historians were not willing to search for African stories or listen to their voices.

For a very long time in South Africa, there was widespread belief among whites that black, Bantu-speaking, iron-working farmers only crossed the Limpopo River into South Africa during the 1600s. This implies that they came into the country at about the same time as the white settlers. According to this view, in the 1600s and 1700s white settlers entered an empty land occupied only by a few scattered Khoikhoi pastoralists and San hunters, whom they described derogatorily as “Hottentots” and “Bushmen”.

Propagated in the media, school history textbooks and all institutions controlled by government, this “white” and specifically "Afrikaner nationalist" version of South African history came to be viewed as the truth. This viewpoint suited the politics of the ruling white minority. They used it as justification for claiming ownership of the vast majority of land in the country. At the same time, archaeological and historical research conducted by, among others, Afrikaner universities, contradicted these widely-held convictions and proved a long and ancient historical tradition for black people in southern Africa.

genealogical- based on a line of descent traced continuously from an ancestor

pseudoscience- a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method attest- serve as clear evidence of

derogatory- showing a critical or disrespectful attitude

How did archaeological research contradict apartheid historiography?

Let us turn to one such university - the University of Pretoria - and see how they responded to some of the findings. J.C.O. van Graan, the son of a local farmer, had been an archaeology student at the University of Pretoria in the 1920s. In December 1932, he and a few other people discovered a human grave with gold objects on Mapungubwe Hill. The farm on which the hill is located was called Greefswald; it is in the central Limpopo River valley, near the border between South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Van Graan almost immediately remembered what one of his lecturers, Professor Leo Fouche, had taught him about the importance of conserving the material culture collected by archaeologists. He reported the discovery to Fouche. As a result, the archaeological site and artefacts taken from Mapungubwe Hill were preserved. The University of Pretoria acquired legal possession of the cultural objects in 1933. At the same time, the Union Government gave the University the legal right to excavate. This marked the beginning of the Greefswald Archaeological Project.

In 1934, the archaeologists hired by the University started excavating at Mapungubwe and another nearby site called K2. Over the years, they unearthed many beautiful and interesting objects. Today, the University of Pretoria is researching themes such as the settlement patterns of the Iron Age people and the relationship between mixed farming communities who inhabited these sites and their natural environment.

One must ask - if the University has been collecting artefacts from the sites of Mapungubwe and K2 for over 70 years, why is it that themes such as settlement patterns of Iron Age communities are only receiving serious attention now? What was the University doing when others were researching similar issues at other sites around the same time? No doubt a rich collection of material culture was made. These include human bones, stone implements and paintings in rock shelters belonging to the Early, Middle and Later Stone Ages. Early and Later Iron Age sites and pottery have also been discovered, as well as several gold items. The artefacts tell an important story about the sophistication of early African societies and their culture, and about trade in precious metals and other goods that connected Africa to other parts of the world.

While a few archaeologists like Fouche almost immediately agreed that the people at Mapungubwe were culturally similar to those at Great Zimbabwe, which confirmed a complex ancient African history, such findings did not fit into the official narrative that Africans were primitive tribal societies. The majority of archaeologists chose to present the findings as an indication of civilisation brought by light-skinned outsiders of ancient times. Because Fouche and a few others queried the dominant historical interpretation, which held that the ancestors of the Sotho-Tswana and Nguni-speaking people only arrived in South Africa during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they did not find their way into public school textbooks until the 1990s. Revealing such important findings would have strengthened the position of black South Africans that they had a superior claim to the country's land.

At this point some answers can be provided to the questions posed at the beginning of this chapter. The first is that individual historians are products of their own times and places. The historians who denied that Africans had a history before the coming of Europeans, and those that argued that Africans could not possibly have built Great Zimbabwe or the city of Timbuktu, were not without political standpoints. Many of them simply reflected the dominant views and values of their own societies at that time. Therefore, when the political atmosphere changed and freedom was attained by the black people in South Africa after 27 April 1994, it was inevitable that there would be a debate about what sort of history textbooks should be prescribed in schools.

