Wamuwi Mbao

This re-examination of history shows how the traditional, colonial story of human life in southern Africa amounted to little more than a meaning-making exercise aimed at justifying the subjugation of indigenous peoples, the dispossession of their land, and the forceful co-opting of their labour.

The age of lies was ever with us. Even though the current era of institutional mendacity and professionalised venality might seem jarringly new, it’s simply because the archive has been rigged. South Africa was founded on a wilful fib, the idea that the history of the country begins with the arrival of white people. The continuation of that fib has enabled those who benefit from it to maintain a posture of rubber-masked innocence even as the effects of historically sanctioned land theft grow ever direr.

History is, lest we forget, a story that explains how we’ve arrived at a particular space and place in the present. For Patric Tariq Mellet, who authored the new corrective historiography The Lie of 1652, it is essential that we set aside the accepted interpretation of events that has proved so appallingly durable, and so dominant in its reach. The monograph is subtitled ‘A Decolonised History of Land’, and that precise caption signals the motivating energy impelling the text: Mellet is interested in how it happens that debased half-truth is installed as national narrative, as well as who ends up being cropped out of history as a result. The premise of his involving 368-page volume is that the established understanding of precolonial and colonial history is inadequate for reckoning with the loss of belonging that took place on our land—and which continues to bedevil those South Africans whose claim of belonging is disallowed or disputed.

The Lie of 1652 begins by identifying how the traditional, colonial story of human life in southern Africa amounted to little more than a meaning-making exercise aimed at justifying the subjugation of indigenous peoples, the dispossession of their land, and the forceful co-opting of their labour resources. Mellet begins by identifying the Foundation peoples — San, Khoe, Kalanga — tracing their movements, divergences and joinings across the space over a three-thousand-year period. By filling in the ‘before’—which was not of great interest to those invested in creating the myth of an empty landscape — the author proposes a reading that richly colours in the bleached story of the country’s first few recorded centuries.

Here’s a good example. In 1510, the dubiously celebrated Portuguese viceroy Francisco de Almeida deployed his men-at-arms and attempted to abduct Goringhaiqua people and their cattle near Salt River. As Mellet tells it, things did not go well:

The Goringhaiqua routed the raiders and pushed them back to the waiting Almeida, using the cattle being driven before them as a stampeding barrier and weapon. Almeida and his men were surrounded and pushed onto the sandy beaches with their armour weighing them down and no escape boats at the ready. […] The Goringhaiqua moved in swiftly and, in the ensuing battle, the Portuguese invaders lost 64 men including 15 senior officers. Almeida was also killed in this battle.

Mellet’s history is a careful excavation that goes to interesting places via a widely chronological treatment of his subject matter. He finds, for instance, that the ‘largely unbiased and more technocratic’ maritime historical record disrupts foundational assumptions around who was landing at the Cape during the seventeenth century. Conventional accounts portray a fantastical scene in which Jan van Riebeeck meets primitive Khoe souls who are, so the imagery suggests, dumbstruck at the sight of white people. But Mellet’s research finds that ‘there had already been 180 years of engagement between the Khoe community and Europeans before 1652, and so the Khoe would have been quite familiar with the sight of the strange travellers:

Large-scale visits to Table Bay as a stopover port, particularly after the compulsory stopover order to their ships by the Dutch and English in 1615, had a significant impact on the nature of the peopling of the Cape long before Van Rieebeeck’s arrival.

Mellet goes even further back, arguing against the hoary Chappies-wrapper hokum about Vasco da Gama’s ‘discovery’ of a sea route via the Cape to India. He places Chinese explorers at the Cape at least half a century before da Gama’s boastful claim, thereby displacing one of the rote learnings of schoolyard history. What is revealed as the reader progresses through the book is the rich backstory of how the land came to be constituted, and what happened in the initial encounters and meetings that marked the start of four-hundred-odd years of predatory perfidy on the part of white people in the territory.

The book quilts together numerous scenes and events to create an alternative narrative showing that the land characterised in popular discourse as picturesquely empty and occasionally troubled by dissipate San and feckless Khoe ‘who conveniently had no interest in or consciousness of land ownership’, was in fact not merely occupied, but the setting for exchanges, creolisations, barterings and sundry contacts that did not have the turnings of the European economic machinery at their core. A key argument advanced by Mellet’s account is that the story that took shape did so with the help of the newly emergent South African universities, whose intellectually malodorous ‘think-tanks’ hitched themselves to the Union government at the beginning of the twentieth century. These higher education charlatans helped the government simplify and rationalise the social histories of the country’s African non-citizens, and justify the solutions implemented to solve the ‘native problem’. By the time the quasi-Nazi state took office in 1948, the distillation of bad history was complete.

