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University of Botswana History Department

Kicking the hornets' nest:

a third view of the Cobbing controversy on the Mfecane/Difaqane

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Kicking the hornets' nest: a third view of the Cobbing controversy on the Mfecane / Difaqane

An address to the University of Botswana History Society, 16 March 1999

by Neil Parsons
(email:nparsons@mopipi... [Click here for full email address])

First let's put the Cobbing controversy in the historical context of its origins in the early 1980s. As I understand it, Julian Cobbing, a youngish lecturer in history at Rhodes University, was asked to put on a special option course on the Mfecane by his head of department. The head being, I think, Colin Webb, who had himself recognised the link between the Mfecane and the Afrikaner Trek, dubbing the latter as 'the white Difafane'.

Rhodes University in the early 1980s must have been an interesting place. It had a somewhat split personality. On the one hand it was seen as an all-white institution, catering particularly for less academic whites from the Eastern Cape and from Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe (like Cobbing himself), and was seen as a teaching institution rather than as a place of research. On the other hand it had had links with the all-black Fort Hare University College, validating that college's teaching diplomas before Fort Hare became a completely Bantustanized university - first under Afrikaner nationalist than under Ciskei tribalist control. In the early 1980s apartheid was beginning to break down, if not yet to break up. The ANC was being revived as an internal political force in South Africa through its legal proxy the United Democratic Front (UDF). Rhodes was beginning to take in increasing numbers of local African students who rejected the degraded options of Fort Hare or Transkei University, at the same time as it was trying to establish itself as a regional centre of excellence in the study of English language and culture. Cobbing was no doubt expected to run through the gamut of possible explanations for Mfecane, such as the critical population density hypothesis put forward first by the anthropologist Max Gluckman and elucidated on by geographers and archaeologists, or the trade from Delagoa (Maputo) Bay hypothesis tentatively suggested by Alan Smith and other historians of southern Mozambique.

But Cobbing chose to take a more radical view more in tune with what were to become the 'postmodernist' 1980s, by attacking the whole idea of the Mfecane - seeing it as a recent construct by historians and politicians out to validate the apartheid status quo. In doing so there is no doubt he fell in with the rising sensibilities of his Xhosa-speaking and other students. (His inconoclasm had previously showed as a historian of Zimbabwe when he undermined some of the ideas of T.O. Ranger about the Mwari cult.) Cobbing was now chopping at the roots of both the official white National Party history of P.W. Botha and the Zulu-centric view of black history propagated by the sell-out Inkhata Freedom Party of Gatsha Buthelezi.

We are all familiar with the Zulu-centricity that all too often passes as sufficient explanation for black history in Southern Africa, certainly among whites and even among Africans. Whether as heroes or as villains, the Zulu in general and Shaka in particular are seen as the only historically significant black actors south of the Limpopo. It has been a 'master-text' only rivalled by the story of Boers versus Brits in the public history of South Africa. There are innumberable books celebrating Zulu 'warriors' and we are told that tourists flock to their battle-fields annually. Shaka is the subject of numerous praise-poems and of a great (partly hostile) novel/play by Thomas Mofolo.

Zulu-centricity had its appeal even in West Africa. Hence, in the later 1960s, we find the only Southern / Eastern African title in the pathbreaking 'Ibadan History Series' of books was The Zulu Aftermath: a Nineteenth Century Revolution in Bantu Africa (1968). It was written by John Omer-Cooper, himself the son of a Rhodes University lecturer. Omer-Cooper suggested that the Mfecane was a great positive achievement, a revolution in government comparable to that of the French with Shaka as its Napoleon, developing new African nations with incipient induna bureaucracies.

In retrospect it is tempting, if not wholly fair, to see Omer- Cooper's writing in the context of the rise of national military bureaucratic elites in West Africa: the first coup in Nigeria was in 1967. What is certain, however, is that his conclusions could be and were used, entirely contrary to his wishes, in bolstering Zulu and other South African 'Bantustan' sub-nationalisms in the 1970s. (Omer-Cooper himself had been driven out of Africa to New Zealand by a South African parcel-bomb.)