Establishing some new “truths” about our ancient past - oral tradition and archaeology to the rescue of early African history6

As the newly-independent African states emerged during the decade of optimism, as the 1960s were sometimes called, historians sympathetic to the nationalist cause - based locally and abroad - began to study the history of the continent to reflect its changed status. Many believed that a new approach to history could help to provide a new identity for the now-independent states. Historians of Africa began to see the possibility of using sources other than conventional documentary records and stressed the importance of archaeological research. The decade witnessed the establishment of African academic institutions throughout the continent and the emergence of a number of African scholars who made a claim on “African agency” in history.

South Africa, Rhodesia, South West Africa, Angola and Mozambique responded to the political and social changes sweeping through the continent by entrenching white minority rule even deeper. However, even there the continent-wide change in intellectual atmosphere could not be halted. The study of the African past from an African perspective began. Sadly, however, these new interpretations did not reach the schools.

Three important research projects stood out. The first was a major study by an archaeologist called Tim Maggs, on Iron Age communities of the southern highveld. This is a huge expanse of grassland extending across much of the old Transvaal and Orange Free State. Maggs first noticed stone ruins on aerial photographs. Then he classified them according to their style of architecture. On this basis, he argued that artefacts other than pottery were equally important in the study of the past.

The second project on the Iron Age communities of the Transvaal was by Revil Mason who, like Maggs, located human settlements from aerial photographs. Mason went further than Maggs by conducting a ground survey and excavation of selected sites. Eventually, this interest led him back to the formative stages of Iron Age settlements of Broederstroom in the Magalies Mountains near Pretoria, which date to between 350 and 600 AD.

Nikolaas van der Merwe was in charge of the third project in what is now Limpopo province, where he conducted an intensive study of the Iron Age of the Phalaborwa District. In addition to studying pottery from his sites, he combined archaeological evidence with ethnographic information and oral traditions. He also started to probe the chemistry of the local industry in iron production.

An important technological improvement that made it possible to ask and answer all these new questions was radiocarbon dating, which was to revolutionise archaeology. This technique has enabled historians of Africa since the 1960s to respond with confidence to anti-African arguments of stasis and primitivism. They have been able to prove the sophistication of African people before colonialism - they have been able to say that Africans were not only agriculturalists and pastoralists, but that they also mined and manufactured copper, iron and steel long before they encountered Europeans in the 1600s. Thus, as the research interests among scholars broadened, so did the new ways of looking at the history of Africa.

A major criticism levelled against many historians of Africa is that many came to focus too narrowly on the glories of pre-colonial Africa at the expense of understanding the complexities of these societies. Others, unfortunately, became involved in racialist debates - for example, about whether or not Egyptian civilisation could be seen as a black African initiative. In short, these scholars tended to accept the terms of debate set by their European counterparts. In writing about Africa's ancient past, for example, they wanted to prove to the European scholars that Africa had great civilisations, sophisticated states and empires, kings and emperors as well as technologies parallel or even better than those in Europe at the same time. They celebrated these discoveries as achievements of a “golden age” without really reflecting on how, for example, state formation could lead equally to economic inequalities and the oppression of common people and women. They assumed that there was unity in pre-colonial African societies between the ruler and the ruled, men and women, elders and young men. They believed that conflicts only took place among the rulers, not between different social groups. There was no discussion of how expropriation of labour could lead to poverty and malnutrition. Because of this, their studies were criticised for romanticising pre-colonial Africa.

stasis- a period or state of inactivity or equilibrium. A society that is static is one that does not change and develop.

primitivism- adoption of a primitive lifestyle

expropriation- when a state takes something from its owner for public use or benefit

expropriation of labour- a ruler’s use of his subjects’ labour as tribute. This was common in feudal systems, and also in early Sub-Saharan Africa kingdoms such as Mali, Kongo, Ghana, Songgay and Zimbabwe.

ambivalent- having mixed or confused feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone

There can be no doubt that archaeology, and especially radiocarbon dating, has fundamentally changed our understanding of African history. Today we know quite a bit about Stone Age and Iron Age communities, their ceramic styles, and the food they ate. However, we do not know as much as we should. How do we explain this? The major problem lies in the fact that, in general, local archaeologists seem to focus on classification of artefacts. This is inconsistent with research in most other parts of the world, where classification of artefacts took place simultaneously with an analysis of the interaction between communities and their environments, as well as the study of prehistoric economies. This partly explains why the Archaeology Department at the University of Pretoria, for example, is only beginning to deal with questions about the history of the people around Mapungubwe and K2 even though they have conducted research there for over 70 years.

