The last two years have been a roller coaster ride for us here on planet earth, and for me. While the obvious need not be belaboured about difficult conditions, I must point out that it’s at a time of personal hardship that we draw on our strengths.
Being able to tell stories through the podcast series has been a saving grace.
First the Anglo-Boer War podcast which continues to garner support. Digital content lives forever (if you can afford the hosting fees) and podcasting appears to have a special place in people’s hearts.
Then Plane Crash Diaries continues to grow its listenership, particularly in the U.S.A. and Australia which is heartening for a South African producer. The stories of the improvement in aviation safety is core to our lives as aviators and the fact that two of the countries which have the most experienced and best pilots feature at the top of the list of listeners gives me much cause for optimism.
Battle of Stalingrad was a labour of love and a few thousand new listeners come on board every week. This was launched two years ago as a short series to tell the story from both the Russian and German points of view and has touched a global nerve. Since Putin’s Russia has invaded the Ukraine, some of the events of the Battle of Stalingrad have emerged as even more important.
The History of South Africa podcast is a deep dive into the past – and as usual the past provides a pointer to the future. Launched in 2021, the series has grown quickly and has even elicited sponsors over the past year. That has helped me pay for the hosting costs which top R2500.00 a year. Sorry to mention filthy lucre but there’s always a bill to be paid!
South African Border Wars took more than a year of planning and thought before it was launched in 2021. The main reason is personal. I am a veteran of conflict and when you’re describing things that you personally experienced, it takes more impetus to want to put these down for the world to hear. Fortunately, I’ve had the support of the SADF military vets, the Angolan Army and my friends at 61 Mechanised Battalion.
The Falkland’s War is another shorter series which is underway. The short sharp war fought in 1982 has almost disappeared from view except for those who fought. As with all conflicts over the ownership of islands or land, this story is not a simple matter of Britain’s colonial past and Argentina’s military junta. It’s also pertinent as we face the Chinese claim concerning Taiwan, and Russia’s claim to the Crimea and the Ukraine.
So all in all, this has been a year of extremely hard work when it comes to my podcasts. The reason is simple. While all of this has been going on, I remain a CEO of a small multimedia production company. The day job pays the bills, the podcasts pay forward.
A few more podcasts are in the pipeline. Suggestions are for other battles on the eastern front during the Russo-German war of 1941-1945, while others have said the Zulu War of 1879 needs another look. I’m in two minds going forward.
Others which have caught my attention include the Battle of the Somme which may unfortunately prove to be very important as the Russian’s refocus their energies on the eastern Ukraine region after failing in their attempt at storming the capital, Kiev. Both sides are going to dig in.
Perhaps the Siege of Leningrad needs another hard look? So many ideas, so little time.
In these troubled months as the world slips back into a major world war, I find some solace understanding how humans function in combat. This provides pointers about the future.
We know, as military analysts, that Vladimir Putin is in a long war position. What is less clear to me is whether or not other world leaders seem to understand this as they continue to play local politics instead of fully perceiving of the threat to their nation-states.
The latest episode of Plane Crash Diaries focuses on one of the most conspiracy-theory speckled accidents in history, the October 1986 crash of a Tupolev TU-134 jetliner that was carrying Mozamibican president Samora Machel. 37 of the 43 aboard died.
To say that the accident is shrouded in controversy is a bit like asking if Vladimir Putin thinks he’s Catherine the Great.
This is one of those incidents where correlation does not prove causation unless of course you’re prone to conspiracy theories.
A lot that could go wrong during a flight did on the Tupolev that day and it led to the death of a man who was a symbol of post-colonial rebellion. This amplified the conspiracy theory avalanche of course and has driven folks into paroxysms of perpetual pontification.
The plane deployed to transport Mozambique’s president that October day was a Tupolev manufactured in 1980 – registration C9-CAA. It had flown about 1,100 flying hours since it rolled off the production line and had undergone its last major inspection in August 1984 in the Soviet Union.
Because it was October, there were no storms forecast as Samora Machel climbed aboard in Maputo for a flight to Mbala in northern Zambia earlier on the 19th to head off to meet Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda and Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos. The Tupolev headed over Zimbabwe then refuelled at Lusaka in Zambia, taking off once more routing to Mbala 1260 kilometers north of Lusaka.
After a day of discussions they flew home at dusk.