From the 1950s until the 1970s the apartheid government in South Africa had attempted to suppress the (potentially subversive) study of history in 'Bantu education' by substituting civics-based integrated Social Studies. But in the mid-1970s the development of separate black national 'Bantustan' identities became a priority. So history was revived and reconstituted in black schools. Mfecane seemed to be the perfect justification for the 'empty land' hypothesis which justified white settlers taking the heartland of South Africa, while a 'horseshoe' of black reserves or 'Bantustans' curved round the white heartland. Mfecane was said to have chased black people out of the centre to settle in the periphery. In cruder terms, Mfecane could also be seen as evidence of the black savagery that justified the imposition of white domination.

The myth of Mfecane/ Difaqane as the Great Chaos which justified Pacification, I have argued elsewhere, began in 19th century Lesotho historiography as a rationale for the benevolent regime of Moshoeshoe. This myth was then adopted and adapted for the use of Christian missionaries and of white settlers in general, Boer or Afrikaner settlers in particular.

The actual word Mfecane, describing a set of wars or a period, had first been used in a work of history by E.A. Walker in his History of South Africa (1st edn. 1928). Omer-Cooper in 1968 also used the word, though not in his title. But the word only became common currency among historians with the Oxford History of South Africa, volume 1, edited by Leonard Thompson and Monica Wilson (1969). Wilson, an anthropologist, produced chapters which implied that there was no real history among African peoples before the Mfecane/ Difaqane - only a generalized ethnographic past of customs and settlement patterns. Thompson, a historian who was also making a deeper study of Moshoeshoe, contributed chapters which put great emphasis on Mfecane/ Difaqane as the real start of African history in South Africa, comparable with the magnitude of the 'Great Trek'. This was the point taken up by Colin `Webb and his 'Afrikaner difaqane'.

The Oxford History view of the centrality of the Mfecane/ Difaqane in South African history, reinforced by the Afrocentricity of Omer-Cooper's Zulu Aftermath, was ammunition for the liberal counter-attack on Afrikaner nationalist historiography. But apartheid doctrine evolved rapidly in the 1970s. By the end of the decade the Oxford History and Zulu Aftermath version of the Mfecane had been adopted as a charter of worthy origins for the new black rulers of the autonomous Bantustans. This was why Cobbing, encouraged by the post-Soweto radicalism of his students, reacted so strongly against the Afro- or Zulu- centric view of the importance of the Mfecane.

Cobbing argued that the Mfecane was a historical construct by misguided historians now being used to justify apartheid. Even the word was foreign: it had probably been invented by Eric Walker in 1928. So far as there had been wars, they had been the attacks of white slave-traders and the flights of refugees from those attacks. They were not 'Shaka's wars'. Shaka was not a cause but a consequence of the disruption. Not a villain but a victim. He could now be seen as a resistance leader against the slave traders - but was otherwise reduced in historical stature. White slave traders had come from north and south. From the north they were the Portuguese of Delagoa (Maputo) Bay, where the slaving port of Lourenco Marques had been founded in 1803. From the south they were the British with their Griqua and Boer cohorts 'recruiting' farm labour by violence and capture on the Cape Colony frontiers.

On the southern flank, Cobbing's hypothesis hinged on the reevaulation of two battles, Dithakong (near Kuruman) in 1823 and Mbholompo (Eastern Cape) in 1828. The battes had been represented in 19th century historical literature as gallant Griqua and British defences of the Cape frontier against Mfecane marauders - admittedly followed by the subsequent indenture of captured Africans as tied workers on Cape farms. Cobbing argued that both battles had been invasions launched from the south to capture that labour. The basic historical sources on both battles were fabrications that had covered this up, blaming instead fictitional invasions from the north of fictitious African groups - the 'Mantatees' at Dithakong, and the 'Fingo' at Mbholompo. Cobbing developed his ideas in a series of papers offered at conferences of historians in South Africa in 1983, 1984, and 1987. Finally his ideas burst upon the world in the Journal of African History in 1988.

