Dear Mr Malema

Rian Malan says he's willing to give up his land, in exchange for his life, but he would like to confirm who the rightful owners really are

"We are here unashamedly to disturb the white man’s peace. Because we have never known peace. We, the rightful owners, our peace was disturbed by white man’s arrival here. They committed a black genocide. They killed our people during land dispossession. Today, we are told don’t disturb them, even when they disturbed our peace. They found peaceful Africans here. They killed them! They slaughtered them, like animals! We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now.... But 1994 means NOTHING without the land! Victory will only be victory if the land is restored in the hands of rightful owners. And rightful owners unashamedly is black people. This is our continent, it belongs to us."

 EFF leader Julius Malema in a speech outside Newcastle Magistrates court last week.

Dear Mr Malema:

I am writing in response to your recent remarks calling for whites to return the land to its rightful owners, failing which you may have to slaughter us. I think it’s good that you have put this issue under the spotlight, and I would like to help resolve it. 

I personally had nothing to do with what the EFF sees as the “mass butcher/slaughter of black people” by white land thieves in the colonial era. On the other hand, I am an Afrikaner with capitalist inclinations, so I am clearly guilty by association in your eyes. Hey, that’s all right by me. I’m not here to argue. I am here to find a solution, and to do that, it’s necessary for me to put my own land on the table and discuss what’s to be done with it.

This land (about 1200 square metres) is located in Emmarentia, Johannesburg, a good place to ponder our history because it is located at the foot of the Melville Koppies, where archeologists have unearthed a great deal of evidence about previous owners. Their findings can be summarized as follows:

1)  Around 250,000 years ago, Emmarentia was inhabited by our hominid ancestors. These creatures appear to have died out.

2)  Around 100,000 years ago, the first humans made their appearance. Unfortunately, I don’t know their names and their descendants have proved untraceable.

3)  Some twenty thousand years ago, the so-called San or Bushmen took up residence in a cave in the kloof near where Beyers Naude Drive cuts through the Koppies. Among the artefacts they left behind is a Stone Age device for making arrowheads. The whereabouts of their descendants is unknown.

4)  Around five hundred years ago, the first Tswana showed up. These were sophisticated people who used Iron Age furnaces to work minerals mined nearby. They also owned sheep and cattle and grew millet and sorghum along the banks of the stream which flows past my house.

On its face these Tswana would appear to be the only previous owners whose descendants are still living in the area, so in theory I should give my land to them. But when you look closely at the Tswana, a complicated picture emerges.

In the beginning, around 1700, almost all Tswana fell under the authority of the Hurutshe, a powerful tribe that exacted tribute from lesser Tswana chiefs and kept them in line.

Around 1750, things began to change. Nobody knows exactly why, but one suspected cause is the mealie, which arrived here around that time. Mealies boosted crop yields. More food led to population growth, which led to intensified competition for scarce resources. The Hurutshe hegemony was challenged and overthrown. Without proper supervision, minor chieftains started tooling up and making war on one another. The Fokeng attacked the Kgatla. Kgatla attacked the Po. Pedi fought the Kwena, and so on. According to the anthropologist Isaac Schapera, there were 26 civil wars in the decades prior  to 1820.

In response, Tswana kingdoms became increasingly militarised and autocratic, which is to say, they moved from level 3 societies, which were chilled, to levels 4 and 5, where kings and chiefs practiced an early form of capitalism, extracting labour and tribute from weaker vassals. Since the vassals did not necessarily like this, the more powerful Tswana chiefs began to concentrate their people in large towns, usually sited on easily defensible hilltops and surrounded by stone walls.

This did not help much. Analysis of Tswana praise poems and oral histories indicates that being a chief in Emmarentia and surrounds was a very dangerous occupation between 1700 and 1820. Of 71 chiefs mentioned in oral traditions, only 48 percent died in their beds. The rest were assassinated or killed in battle.

As a result of these factors it has proved difficult to establish exactly which Tswana grouping owned my land during this period of violence and confusion. Most likely, ownership changed several times, and at some point it was taken over by the Po, a Nguni people who controlled the Witwatersrand from a headquarters located near the Gillooly’s freeway interchange. Have you ever heard of these people? Ja, me neither, but don’t worry, because they were soon swept away by the Mfecane.

Contrary to popular belief, it seems the Mfecane was not really caused by Shaka Zulu. According to my readings, that man’s role has been exaggerated by Inkatha supporters who love to depict Shaka as a black Napoleon who single-handedly invented the short stabbing spear and the horns-and-chest battle formation, thereby changing history. 

More recent research holds that Shaka was just one of many southern African kings who more or less simultaneously embarked on a program of militarisation and nation building, thus leaping from level three to level five and in the process destabilizing their neighbours.