The Lie of 1652 concisely makes the point that apartheid made the academically endorsed narrative central to the politics of the state. Mellet cites Kirk Sides’ astute observation that ‘the difference and resultant separation was made to look like a natural consequence of South Africa; that is, South Africa, its people, its races and cultures, etc. were seen to historically divide themselves naturally along racial and ethnic lines’. Thus empowered, the high priest of apartheid, HF Verwoerd, could smirkingly declare ‘we came to a country that was bare. The Bantu too came to this country and settled portions for themselves’. The National Party used this lie as backdrop for its folksy blood-and-soil imaginings, and as justification for its sanguinary activities going forward.

Mellet’s book proceeds from the viewpoint that destructive myths stupefy whatever they touch. Thus entangled, children who learn South African history at school go on to be politically disinclined adults incurious about what is fed to them. Incurious adults, in their turn, ingest and regurgitate harmfully ignorant ideas about their ‘heritage’. In Mellet’s reading, this is a curse that afflicts without discriminating on the basis of phenotype. His penultimate chapter—on the De-Africanisation of indigenous communities — sharply skewers the silo policies of the apartheid state, whose eugenics enthusiasts proffered that only Afrikaans-speaking white people were ‘real’ Africans. Everyone else was deemed an interloper or a stepchild or a delinquent tenant. Thus ran Verwoerd’s ‘multinationalism’.
These activities haunt South Africa’s present in ways that are dimly perverse. As Mellet notes, Verwoerd’s notions have experienced a resurgence in popularity among those constituencies ‘still imbued with race-supremacist and apartheid indoctrination’. Mellet turns his gaze here upon the numerous advocacy groups that have sprouted to defend ‘brown’ rights, ‘white’ rights, or the rights of people they wrongly believe have disappeared (shaky revivalist organisations impinge on the agency of San and Khoe groups, who are not vanished from the Earth). This comes as little surprise — falsehoods given the thinnest veneer of sensibility and flavoured with popular sentiment travel swiftly, especially when they provide security by confirming that the prejudices of those who feel themselves at risk in the current South Africa. Mellet warns against those who reify fictitious race categories as rallying points for identity.

These cautions seem decidedly pertinent at a time when faulty identity politics emboldens parochial separatists; profoundly ignorant xenophobes; the self-interested white vanguard of the right-wing-courting opposition party whose whiteness grows ever more banal; and obstinately stupid musician opportunists and their suburban sympathisers who call into talk radio to declare their horror at the ruling party’s some-day plans to redistribute the land. For Mellet, an inveterate activist who lived through the state crime and political repression of apartheid, and finds himself now disenchanted with the diluted promises and ambiguous ideological positioning of the current government, the stakes are high. He does not pretend to impartiality, but he also avoids sententious rhetoric, preferring instead to think self-reflexively about the conditions of the present. One of the signal strengths of this supple book is that through considered scholarship it avoids the lazy rhetorical slide that wants to reimagine all Black figures as modern-day action heroes in historical garb. Mellet’s cast—Autshumao, Krotoa, Hintsa and many others — are given their actions without being marshalled into the service of some modern message. The author lays out their stories in order to build a comprehensive picture of the present dilemma.

This is the true work of revisionist history: to mitigate against falsehood. But what do you do when there are so many falsehoods to contest? One example of the many explored in the book concerns the emotive topic of farming. The logic runs that if land redistribution is effected, food security will suffer because arable land will be given to people who have no interest in farming:

It is often dubiously claimed that black South Africans do not want to farm. According to Africa Check […] it was found that between 37 per cent to 60 per cent of black interviewees wanted to farm. In one survey 75 per cent of interviewees wanted land for multiple purposes, including farming, but all for income generation or livelihood.

Mellet’s reading makes clear that the condescension behind such a claim reveals an attitude of entitlement on the part of those who feel they have the only legitimate claim to the land. These claimants believe farming to be a hereditary trait; or else they disingenuously believe the risible and easily disproven lie that all land in private ownership in this country is accounted for and put to productive use.

