reflections on paul landau’s popular politics in south africa


In the current historiographical atmosphere, there seems little point for historians to continue pointing out the number of ‘ethnic’, ‘tribal’, ‘racial’ or ‘national’ groups within a confined space. In 1988, in what was quite clearly a re-iteration of a number of revisionist lines of enquiry that came before him, Martin Legassick claimed that all ‘attempts to differentiate Bantu-speakers from Khoisan, Khoikhoi and “San”, Sotho from Nguni, and, within each, subtribes from subtribes’ were utterly flawed, and few at the time — excepting those of the Oxford/’liberal’ school, perhaps — would have disagreed.

Recall the position of the Khoekhoe and the San in historical narratives at the time. Historians of the 1970s and 1980s tended to write of the Khoekhoe as a diverse collection of innovative herders who occupied Southern Africa for thousands of years, interacting with San hunters and eventually VOC society, but seldom anything for the era beyond that. With Britain’s decisive annexation in 1806 came the end of such a narrative. Thereafter, as Cape Coloured/Khoe-San indigenes (for the distinction between two major groups ‘Khoe’ and ‘San’ blurred as populations mixed and colonisation intensified, argued these scholars), their experiences were often homogenised and overlooked, or otherwise appeared only in a handful of studies on Cape policy, labour legislation and early missionary reservations. Pointing out the ‘tribal’ and ‘ethnic’ cleavages that separated Khoe-San South Africans in the period 1840-1950 was simply not a job for historians of South Africa to bother with. (‘Bantu’ South Africa would go onto receive a very different anthropological and historical appraisal, but that’s another story.)

For Legassick however, at this stage of his career under the heavy influence of a Marxist theoretical framework, only ‘the social relations of production’ united and differentiated communities — a picture which seems, to me at least, quite incomplete. Surely, the social relations of production were as much the cause, as they were the effect of politics organic to community and place. Surely, there was a thing called ‘discourse’ that operated tangentially to the realm of economic relationships.

All of this, of course, leads me to Landau’s historical-linguistical exploration of Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, 1400-1948 (2010). This is a major work, one that truly puts its readers to the test, by its frantic changing of lenses between the macro and the micro, and also, by its innovative use of language to make some pretty impressive historical arguments (the most ambitious of these, perhaps, his claim that ‘religion’ as a body of behavior and a concept in South Africa was created in the nineteenth century, and continues to leave a strange legacy today).

From the blurb:

Drawing largely from original sources, Paul Landau presents a history of the politics of the country’s people, from the time of their early settlements in the elevated heartlands, through the colonial era, to the dawn of Apartheid. A practical tradition of mobilization, alliance, and amalgamation persisted, mutated, and occasionally vanished from view; it survived against the odds in several forms, in tribalisms, Christian assemblies, and other, seemingly hybrid movements; and it continues today. Landau treats southern Africa broadly, concentrating increasingly on the southern highveld and ultimately focusing on a transnational movement called the ‘Samuelites’. He shows how people’s politics in South Africa were suppressed and transformed, but never entirely eliminated.

This book breaks important, new ground. It is no overstatement to suggest that it is not since the Comaroffs’ Of Revelation series that South African history has received a more sophisticated reworking.

Underlying each nuanced argument is the idea that highveld polities, in all their complexity and diversity, barely correlate with the ‘tribal’ titles that were attached to them. OK, OK, I hear you say, tell me something I don’t know. Well it’s more complicated than that, and there are implications for many scholars here.

Words used to differentiate ‘tribal’ affiliations were simply that – words – which may have conveyed political realities (albeit problematically), but always seemed to mis-communicate matters relating to culture, tradition and ‘the religious sphere’, and what’s more, they were titles that too often glossed over the hybridisation of lived experience. And many of these misinterpretations, Landau points out, continue to pervade historical and anthropological scholarship (and, though he doesn’t suggest as much, popular discourse as well). Thus, ‘[o]nce we stop thinking in terms of “peoples”, who had “beliefs”’, he argues, ‘the highveld’s political tradition, in its real situation in history, comes better into focus’ (248). He’s being modest. What also comes into focus are the many parallels between the pre-historic and the historic, the past and the present, and believe it or not, the black, the brown and the white of South Africa.

Hybridity is what Landau identifies left, right and centre, so much so that he uses the term ‘métis’ to refer to a number of people, the Griqua among them. This dialectal import may not be to the tastes of some South Africanists, but Landau has his reasons. Personally, it is my opinion that if Landau’s terminology encourages scholars to analyse the experiences of hybrid social and political formations from a number of settler colonial frontiers in comparative perspective, then I can only see positives coming from his use of such terminology.

There are a lot of limitations to what the historian, particularly the non-indigenous one, can get away with in their writing these days. After reading Landau’s book, there is an even greater interpretative anxiety that remains behind (particularly if one joins the dots and thinks about the politics of naming and labelling in the present day, in light of his discoveries).

What historians of South Africa can be certain about, however, is the sheer necessity of political mobilisation on the contested highveld, and the importance of selectively deploying key discourses already in circulation for political ends. These are things with which neither Legassick, nor the Comaroffs, would disagree though. What they probably would disagree with, however, is Landau’s time-frame, and his book’s biggest implication, namely, that the history of polities and politics in South Africa is a tale of continuity, one which doesn’t just ‘stop’ with the closing of the frontier zone or the coming of capitalism. The history of peoples is a very different one, Landau would insist — it is fissiparous, quite full of disjunctures, and it is one which too easily replicates the erroneous frameworks developed centuries ago by colonist-ethnographers: and from this critique many scholars, among them Isaac Schapera, and indeed the Comaroffs themselves, are not spared.

It is very much in this tradition that the new generation of historians of a region fixated upon a ‘Rainbow Nation’ mythology might best present their own research. But whereas Landau (not unlike the Comaroffs, actually) prefers to focus on the fickle and opportunistic convergence of politics and religiosity – and Legassick more polemically on the social relations of production before and amid the arrival of industrial capitalism – perhaps, I would suggest, we might focus more closely on the establishment and legitimation of polities, and the types of legal relationships which lay at the foundation of these polities. Law and history have converged elsewhere in settler colonial studies, yet in Southern Africa — with the exception of one or two pieces here and there — a scholarly pre-occupation with sovereignty, jurisdiction, crime, justice, the rule of law and the objects of war through time and space, has not yet taken shape.

Another of the stark historiographical differences which separates South Africa from other settler colonial locales is the methodology. The book touches on a number of the more complex debates in South African historiography, debates in which — remarkably — the analysis of language continues to takes centre stage, well after the linguistic turn. Elsewhere, historians of settler colonialism — perhaps from want of data? — mostly run scared from this kind of analysis. A mono-lingual outsider to South Africa, I began to find the list of new words and ambiguous meanings very challenging, verging on the tedious in fact. South African nationals however, SeSotho speakers in particular, probably won’t, and may get even more out of this book than I did.

Ed Cavanagh

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