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The Day of Colonial Reconciliation

On the Day of Reconciliation, it is perhaps appropriate to discuss and hopefully remove divisive terms used extensively in our society, especially those that continue to label people on the basis of colour. The first one that comes to my mind is “colonialism”, a term that proliferates political speeches, newspaper articles and general conversation in South Africa and, indeed, judging by the latest from Portugal, Africa and the world.

I tend to raise a quizzical eyebrow these days when I am labelled as a colonist, a perpetrator of imperial white colonialism, colonial settler (one bullet?) or terms to that effect. A diatribe involving how white Europeans swept into Southern Africa and effectively stole the land belonging to indigenous people almost always follows such comment. The angry accusations are generally directed at me by a black South African in media or in person, and it’s hard to stand your ground — regardless of the fact that I played no personal part in the colonisation process — when the facts are essentially true: that is exactly what happened. People of roughly my skin colour, some of them my ancestors, did arrive here and violently displace the local people living on the land. This subject forms the basis of the land claims in South Africa today and is the source of bitterness and violence in our poor beleaguered society.

So, why then the cynical eyebrow, you might ask?

For tens of thousands of years, South Africa was the sole domain of a unique and distinct race of people collectively called the Khoisan. The term Khoisan is collective in the same way that Caucasian is a collective term for various groups of white people. The Khoisan comprised two peoples that we know of in a Southern African context, namely the Khoi and the San. The San were nomadic hunter-gatherers spread across the country and left us an amazing legacy of ancient cave paintings that are among the oldest in the world and still a source of both mystery and beauty to this day. The Khoi had domesticated cattle and were settled in most parts of Southern Africa. So completely did the Khoisan dominate the area of sub-equatorial Africa that they have been archeologically and linguistically liked to isolated tribes as far north as Tanzania and Kenya. Their paintings, artefacts and archaeological sites have been dated back to between 25 000 and 40 000 years ago.

Roughly 2 000 years ago, the first major group of outsiders to Southern Africa arrived. They were the Bantu tribes from West and Central Africa and they arrived with domesticated animals, crops and iron from up north. In short, they were far more technologically advanced than the Khoisan and for the first time in South Africa’s history, civilisations collided. Although almost nothing is recorded in a blow-by-blow sense about the first meeting and subsequent struggle for land and dominion between the Bantu tribes from the north and the local Khoisan, the end results of this interaction were abundantly clear. When the dust had settled, the San were confined to the two “homelands” of the impenetrable mountains of the Drakensberg and the harsh desert sands of the Kalahari. The Khoi occupied the winter-rainfall areas of the Cape since Bantu crops were not adapted to thrive under those conditions and they therefore did not colonise those areas.

Since people do not generally abandon what was effectively their home for tens of thousands of years without just cause, one can assume that this process was not a purely peaceful “well, you look like nice guys, so we will just pack up our huts and be on our way” kind of interaction. According to Jared Diamond in his epic book Guns, Germs and Steel, the process probably followed the usual patterns that a human clash over resources inevitably does:

“All we can say for sure is that in places where Khoisan peoples had lived for perhaps tens of thousands of years, there are now Bantu. One can only venture a guess, by analogy with witnessed events in modern times when steel-toting white farmers collided with stone tool-using hunter-gatherers in Aboriginal Australia and Indian California. There, we know that hunter-gatherers were rapidly eliminated in a combination of ways: they were driven out, men were killed or enslaved, women were appropriated as wives, and both sexes became infected with epidemics of the farmer’s diseases.”

The Bantu tribes settled South Africa, excluding only the areas not suitable for the crops and animals they imported. Over the centuries they formed powerful tribes and fought each other over their newly acquired land, all the while giving little thought to the fact that the Khoisan were actually here first.

Around 350 years ago, the second major group of outsiders to the area arrived. They arrived on ships with a wider variety of domesticated animals and crops and brought guns, writing and other advanced technology from up north. In short, they were far more technologically advanced than both the Khoisan and the Bantu tribes and for the second time in South Africa’s history civilisations collided. Much, however, is recorded this time in a blow-by-blow sense about the first meetings and subsequent struggles for land and dominion between the white tribes from the north and the local Khoisan and Bantu populations. We know that many battles were fought and the whole affair was bloody and destructive. When the dust had settled, the last surviving Khoisan had been marginalised to tiny communities in the Kalahari, and the Bantu tribes were either subjugated or confined to areas ignored by the white invaders.

What is the point of the history-lesson digression, one might ask? Well, it seems to me that to progress past our current colour-coded impasse in South Africa, it is perhaps critical that we stop labelling people based on what their forefathers did. One way to achieve this is to understand that nobody’s forefathers were free of committing acts that would be viewed as immoral by today’s standards. It is undeniably true that white European settlers arrived in South Africa in 1652 and spread throughout the country, displacing resident peoples. It is also undeniably true that the Bantu expansion of 2 000 years ago did precisely the same thing to the Khoisan, who would in turn presumably have done the same thing if there had been a less developed, weaker people for them to displace. Perhaps they already had. Methods used would have depended only on what technology was available to best aid these expansions.

It is a human pattern that has repeated itself again and again from the dawn of time right across the globe. These events are only moral or immoral with the benefit of hindsight, according to the application of our modern moral paradigm. In addition, I am individually quite as helpless to change what my ancestors did as black South Africans are to change what their ancestors did.

So besides the poor Khoisan, whom we have managed in a rare collaborative effort between black and white to assimilate, murder and displace in a sickening, time-honoured manner, we are all colonists from up north here in sunny South Africa today. That makes the inferred sin of “colonialism” a little hypocritical when applied by a black South African to a white one, regardless of how many centuries separate the acts, and the reason for my aforementioned eyebrow-quivering. On the plus side, however, it means we can modify the meaning of one divisive label and both find some humility under the new one. Instead of being a divisive term, “colonialism” becomes a binding term. Both sets of our forefathers made long and dangerous journeys and fought hard battles to stake their claim in the place that they both ultimately chose as home. I think that is something that should bring us together in a weird kind of way. “Common ground”, if you will?

On the issue of the San, the last remaining remnants of the Khoisan group of people that lived here for millennia before all others, it is unforgivable and inexplicable why they have not been the recipients of more focused land redistribution and attention from current and previous governments. If anybody should be going around pointing fingers and shouting colonialism from the rooftops to a world that will finally listen, it is the Khoisan, yet there is a deafening silence from the Kalahari.

In fact, if anyone should understand their plight it is black South Africans who have been both perpetrator followed by victim in more recent times and who are in pole position to address the millennia-old issue. Instead today they are marginalised and excluded, and in countries such as Botswana, they are even openly dismissed and discriminated against by descendents of Bantu colonists that displaced them so long ago. My eyebrow is quivering again …