THE history of how Bantu South Africans came to be, from pre-colonial history to where we find ourselves in modern Mzansi, is fragmented to say the least. Thanks to European colonisers that came and settled on African land, the history of the South African Bantu got lost in the wars, migration and segregations which took place for so many years. With the rise of Pan-Africanist ideals among black youth and the talks about land, there simply is no better time for Bantu to know who they are and where they come from.
Using a synonym, author Galachani Gulantino has taken up the mammoth task of detailing the history of the South African Bantu from pre-history to 2014, in one book. Aptly titled The Tail-End Of The Tale the book begins in ancient times, taking you through Bantu’s settlement in the South, the arrival of colonisers on the continent, apartheid and the current cultural and social outlook. Tha Bravado had a chat with the author about the book.
Q: Would you say the discrepancy in our narratives as Southern African Bantu is due to the fact that our people down South opted to write their history, than orally sharing stories of how we came to be-like you’d find in West African countries, who seem to have a more consistent and coherent narration of who they are?
A: I think the discrepancy in our history narrative as Southern African Bantu is primarily due the nature of European colonialism that we were subjected to, namely settler-colonialism. The Dutch and the British colonialists also became settlers, thus necessitating a tighter control of both the narrative and our access to alternative narratives.
Their version of the narrative created an impression that before Mfecane (the rise of Shaka and the creation of the Zulu kingdom in the early1800s), Bantu lived in a timeless and aimless era unworthy of study.
This history was constructed mainly by colonial scholars who had a specific brief to demean and deny Bantu the truth about their past. To my knowledge, except Tiyo Soga in the second half of the 1800s, there is virtually no historical narrative written by Bantu during the same period.
In other parts of Africa such as West Africa where the colonialists found the climate too hash for them to settle, what were already loose colonial shackles unshackled much earlier than ours us in the South. This allowed them time to curate and teach their own history as they understand it.
Q: I was particularly interested in the Mfecane section in the book. You suggest that the Zulu Kingdom was merely a proponent in the Mfecane wars. Do you think there’s a connection between that and how Shaka never directly took war to the British nor the Boers/Dutch?
A: I have learned from some of feedback that this is a sensitive issue. With the available information though – which places on record the hereto unrevealed cooperation between Shaka and the British settlers – I’m inclined to believe that there are aspects of Shaka’s political life that have been deliberately left out of history books to suit a particular narrative. Remember that the official (read colonial) line about Mfecane is that the arrival of White settlers in the Natal and the northern regions saved populations of Bantu from the cruelty of Shaka and his war-mongering lieutenants. So, to openly admit their dealings with Shaka would have contradicted this narrative meant to paint white colonial settlers as messiahs rather than the bloodthirsty war-mongers they were.
Q: In modern South Africa, the story of how the Tsonga and Shangaan tribes came to be, is so fragmented that those tribes have been on the receiving end of some harsh discrimination from other Bantu tribes for many years. Where would you say that stems from, this discrimination?
A: Well, this is one of those questions that need more than just a historian to answer. I guess from a historical point of view, much of the discrimination stems from Bantu having been taught, and believed, that they are inferior beings. That their place under the sun is no more than that of foraging nomads who owe their ‘civilisation’ to the arrival of white colonialists in Africa. This false narrative bred so much self-hatred among Bantu that to deal with the condition, they needed someone to project their perceived inferiority upon.
And, by accident of history, in which Mfecane and the Berlin Conference of 1888 played a role, Tsongas found themselves at the receiving end of this coping mechanism. Now fragmented between Mozambique, Zimbabwe and different parts of what became South Africa, they, together with the Venda people, became easy pickings to the pride-thirsty and numerically dominant Sotho and Nguni groups in South Africa.
You will also observe however that it is not only the Tsongas and the Vendas who fell prey of this practice, nor were they themselves innocent victims. Even Zulus had their own misgivings about the Xhosa and vice versa. Even within a group, this projection was and still largely remains a feature. The major perpetrators of hatred of Bantu is Bantu themselves. That’s the cold reality of our existence, hence the need for the deconstruction of the false narratives behind this self-hatred.
