South Africa - 'The Myth of the Empty Land'

Shula Marks examines the abundant archaeological evidence, much of it recently gathered, for the widespread settlement of South Africa before 1488 when Portuguese sailors first reached the Cape.

For over 1,000 years before the Dutch arrived at the Cape of Good Hope, Iron Age farmers and Late Stone Age peoples had been living in the interior of South Africa. Yet the South African Government's allocation of only 13 per cent of the country's land to its Bantu-speaking inhabitants as 'homelands' was justified historically on the grounds that at the time the whites moved into the interior to settle, large areas were empty of inhabitants; further, the Bantu-speaking population, far from already being resident there, were themselves moving southwards to occupy the same 'empty land'.

Most human groups have their myths of origin, explaining and justifying the contemporary distribution of power and resources in society. It may be true that in Britain, as Sir Robert Birley remarked in his 1974 Bowra Memorial Lecture in Cheltenham, 'our past history may be interesting to us, but it does not matter very much'. In a society as deeply divided as that of South Africa, by contrast, the past is not simply some neutrally observed and politely agreed set of 'facts'. It is a series of fiercely and indeed at times obsessively contested myths.

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