At 20h46 on the return flight the radio operator made contact with Maputo Air Traffic Control reporting their position over central Mozambique and saying they were continuing towards Maputo VHF Omnidirectional Range the VOR navigation beacon. Just for those who don’t know A VOR (Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range) signal is something like a lighthouse with two lights. One always shines through 360 degrees and can be picked-up wherever you may be in relation to it while a second conducts focused signal sweeps around the compass points at a set speed and you will only see this as it sweeps past your position.
The constant signal pulses when the narrow beam passes north which permits an instrument on board to calculate the plane’s position based on the phase difference between the pulse and the narrow signal’s appearance at your position.
An instrument in the aircraft calculates where the aircraft is in relation to the VOR station using this phase calculation.
A pilot can tune to a desired VOR station and set an instrument on the panel known as the Omni Bearing Selector (OBS) to indicate which direction the aircraft should be steered in order to reach the station. These days we use GNSS or GPS systems but that was those days.
At that point the plane was maintaining an altitude of 35 000 feet then at 21h05 the crew radio’d Maputo to say they were ready to begin descent and approach.
Maputo told them to descend and report reaching 3000 feet AGL or when the runway lights were in sight. The crew began their descent for an ILS or instrument approach to runway 23. That means they were going to perform a series of maneuvers operating under instrument flight rules from an initial point to a landing which is usually made visually. They would also arrive straight in, no turns or heading downwind or anything.
As they descended, the plane suddenly turned 37º to the right – Westwards.
And the reason has been shrouded in mystery since then. The crew then thought that the Instrument Landing System and the Distance Measuring Equipment or DME at Maputo airport were not working as well.
We know it was.
So they were now heading towards the wrong VOR and their ILS setting they’d set and DME frequencies were now irrelevant.
Shortly after 21h18 the plane reached 3000 feet on descent and the crew informed Maputo that they were maintaining altitude. This was the minimum safe altitude over Maputo and should have been maintained until the airfield was in sight. The aircraft was, however, not maintaining its altitude. Nobody picked this up on on the flight deck, or if they did, they ignored it.
Still in descent mode, the aircraft was approaching the ground rapidly.
The Russians suggested later its because they were cleared to land that the crew continued their descent – which they hadn’t been, they’d been cleared for a visual approach but not to descend past 3000 feet. Of course all five crew members were Russian so there was a need to protect their nationals in what would be another terrible example of CFIT, Controlled Flight Into Terrain.
The plane hit the ground at 21h21 minutes and 39 seconds approximately 35 nautical miles west of Maputo and into a hilly region at 2 185 feet, or 666 meters. The devils number had come into play once more – more grist for the conspiratorial mill.
There was 3/8ths cloud cover at 1 800 feet. The visibility was 10 kilometers.
Back in Maputo, the ATC looked out for Samora Machel’s flight in vain then alerted search and rescue. Of course they started by looking in the wrong place. Throughout the rest of the night and into the early morning the helicopters, planes and ground crews hunted around Maputo – even in Maputo Bay in case the plane had ditched.
What set off the conspiratorial folks was the fact that the plane had crashed 150 meters inside South African territory– 500 feet. The left wing hit a tree and the plane slid down a hill in this remote and quite inaccessible part of South Africa. The plane broke up left a debris field over 2 200 feet, almost a kilometer long. Members of the Komatipoort police station in South Africa were alerted to the crash by a villager living at Mbuzini and they rushed to the scene. That was at around 11pm the night of the accident but the South Africans first had to decide what to do about telling the Mozambicans.
The first medical crew arrived at 1am, then at 4am a second medical support team flew in from Hoedspruit Air Force Base and evacuated survivors to Nelspruit hospital in the Republic.
Four of the Mozambican cabin crew died along with 34 passengers. One survivor lingered on for 2 and a half months after the crash, before passing away.
The SA Department of transport investigated the crash and they approached the US’s National Transportation Safety Board and the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch to assist.
Both refused so the South Africans hired three foreign investigators including aeronautical engineer Frank Borman who was a former US test pilot, astronaut and CEO of Eastern Airlines, Geoffrey Wilkinson, former head of the British Department of Transport’s Air Accident Investigation Branch and Sir Edward Eveleigh who was former Lord Justice of Appeal and member of the British Privy Council.
Judge Cecil Margo chaired the six member body and the hearings were public between January 20th and 26th 1987. He’d soon chair another investigation into the crash of South Afrcan Airways flight 295 in 1988 – the Heidelberg accident we heard about in an earlier episode.
