The question of Mulder’s Niemandsland

Sunday 19 February 2012
Burning boer farm

During the tumult of the 80′s Koos Kombuis released a seminal album called Niemandsland (No man’s land). The work was part of the opening up in Afrikaans culture: the so-called the VoĆ«lvry movement. The content of the record was considered worse than liberal, it was downright subversief!

But the album title itself was incendiary. To many Afrikaner Nationalists it was literally an article of faith that all of South Africa had been given by God to Afrikaners.

I was reminded of how things have changed this week with the outrage that greeted Afrikaner politician Pieter Mulder, who proclaimed in parliament:

Africans never in the past lived in the whole of South Africa. The Bantu-speaking people moved from the equator down while the white people moved from the Cape up, to meet each other at the Kei River.

Now. First things first. I’m not sure the last word on this subject has been spoken by researchers. But what do we know now? On the face of it, that statement is more or less correct. By the time the first whites settled in the Cape, Nguni and other tribes (Bantu tribes) were indeed already settled in what today is known as Natal and the Eastern Cape, but not in the region known as Boland.

So 1 – 0 to Mulder? Yeah, a hollow victory mind.

Cape Town and surrounds was empty? Nope, certainly not. These areas were settled by the hunter gatherer Khoi and the San. And these people’s were on occasion massacred, and yes Giliomee says the word hunted would not be out of place.

Mulder is technically right though, they were not Bantu. And if academics are to be believed the Khoi and San were squeezed and exterminated by both the Bantu in the North and the whites in the South. Tragic.

South Africans should look at the bright side however. Implicit in Mulder’s statement is a worldview that colonisation is bad. This worldview is by and large not shared in the same way or acknowledged by whites in the US or Australia (to name but a few). The answer for this is rather simple. The many run-ins Afrikaners had with the two ton truck that was the British Empire, have instilled a group consciousness – a dim view of taking other people’s land by way of violence. Afrikaners’ literature, poetry and songs echo to this anti-colonial strain, over and over again.

Responsible politicians should aim to harness this worldview as an asset, rather than exploit or for that matter – ignore it.

Picture description – Members of New Zealand’s Sixth Contingent burn a Boer farm, 1901.

This photograph was possibly taken by Private William Raynes.

During the second phase of the war Boer farms were often cleared of their inhabitants: houses and possessions were burned and the livestock either taken by the British or destroyed. As a result of this method, more than 30,000 farms were burnt and up to 3.6 million sheep were destroyed.

Miserable scenes are to be seen on the travel, at farm houses men, women & children are to be seen almost starving, I have seen women & children crying terribly when we would burn down their wagons & take away everything that would be of use to the enemy, you cannot think what a horrible thing war is unless you have seen it with your own eyes, but the brutes still hold out.

Private Frank Swanwick, Fourth Contingent, in Gavin McLean, Ian McGibbon & Kynan Gentry (eds), The Penguin Book of New Zealanders at War (2009)

Related deployments:

  1. The Boers & the making of modern Britain

3 Responses

  1. abrham says:


  2. Jan says:

    I think if you did more rigorous research you will find that the Bantu-speaking migrations took place hundreds of years before settlers arrived at the Cape. They did not meet at the Kei River. Mulder is of course trying to say the land was empty and the claim to it by Afrikaners is valid. He should be condemned.

    Furthermore, not only Boer farms were burned under the scorched-earth policy. All farms were. I know because my great-grandparents’ farm was burned and their wells poisoned. They spoke English and German to their family, and corresponded with the government in High Dutch (official language). They too had to flee to avoid being put in the concentration camps. Afrikaners were very good at creating this identity for themselves and writing everyone else, black and white, out of the story.

  3. Tah says:

    What Jan says is correct – Boers were not the only victims of the imperialist British strategy in what is now South Africa. Its safe to say that indigenous Africans were victimised by these “policies” to the same extent, if not even worse.

    Only that they had to go though another era of vitimization: when the Boers took over the political power and introduced apartheid!

    Also it doesnt matter whether “Bantu-speaking-people” only partially occupied the area of what today is called Republic of South Africa – they were definitely present in the region when some people from as far away as the Netherlands or Britain arrived and claimed the land to be their property.

    Its known that more then 1000 years ago there has been the kingdom of Mapungubwe in the northern part of South Africa – an African kingdom that probably had trading links with the swahili coast, which means in consequence it had trading links with China, the Indian subcontinent and the middle east.

    Also its very absurd to differentiate between Khoisan indigenous Africans and Bantu-language-speaking indigenous Africans from a modern day perspective – There has been a lot of fusion between those cultures, Xhosa culture and language for example is a mix of Bantu and Khoisan culture. The boer-minority regime made no big difference when it came to treating people of bantu and of khoisan descend very rude!

    Latest research also shows that Khoisan people are essentially the “original humans” and all modern “races” descend from them – Khoisan have the largest variety of genes – all other “races” have a reduced pool of genes in comparision.

    My proposition: So every South Afircan who acknowledges that she/he probably descends from Khoisan anyways, might claim to be a citizen of the land – that would be a common ground for us all!