Reading history in all its complexity allows us to understand that Black impoverishment in South Africa is not a case of historical misfortune, and certainly not the result of some sort of ingrained indigence. And because history gestures towards the present and the future, we also see that the post-apartheid reinvention of South Africa has been dealt a severe blow by the failure to decentre and pull apart the myth that the country’s history begins with the arrival of a sallow European trade manager at the Cape in 1652. Mellet’s assertion is that only by reckoning with the past will we be in a position to confront the challenges of the present.

As a work of decolonising historiography, The Lie of 1652 enters into a still-underpopulated arena. Ahistorical untruth is a nostrum that stubbornly resists discrediting because its adherents have benefited happily, across the decades, from having their suspicions repeatedly confirmed. Naturally, the barbarians have no real claim to the land. Naturally, the original claimants have vanished. Naturally, there is no crime. The lie only has to outlive the event to displace it, which it does almost immediately. But as a counter to the well-entrenched calumnies around which commonsensical (and nonsensical) understandings of South African history have often been constructed, The Lie of 1652 does a remarkable amount of heavy lifting. It necessarily covers a great deal, and so inevitably there are broad strokes where finer textures would do: the book foregrounds historical breadth over particularity, and in this respect it acts out a decolonial praxis that emphasises community and convergence as key points of entry.

A practical example of the necessity of decolonial history can be readily found. An advert for a house in the Western Cape Winelands bears the following text:

Would you like to become part of the Stellenbosch Heritage and live in an old slave cottage? Invest in one of the 18 original slave cottages that was left in Ryneveld Street after a wildfire. Heritage and charm blend into the living room with wooden shutters and gracious old wood flooring. The kitchen is a combination of clay tiles and wooden flooring with enough space for a dining room table. Enjoy the private garden with braai and sunny winter afternoons.  2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. The 2 parking bays are an extra bonus although you don’t need it because you are in the centre of town. Come and enjoy your heritage.

Beneath the dismaying shtick of the property grift lurks the banalising of South Africa’s violent history, a tendency that persists in the public domain, because those who adhere to it feel less and less required to pretend civility. It makes a crass claim of ownership at the same time that it waves aside slavery as an incidental moment in ‘heritage’. This is willed ignorance working in the service of money. It is because this sort of thing occurs in the public domain with alarming frequency that the work of decolonisation is sorely needed.

Whether any treatment of history can undo the damage wrought by centuries of bad faith on public history is debatable. This country’s public life, its legal customs and its economies are all structured and run through with historical wrongness. As Mellet puts it, ‘the influence of the earliest ethnography-anthropology thinkers that had pervaded all the social sciences by the nineteen-fifties still continues to be sanctioned today, despite much critique; hence the call for decolonisation in academic institutions’. Historical mismemory gives cover to a host of odious public positions, from justifications for colonialism on the part of white opposition MPs, to calls for the secession of the Western Cape from delusionists who believe it their duty to protect their stolen land from ‘outsiders’. The cast of the ‘outsiders’ never changes.

At any rate, there is the larger question of how such a book proceeds in a country largely uninterested in history. The South African decolonial archive is steadily proliferating, with books like Tembeka Ngcukaitobi’s The Land is Ours and Botlhale Tema’s Land of My Ancestors as notable recent examples, and like those books, The Lie of 1652 works in the realm of intellectual populism: it will be spread and disseminated and made reference to, and with that will come the increased vigilance necessary today.

It often used to be said that South Africa was a country that suffered from too much history. On the contrary, we are presented every day with new and sobering examples of historical illiteracy, as Mellet’s brisk closing manifesto reminds us. Revisionist histories seldom reach those they need to educate most. Most people who engage with history in the public domain have made up their minds, based on determinants among which restoration rarely figures. Adjudged on its merits, the readability of the book is generally good, though Mellet occasionally strings together paragraphs which each begin by citing someone else’s reading (‘Bosman says …’ ‘Abrahams argues …’), an authorial caution that begins to feel like unnecessary leaning on authority and invites the suspicion that one is reading an assemblage. I imagine that a longer book could have been carved from the material Mellet works through, but in an age of prolix doorstops a densely compact paperback is always welcome.

The Lie of 1652 rereads the South African historical archive in a way that sparks interrogations regarding how history is written and compiled, while presenting a robust point of entry to current debates. At a moment when historical misreading continues to structure inequality, Mellet’s contribution is a useful resource for thinking through decolonisation as a historically located practice.

Wamuwi Mbao is an essayist, cultural critic and academic at Stellenbosch University. This article first appeared in the Johannesburg Review of Books