The Machel inquiry rapidly threw out any suggestion of a bomb causing the crash and found that the 37 degree turn was initiated by the navigator using the autopilot’s Doppler navigation mode.
He did so because he saw a VOR signal indicating that the aircraft had intercepted Maputo’s VOR 45 degrees radial which is its compass direction from Maputo which the crew needed to intercept in order to approach to land on runway 23.
What happened was the plane turned right onto the path of another VOR nearby which was thought to be the 45 degree radial at Matsapa Airport in Swaziland. But another allegation was made – that the SA Defence Force had placed a decoy VOR beacon on the ground and the pilots were flying towards that instead.
The reason why it was likely however that Matsapa Airport VOR was the culprit is a simple matter of mistaken identity – the two VOR frequencies were almost criminally close – Maputo was 112.7 MHz and Matsapa in Swaziland was 112.3. Usually VOR signals that are adjacent have very different frequencies for obvious reasons.
They did not cross-check at any point during approach so it was poor cockpit resource management. There were five of them, too many cooks were spoiling the flight to mix a metaphor.
And then the big one – the crew knew they did not have sufficient fuel on board and could not make the alternative airport at Beira. This obviously increased the pressure on all five to continue approach into Maputo despite the obvious can of worms in the last few minutes.
The final and deadliest mistake – they continued descending below 3000 feet despite only being cleared to 3000 and did so at a fairly brisk 500 feet per minute until just before they hit the ground. With a few seconds to go the Captain did input a slight nose-up the pitch but hardly what we call a go-around.
Had the crew performed the correct GPWS procedures when flying over hilly or unknown terrain by quickly raising the nose and increasing power they would have survived.
Reading this makes no sense. Why did the Captain also fail to climb to the minimum safe altitude for Maputo of 3 600 feet when things began to go pear shaped?
Just to finally deflate conspiracy theorists, SA Air Force pilots penetrated Mozambique air space over the next few weeks to test the Matsapa Swaziland VOR power and confirmed that it reached north of Maputo and could be picked up all the way down to 3000 feet on the same approach. This was further corroborated by a number of commercial pilots who flew on C9-CAAs track who also could read the Matsapa VOR.
Just to really muddy the waters, the Mozambicans then cast around for a scapegoat and their baleful gaze landed on the unfortunate ATC by the name of Antonio Cardoso de Jesus. They accused him of allegedly tampering with Maputo’s beacon on the night of the crash, being given a R1.5m bribe, a million US dollars in those days, by the South Africans and he was suspended in May 1988. Ten years later he told the Star Newspaper that he was leading a miserable life in Mozambique and could not say anything further. His superiors claimed he was suspended for ill health and not taking a bribe. So go figure.
Safety wise, this accident didn’t cause much international response other than the shock of a President of a country dying in a crash. However it reinforced the obvious need to ensure reserve fuel, proper CRM and adhering to checklists and approach procedure.
The rule is clear, any modern commercial or airline crew would immediately know that this 45 minute reserve is dangerously close to the minima prescribed for aircraft operations. These minima state that sufficient fuel should be available to permit the aircraft to land at a suitable alternative airport when reaching the end of its journey plus 30 minutes worth of flying time.
Their route took them over Zimbabwe and then central Mozambique. As they passed abeam of Beira, a decision would have had to be made to either continue to Maputo or to divert. They decided it was a go even though the fuel situation on board would have indicated that the crew would have a critical reserve once they reached Maputo. They had painted themselves into a corner.
Where no alternative is available, then the 30 minutes of flying time becomes the minimum. The Russians skipped that rule and paid for it with their lives and so we must conclude that Moscow’s story of decoy’s is itself a decoy, a red herring.
The Captain made one mistake after another and his biggest came at the end when he ignored the GPWS and refused to go around.
Whatever decoys, red herrings, straw dolls, UFOs, nasty South Africans, blah blah cheesecake allegations, the truth is this. As a commercial pilot had he survived he would never have flown again. It was poor decision-making compounded by exhaustion and I’m afraid you don’t need a decoy to kill a president when his aviators are mucking around below minimums, clearly lost and debating who’s going to get which Heineken.
Then they didn’t identify the VOR – another very old standard practice. They just twiddled the knobs and turned the plane.
