History’s frontier undermines the unchangeable fixity of racial categories
On his campaign trail for the local government elections, President Jacob Zuma questioned the rationality of a “black person” who joins the Democratic Alliance. To join an alliance of the people “we liberated ourselves from”, he was suggesting, would be an extreme identity crisis for a black South African.
The president’s narrative is typical of South Africa’s traditions of nationalism, which root identity principally in struggles along the colonial frontier. These narratives speak of the racial categories “black” and “white” with great confidence, often leaving other constructs such as “coloured”, and many others in the margins. Furthermore, they rarely shy away from delineating exactly what kind of behaviour and social expectations rests on each category.
Unfortunately, although these nationalisms can, and have often found, legitimation in the scholarship of historians, nationalism as a theory of historical change cannot offer adequate understanding of a phenomenon so deeply embedded in colonial societies: race and racial ordering. In this, we are not alone.
In 1893, the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously argued that the frontier was the making of the “American” as a quintessentially indigenous identity. His essay, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, describes the frontier as the furthest reach of a wave of colonising peoples into the hinterlands. In the mind of the settler, the uncanny stretches out in all its unpredictability, an empty wilderness to be tamed.
According to Turner, generations of Europeans settlers disembarked along the coast of the Atlantic into the “New World”, and completely unhinged themselves from every mooring of European life and institutions. The process was slow, brutal, and humiliating. First they became one with the wilderness: losing their clothing, foraging with hands and sticks, but all the while pushing the boundaries of their genius to innovate and therefore survive. In time, they gained the upper hand over nature and conquered it. But the wilderness had made of them something other than who they were before. They had become Americans. The frontier became the crucible of rebirth.
Turner was wrong, of course. Frontiers were not an empty space, and the coloniser was not a benign (or the only) historical agent on the landscape. The reality was more traumatic than his proposition: the near extermination of indigenous peoples, slavery and the Civil War are important points of reference in this regard.
But, more to the point, are Turner’s sentiments of “rebirth” not the very substance of nationalism? Are national mythologies not different formulations of “reawakening”, a way of “remembering” anew a moment of collective triumph over adversity? In Turner’s thesis, the mythologies of nationalism are taken as a fact.
On our own shores, Afrikaner nationalism in the late 19th century found its own mythology along the frontier, by reconstructing the story of the “The Great Trek”. In the 1830s and 1840s many families, most of them white, speaking an amalgam of languages, mostly Dutch, migrated en masse from the Cape Colony, moving north and east into the interior. Their descendants later claimed that it was these many decades of war against man and nature that gave birth to a nation – the Afrikaners.
Later, in the 20th century, there were historians whose scholarship gave credence to this founding mythology, mostly in celebration. Yet the historical reality is that a politicised Afrikaner identity, the notion of a volk, was a late-19th-century phenomenon. Afrikaner nationalism does not have its genesis in The Great Trek. Like Turner, these historians were wrong. Nationalism should never be taken at its word.
But even some historians who were opposed to Afrikaner nationalism fell into the same trap. They argued that, rather than the benign figure of Turner’s conceptualisation, the settler or pioneer was turned by the frontier into an insular, irredeemably racist personality. The consequences of conflict and competition with indigenous people over resources, especially land, had made the settler “white”.
These historians were also wrong. This time the triumph of nationalism, in its consolidation of racial segregation under apartheid, had seduced them to see the past in the horrifying mirror of the present.
A serious criticism of what he called “the frontier tradition in South African history” was written by the late historian Martin Legassick in 1976, in a seminal essay of the same name. There is no necessary relationship, he argued, between experiences of the frontier and a society structured by race.
In his recent, posthumous publication Hidden Histories of Gordonia (Wits University Press) Legassick explores the frontier north of the Orange River from the mid-19th century onwards. He reveals a landscape of brutal, often bloody conquest, but one which was also characterised by mixed living and cultural osmosis across the colour bar. Survival, in Gordonia, an arid hinterland that borders present-day Namibia and Botswana, was impossible for those who did not learn cooporation across the colour line.
In 1880, for example, a community of Basters established a settlement in Gordonia. As progeny of the indigenous Khoi and white settlers, Basters were “brown” people. They were not the first inhabitants of Gordonia. Before then the territory was home to various Khoi communities, notably the Korana, whom they displaced. As settlers and colonisers, the Basters were not alone, but included a handful of white persons, many of them men married to Baster women.
By the turn of the century, this was a mixed, and relatively integrated society. According to the categories of the 1904 census, there were “Europeans”, “Hottentots”, “Fingos”, “Natives and Bechuana” and “mixed others” living there. Notably, the settlement was thriving. Settlers were steeped in ideas of respectability and were dedicated agrarian producers, producing and trading in wheat and mealies. A Baster by the name of Abraham September first constructed what became known as the Upington Canal (although the white missionary CHW Schroeder was credited with the innovation).
Legassick excavates these and many other “hidden histories” of the frontier. Rather than a single story of conquest and resistance to it, his narrative is one with many other layers of complexity. Legassick has produced other dense histories, about the Sotho-Tswana and the Griqua in the 18th and 19th centuries, showing that the protracted frontier wars north of the Orange did not necessarily pit “blacks” against “whites”, but rather threw together fluid alliances of people, many of them well-acquainted with the dynamics of racially mixed societies.
The dominant traditions of nationalism speak very confidently of “black” and “white” in South Africa. But, at least along this northern frontier in the long 19th century, the people now representing those categories were indistinguishable in their poverty and alienation. They were often exploited by black, brown and white landlords alike.
It is not that racial stereotypes and prejudice did not exist, only that skin colour did not lock people unchangeably into fixed categories. Nor was skin colour in every instance a reliable indicator of social position, political loyalties or cultural life. But the frontier did close, which is what eventually happens when a colonial government formally annexes frontiers and brings these territories, sometimes slowly, under its administration. Its segregationist logic becomes the order of the day. Ultimately, the Basters were dispossessed of their lands, and their descendants were moved to a segregated location for so-called “coloureds” in the 1920s and 1930s.
Histories of ordinary South Africans like Abraham September are complicated. Jacob Zuma takes for granted that there is a “black person” whose voting and other behaviour is racially prescribed. It is ironic that African nationalism can so closely echo the sentiments of colonial administrators. Such “a black person’, following Zuma’s construct, fits uneasily in the history of the open frontier. It is not that these frontier societies did not suffer violence, conquest and loss, but rather that they did so in a context of often ambivalent, fluid, and permeable racial categories. Communities such as Gordonia, and others like it, were possible.
Fortunately we have learnt that the historian’s vocation is not to confer analytical prowess upon the mythologies of nationalism. The argument that skin colour should determine behaviour, including the choice of which political party to vote for, is not based on a thorough engagement with our past.
The frontier was, after all, a landscape of profound unpredictability, like the peoples it produced. Therefore, where there is a “black person”, there is a historically dense, intensely complicated subject, who is not stuck to a simple, calculable script. – mg.co.za
Khumisho Moguerane is a senior lecturer in the history department of the University of Johannesburg