Shaka’s neighbours included the Hlubi, the Ngwane and the Swazi. After Shaka came to power around 1818, these people decided it would be wise to move onto the highveld to get away from him. But the nearest parts of the highveld were already occupied by the Phuting and Hlakwana, who lost their crops and cattle to the invaders and had to flee westward, into territories controlled by various Tswana entities. This resulted in a chain reaction that rolled on for years, turning the highveld into a zone of “persistent raiding and displacement” that shattered African social structures and turned many people into refugees.

Around 1824, Mzilikazi and the Ndebele arrived on the scene, also fleeing the Zulus. Mzilikazi was by far the most efficient of the level-five autocrats. He ate up all the tribes in his path, usually killing males and incorporating women and children into his own ranks. One exception to this was the Po, who reportedly saved themselves by submitting to Mzilikazi and joining his cause as “allies or slaves.”

One therefore assumes that the Po moved with Mzilikazi to Rustenburg district, where the Ndebele made their capital. The king lived in the very centre of the new empire, surrounded by loyal Ndebele commoners and swathes of pasture for the royal cattle. Beyond the pasture was a ring of tribute-paying vassal chiefs, and beyond them lay the march – a vast area that had been cleared of all human inhabitants. Mzilikazi trusted no-one, and wanted to make sure he could see his enemies coming.

I can’t be 100 percent sure, but I suspect Emmarentia was part of this so-called march. Here’s why. In 1836, an aristocratic British sportsman named Robert Cornwallis-Harris came this way to hunt big game. When he reached a range of hills which could have been the Witwatersrand he began to see the ruins of “extensive villages,” deserted save for a handful of “half-starved persons” hiding in the bushes. According to Cornwallis-Harris, the abandoned villages were strewn with broken earthen vessels, fragments of ostrich shell and game skins. And that’s almost exactly what archeologists find when they dig trenches on the koppie above my house.

Against this backdrop, your remarks about “peaceful Africans” strike me as somewhat odd. The last person to make such an argument was Joe Slovo, whose seminal “Colonialism of a Special Type” essay was riddled with black holes and omissions intended to present whites in the worst possible light. That’s because Slovo was desperate to ingratiate himself with black people and become your leader, an ambition which led directly to what you see as the great sellout of 1994. You surely know better than to trust a white man, sir.

But anyway, our story has just begun. The first white settlers showed up in Emmarentia a few months after the hunter Cornwallis-Harris. You seem to imagine these Voortrekkers as an army of genocidaires using guns and horses to drive peaceful Africans towards extinction. Not so. Mzilikazi opened the hostilities, massacring a party of Trekkers near the Vaal River and then stripping the Boers of all their livestock at Vegkop. At this point, the Tswana who’d previously dominated the area came out of hiding and offered their support to the Boers, which led to Mzilikazi’s defeat at the hands of multi-racial DA-style army at the battle of Mosega.

In the aftermath, Mzilikazi fled northwards across the Limpopo, and the Boers claimed “his” land as their own. The suburb where I live became the farm Braamfontein, property of the Bezuidenhout family. These were my people, but let me be the first to admit that they did not behave like civilized white liberals.

Instead, they emulated the African kings who came before them, exacting tribute (especially in labour) from subject chiefs and periodically raiding more distant neighbours for cattle and captives. Some of those captives, especially the children, became inboekelinge, or indentured servants, working on Boer farms for nothing until they were 25.

Let’s face it -- this was a form of slavery, and we must answer for it. But the Fokeng and the Kgatla must answer too, because they were our partners in crime, constantly joining the Boers in “mutually beneficial” raids on surrounding tribes. As a result, the Kgatla (who lived around Sun City) and Fokeng (near Hartebeestpoort) became rich and powerful. According to historian Fred Morton, Kgatla chief Khamanyane (who ruled from 1853 to 1875) acquired an astonishing fortune in wives (43) and cattle, while many of his subjects “attained higher living standards than most Boers.”

Which is not to say that the Boers and their Tswana allies had it all their own way. On the contrary: the Boers were weak, and existed in a state of uneasy equilibrium with surrounding African principalities. Gert Oosthuizen, baas of the farm where I now live, would have been called out on kommando at least 14 times in his first thirty-odd years on the Highveld, but seldom returned home a victor.

Most Boer military campaigns ended in stalemate, and they were defeated on at least three occasions -- by the Pedi in 1852, the Sotho in 1858, and the Venda in 1861. By 1867, they were under such pressure that they had to abandon the Soutpansberg, leaving behind a few stragglers who survived by paying tribute to their conquerors in the African way.

After the discovery of diamonds, Africans began to acquire guns and push back even harder. In 1870, the Boers abandoned Potgietersrus. In 1871, they lost another war against the Pedi. By 1877, they seemed to be in an extremely precarious position, which is why the British stepped in to annex the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek.