Q: Looking at South Africa today and how so many tribes’ rich stories were lost during and after the Mfecane period…would you say the other tribes, besides the Zulus, are the real casualties of the wars?
A: I think everyone, including the Zulu, are a causality; not quite of the wars themselves, but the outcome, which has seen a total cultural and linguistic assimilation of Bantu. This is especially so post-1994. As it stands, there is no single (South) African Bantu language or culture that can guarantee its immortality outside that of the other groups. The restoration and development of cultural and linguistic heritage can only succeed if it is a collective Bantu project rather than survival of the fittest. As it stands, when a Bantu language dies, the speakers will not switch to a dominant Bantu language, but English, and that will perpetuate and accelerate the demise up of whatever language(s) remain. A conscious initiative to deal with this looming challenge is the only way out and time is not on our side.
Q: Your book comes at a time when we’re noticing a sharp rise in Pan Africanism and a sense of black pride. This of course, in tandem with the conversation around land in South Africa. What do you hope people take away from this book?
A: The biggest dispossession that Bantu suffered from colonialism was not the land and cattle, but our sense of self. Some of the richest nations in the new world such as Malaysia and Singapore have very limited amount of land. Without a sense of self there is no amount of land that can free us from our shackles. Once we remove the shackles – which have moved from our hands and legs to our minds – there is nothing under the sun that we cannot achieve. The colonialists know this, and they have not stopped tightening their grip on our mental selves. This book hopes to deconstruct the narratives that separate us from self, with the hope that we find ourselves and consequently our land and heritage.
Q: The book is the history of Bantu South Africans from pre-history to 2014. It is 2019 now, have you came across information that contradicts or supports the 2017 edition of The Tail-End of The Tale?
A: History is by design a contested subject and there is no one single universally accepted narrative or interpretation thereof. Yes, I have seen newer accounts that claim for example that humanity originated in East Africa, as opposed to South Africa as the book suggests. I have come across another title (The Golden Rhinocerosn – 2018) on the Middle Ages Africa by an American professor which corroborates much of the reconstruction of the same period that I have done in the book. I have had fierce pushback on my take on the Mfecane era from some scholarly fronts. I have not found any factual contradiction of any part of the narrative. That is not to say there is none. Finally, I have noted one or two conspicuous omissions on my account of football and musical heritage, and I hope to include these details in future editions.
Q: Personally, the book was a much needed eye-opener as a young Bantu man living in modern day South Africa. How has it been received by the public?
The book is only now being made available to the public but the few people that have read it have provided very positive feedback. One person is already using the book as basis of their PHD thesis with a top university and that’s the kind of feedback that gives one a sense of reward for the sweat and blood that went into putting it together. It is my wish that every Bantu parent keeps a copy of this book for their children.
Q: I understand you’re planning on having forums and reading events of the book. When are you likely to do that?
A: The marketing team is working on a programme which will in due course be made public in our website, www.gulatino.com. The short answer is: much sooner, subject to the completion of the preparatory work.
Q: I think it’s very imperative for our stories to be told by us. What truly inspired you to write this book?
When a friend introduced me to a Pan African magazine (New African) during the late 1990s, I never looked back reading it. Having already had an active interest in history and politics, despite having read Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, the magazine exposed me to a collection of works on Africa’s great past. I was so fascinated by these works that for next eight years I found myself reading extensively on the subject. Even then I had no intension of curating the knowledge into a book, until one day when a like-minded friend paid me a visit. We had what tuned out to be quite a deep and fascinating discussion about Diop’s work. After lamenting how beneficial it would have been had we recorded the conversation, I offered to produce a 20-page summary of it, which I indeed attempted. As the saying goes, the rest is history.
Q: How long did it take to put it together?
A: It took me eight years from typing the first word to having the final product out. I started writing the book in 2009.