Cobbing's ideas aroused great excitement among historians, at a time when South Africa was undergoing revolutionary changes. He inspired reserachers to dig deep into and deconstruct the sources on Mbholompo and Dithakong, and to wonder aloud if Shaka had really existed - concluding that even if he had, the real man could never be reconstructed. Cobbing's suspicions of mendacity in the origination of texts and documents fitted in with the literary fashion of 'postcoloniality' which regarded fiction and non- fiction as barely - if at all - distinguishable.

The result was a grand symposium, held at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1991. Historians began to look at the details of the Cobbing hypothesis, subjecting argument and evidence to criticism. Further revaluations came out when the proceedings were published some years later as The Mfecane Aftermath, edited by Carolyn Hamilton (1995/96).

The fires of the Cobbing camp were doused with cold water at Mbholompo, Dithakong, and Delagoa Bay. The historian Jeff Peires rubbished the idea that the Mfengu (Fingo) and Mfecane itself were complete fictions conjured into being by the colonialists. Others attacked the notion that the missionary Robert Moffat was a slaver who lied through his teeth about Dithakong. And, what seemed to be most telling of all, the idea of Shaka's rise in 1817-18 being a response to the slave trade was pooh-poohed in absentia by historians of Delagoa Bay. On the contrary, the slave trade there had declined in the 1790s until it had picked up again after 1820. Salt was being rubbed into Cobbing's wounds. He kept quiet. Though he contributed to the 1991 symposium, he had no chapter in the 1995/96 book. He was keeping his powder dry until he needed it for new battles when the book was published and reviewed. But the book took so long to appear, and history had been so rapidly downgraded in importance as a subject in the New South Africa, that the Cobbing controversy was apparently stone dead by the time Mfcane Aftermath was actually published. Cobbing's reply never came.

So Cobbing has suffered reverses in his battles, but I would argue he has not lost the war.

Cobbing has completely destroyed the fundamentally segregationist idea of South African history, evident in the Oxford History and so crudely put in late apartheid textbooks, that the history of white people began at the Cape in 1652, and the history of black people in the interior began separately a century and a half later with Shaka, Mzilkazi, and Moshoeshoe. Earlier times being painted as archaeo- or ethno- background populated by unhistorical culture groups unconnected with real history.

What the Cobbing controversy does is to remind us of what should be obvious. That south-eastern Africa is just as much part of eastern African history as Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The question of Shaka and the slave trade at Delagoa Bay is a red herring, drawing us away from the main issue of the origins of 'Mfecane' violence and 'state-building'. Look again at Omer-Cooper and African Societies in Southern Africa, edited by Leonard Thompson (1970), and you'll begin to see that Shaka's Zulu can be traced to Dingiswayo's Mthethwa and Zwide's Ndwandwe (including nascent Swazi and Ngoni), and they can be traced back to the Thembe civil wars that erupted around Delagoa Bay in the 1770s- 80s. And why? Slave traders of course, and probable connections inland with warring parties as far as the Rozvi on the Zimbabwe plateau (who were using Shaka's battle tactics a century before he was born). There's plenty of research to be done on all this, particularly in and around the Mpumulanga and Northern provinces of South Africa.

This then is my 'third view'. To use the breaches in the walls of the academic citadel, made by the Cobbing battering ram. To try and make sense of the past that is deeper than the 1820s-30s. To link up so far as possible (and of course it is not completely possible as they work on somewhat different paradigms) with so- called 'prehistory' manufactured by archaeologists. If you look at my main chapter in Carolyn Hamilton's Mfecane Aftermath you will see that I have tried to make a start on this.


The UB History Society
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Telephone: (+267) 355-2626 Fax: 355-2279 Telex: 2429 BD
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Prof Neil Parsons, History Department, University of Botswana
email: nparsons@mopipi... [Click here for full email address]


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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons
File last updated 27 January 2001