Beyond this point, your understanding of history becomes more tenable.  Professional soldiers sent by Queen Victoria crushed the Zulu and Pedi with considerable slaughter, as they'd previously crushed the Xhosa and were soon to crush the Boers. Black Africans wound up losing about two thirds of the land they'd held before 1652, and for this whites must answer. Then again, the British army had African auxiliaries in all its campaigns, so they must answer too.

But for what exactly? You keep saying “genocide.” I’m not sure that’s the right term. In the 1980s, historians Leonard Thompson and Howard Lamar published a comparative study of the North American and South African frontiers. Someone stole my copy of that book and the precise details are fading, but it claims there were something like ten million “Red Indians” when the American frontier opened circa 1780, and only 250,000 left a century later. That’s genocide.

In SA, the numbers tell a different story. According to Thompson et al, there were around two million Africans when our frontier opened, also in 1780, and roughly double that number when it closed in 1880. Since then, the African population has grown at a healthy rate, apartheid notwithstanding. That’s why whites are now so heavily outnumbered, and why if you say, surrender your land, I have not much choice.

But surrender it to whom? If we take the arrival of the first white settlers in 1836 as our point of departure, I should give my house to the descendants of Mzilikazi. But that won’t go down with the Tswana, who remember Mzilikazi as a bloody tyrant who robbed them of their birthright.

The Po might rematerialize and make a claim, and then there’s the Bushman to think about.  They were here long before anyone else, but vanished in the 1820s. Perhaps they also ran for their lives when they saw Mzilikazi coming, and took refuge in the Kalahari.

If so, this was a frying-pan-into-fire move, because the Tswana out there were short of labour, and they turned Bushmen and other vassal races (the Kgalagadi and Yei) into slaves who were exchanged for goods, passed on as heritable property and “controlled with startling brutality” by their masters. According to historian Barry Morton, slave herdsmen were “observed to live in an indescribable state of general squalor.” Death from malnutrition was “not uncommon,” and slaves were “punished and occasionally killed…for losing a single animal.”

According to Morton, evidence to back such claims lay hidden in plain sight in the archives, ignored for decades by researchers swarming into the Kalahari to study one of the world’s last hunter-gatherer populations. I can only surmise the researchers were white liberals who didn’t want to spoil the plot, which holds that it was the Boers who caused all the trouble in our history until they were overthrown by the saintly Mandela, thus giving birth to the Rainbow Nation.

Judging by your speeches, you detest white liberals even more than I do, which is why I have drawn all these complications to your attention. The fact of the matter, sir, is that all our ancestors have blood on our hands. More blood on mine than yours, at least at this point, but still: the only innocents in this story are the Bushman.

They were harmless level one people, with no chiefs and no material ambitions. Whites hunted them like wild animals, but your people were little better. The first British official to arrive at the royal court of the Xhosa (Sir John Barrow, c 1798) was told by King Hintsa, “My people exist in a state of perpetual warfare with the Bushmen.” Perhaps this helps us understand why the north-eastern portion of this country is littered with the relics of Bushmen who vanished long before white settlers came.

And so we come finally to the point of this letter. The victims and villains of history are beyond my reach, but I am not without conscience. I am sorry about all the Zulu who perished at the hands of Lord Chelmsford in 1879, and the Shona and Ndebele slaughtered by Rhodes’ Gatling guns. But I am particularly sorry about the Bushmen who used to live in the kloof above my house. They suffered greatly at the hands of people like us, and their claim to being the original and thus “rightful” owners of Emmarentia looks unassailable.

I therefore think it might be best if I share my land with my friend Errol, an Afrikaans-speaking coloured person with at least a bit of Bushman blood in his veins. He’s not black, strictly speaking, but at least he has an Afro. And his apartheid victim credentials are impeccable.

But before I go ahead, I would like to make sure this accords with the fast-track land reform scheme you envisage. If I do the right thing by Errol, will my life be spared?

Your swift reply awaited.

Rian Malan

Rian Malan is a Resarch Fellow of the Institute of Race Relations. 


Arguments in this article rest chiefly on the following sources:

"The Mfecane Aftermath," ed. Carolyn Hamilton, Wits University Press 1995

"Slavery in South Africa," ed. Elizabeth A Eldredge and Fred Morton, Authors Guild 1993

"New History of South Africa," ed. H. Giliomee and B. Mbangwa, 2007. Available online.

"Native Tribes of the Transvaal," British War Office 1905. Available online.

"When Rustling Became An Art - Pilane's Kgatla and the Transvaal Fronteir," Fred Morton, David Phillip 2010

Website of the Melville Koppies Nature Reserve http://www.mk.org.za