Radiocarbon datingis a technique for estimating the age of dead organic matter such as charcoal and bones. All living animal and vegetable matter absorbs a small quantity of carbon-14 from the atmosphere during its lifetime. At its death, the level of carbon-14 in the object begins to decrease at a steady and measurable rate. Scientists are thus able to calculate the approximate age of the object by measuring the amount of carbon-14 in the remains of old things. The results are never very precise, but radiocarbon dating is a very important tool for archaeologists, who are concerned more with sequence than with very accurate dates.

Source: Kevin Shillington, A History of Africa, revised edition. London, Macmillan, 1995.

The delayed response to international trends on the part of local archaeologists studying the African Iron Age can be explained in terms of the social and political environment in which they worked. In particular, their political and social position has been rather ambivalent. On the one hand, those that engaged in rewriting the chronology of the Iron Age have taken a bold and political stance of refuting the official interpretation of white minority governments. On the other hand, most archaeologists may have been so overwhelmed by the social and political concerns with tribal and linguistic origins, ethnicity and cultural classification - which were so central to the system of “divide and rule” - that they ignored broader issues about precolonial history. Thus, by the early 1990s, Iron Age research conducted over half a century had produced, “a lot of information about pots, but relatively little about people” 7.

How much can we really know about Africa's ancient human past?

So far this chapter has shown that for most of Africa, and especially southern Africa, written sources are not available as the societies were not literate. Written accounts by literate, usually European observers - hunters, travellers, traders, missionaries - are available, although scattered. These observers wrote down accounts of the African societies they encountered. Added to these are descriptions of African societies by colonial officials in the early years of colonial rule. From these we can learn a good deal about the histories of African societies, both around the moment of the encounter and before.

However, when confronted with questions about the ancient past, most of these sources are totally useless. Not only did these outside observers have very limited language abilities but they also had strong preconceptions about Africans. Furthermore, they tended to rely on a very narrow range of informants for their information, mostly chiefs and elders. Thus their accounts tend to be biased against youths and women generally.

The second important source of historical information is archaeological evidence, which we have discussed above. While archaeological evidence can reveal a good deal about the broad way in which people lived, it cannot answer questions about the specific values and processes that existed.

We are left with the final and most important source of information about Africa's past - oral tradition. From the 1960s, African historians trying to write the history of indigenous people from their own point of view have drawn heavily on oral tradition, together with archaeological and other forms of evidence. This has made it possible to provide new and refreshing insights into the past. Oral tradition often keeps memories of important sites that would otherwise be lost forever.

One of the problems in the way that archaeologists have looked at artefacts was the assumption that they could speak. Thus, beyond pointing out old sites, local informants were thought to be of no use to archaeologists until very recently. Their perspectives on the past did not really matter. In reality, however, a pot that is dug up from an ancient site is not a message - it simply tells us about when it was made and used. For most parts ofAfrica, where there is little or no writing, oral tradition is a critical source of historical reconstruction.

oral tradition- collective testimonies and recollections of the past inherited from earlier generations, and transmitted by word of mouth

However, oral tradition - like all stories - changes with every telling; the stories also tend to be heavily focused on the lives and activities of great men such as kings and chiefs. They have very little to say about the everyday aspects of life. Nonetheless, while we need to move with caution here, we can, by using the material critically and by drawing on different bodies of material, paint a picture of pre-colonial African societies that comes very close to reflecting pre-colonial realities.


This chapter has provided a broad overview of the way in which the history of Africa before colonialism was presented up to the 1990s. In most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, the key moment of transition coincided with, and was a product of, the political and social transformation brought about by independence. This process was delayed in some southern African countries, including South Africa. Both oral tradition and archaeology played an important role in challenging the dominant narrative, and in advocating the notion that ancient African societies had complex social and political institutions and technologies. For most of southern Africa, there is still space to use oral tradition and material culture as we seek to look at African history through the eyes of Africans. If we are really serious about history as a discipline that can be used to teach critical skills and to impart values consistent with justice and democracy, there should be some space to discuss the identity of the historians and their relationship to societies around them. In a very small way, this chapter is just such an endeavour.