lalu on settlers, xhosa, myth-making, discourse, history, and a postcolonial critique of apartheid


Premesh Lalu, The Deaths of Hintsa: Postapartheid South Africa and the shape of recurring pasts (HSRC Press 2009).

In 1996, as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was beginning its hearings, Nicholas Gcaleka, a healer diviner from the town of Butterworth in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, set off on a journey to retrieve the skull of Hintsa, the Xhosa king. Hintsa had been killed by British troops on the banks of the Nqabarha River over a century and a half before and, it was widely believed, been beheaded. From a variety of quarters including the press, academia and Xhosa traditional leadership Gcaleka’s mission was mocked and derided.

Following the tracks of Nicholas Gcaleka, author Lalu explores the reasons for the almost incessant laughter that accompanied these journeys into the past. He suggests that the sources of derision can be found in the modes of evidence established by colonial power and the way they elide the work of the imagination. These forms and structures of knowledge in the discipline of history later sustained the discourse of apartheid.

The Deaths of Hintsa argues for a post-colonial critique of apartheid and for new models for writing histories. It offers a reconceptualisation of the colonial archive and suggests a blurring of the distinction between history and historiography as a way to set to work on forging a history after apartheid.

One does not have to be an expert on Nicholas Gcaleka, the Hintsa myth and Xhosa history/historiography to make use of Lalu’s book (though having recently read it, I’d say it would help in some parts). He does far more than his blurb attests, in fact. He is among the few to meaningfully synthesise a very postcolonial claim (no less than a redefinition of ‘the subaltern’ in world history) with a very settler colonial idea (the idea of history shared by settlers and their historians). He presents an argument that is at the same time analytically descriptive of the past and unwaveringly threatening to the discipline of history itself and the ways in which ‘the colonial archive’ figure in politics and myth, present and history. Moreover, he critically and thoroughly explores the idea of a ‘settler colonial historiography’, an idea that arises in historiographical critiques of Christopher Saunders, Ken Smith and others, but has never been fully explained or for that matter defined.

Congratulations to Lalu for publishing it with HRSC Press, a brilliant new hybrid press that combines a print press with an e-press. It means that yet another key piece of historical scholarship on South Africa is available for free download as an e-book. (see also Laura Mitchell, Belongings).

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