I was working as a journalist in South Africa at the time of this crash and remember vividly how we were extremely suspicious of the death of one of the most famous freedom struggle heroes of southern Africa. The apartheid government was pressurised from all sides, the Border War in Angola was heating up, the ANC’s internal political wing called the United Democratic Front had launched uprisings and Mozambique was allowing the ANC to use it’s territory as an insurgency jump-off point. The SA armed forces were indulging in torture, detention and brutalisation. Then suddenly Samora Machel dies in an aeroplane crash? Clearly suspicious.
But correlation is not causation.
This was CFIT through and through I’m afraid. Since then every few years some local social media crack-pot mutters about new evidence being found to prove a plot to kill Machel but its just the usual grandstanding mumbo-jumbo from that that coven of politicians otherwise known as a thicket.
Next episode we’ll focus on the US-Bangla Airlines Flight 211 accident in 2018. That was an example of some of the worst Cockpit Resource Management errors you will ever hear.
As we’ve heard, the trading with the Khoe at the Cape is not going as well as the Dutch hoped and Jan Van Riebeeck the fort commander had decided to lay out his formal frontier albeit a tiny start to what would become a major immigration. And it would start with a tree called the Bitter Almond which considering what was to happen to the Khoe over the next century, is a pretty accurate name.
Living with the van Riebeecks was a really interesting Khoe woman called Krotoa. As Patric Mellet points out in his work, the lie of 1652, Krotoa was a key figure in the struggle between the Khoe and the Dutch. From various descriptions, Krotoa is likely to have been fathered by a European traveler with her Khoe mother who left Krotoa’s upbringing to her brother Autshumao. Basically her mother disowned her it appears but that didn’t stop the youngster from developing into quite a force at the Dutch fort.
She was exposed to many languages as her uncle, a Khoe man, was the port-master for the Dutch. Van Riebeeck took Krotoa from her uncle into his service as a maid when she was ten and she carried out the demanding role of both nurse to the sick Maria and her children.
So Krotoa spent ten years with the van Riebeeck family, learning Dutch and Portuguese and for six of those years, she was the VOC interpreter, emissary and diplomat.
The dutch called her Eva – and we met her last episode. At first van Riebeeck was charmed by her capacity as a linguist, but soon began to distrust what she was saying – believing she was misleading him and said that Krotoa was, in his words “drawing the longbow” in her interpretations.
That was Dutch slang for disinformation and interpreting untruthfully. By now the local Khoe who made a living directly from the Fort and the new freeburghers were based in the area called Camissa inside the bitter almond hedge.
Krotoa began to build a relationship between herself and her sister who had married the powerful Cochoqua chief Oedasoa. So Krotoa was caught in a vortex of social and economic change and was obviously wrestling with her place in life. Her relationship with the other main interpretor, Doman was not good and van Riebeeck purposefully set up conflict at times to ensure that between the two of them, he received accurate information as they competed in tittle-tattling.
As she entered puberty, Krotoa was surrouned by 140 roughneck men which included some from Ambon in the east – and where protection was difficult to ensure. Between the ages of 12 and 15 she absorbed the religion and culture of the Dutch.
I have not fully explained yet that the role of women in Khoe society at that time was far more egalitarian than has often been described. We know it was common for women to be leaders of Khoe groups which gave Krotoa a great advantage compared to the position held by Dutch women in the 17th Century.
By the time van Riebeeck departed with his family in 1662, VOC leaders were wary of Krotoa. Her role in the first Khoe-Dutch war which we’ve just heard about was contradictory. At times she travelled to speak to her sister living amongst the Cochoqua, at others she acted as an intermediary with the Goringhaiqua.
In many ways, Eva or Krotoa as we’ll now call her, was torn between her African culture and her European culture. There was a tug-of-war going on. She would wear both the attire of an Asian maid, a robe basically, and other times, she would strip off the robe and walk about in her Khoe tiny leather skirt, barebreasted.
She was also in a tug-of-war between two different Khoe groups. The Cochoqua and the Goringhaiqua tribe known as the //Ammaqua. Some days she would journey amongst the Cochoqua, riding one of the prized bulls, treated like the daughter of a leader. Other days she’d travel with European men who treated her as a slave and we believe, as a form of concubine.
Between 1656 and 1661 Krotoa blossomed and began to deal more effectively with the other translator, Doman, who led the first Khoe uprising.
As van Riebeeck’s tenure at the Cape drew to a close, Krotoa had managed to personally assure the delivery of cattle by the Cochoqua, setting up high-level meetings between van Riebeeck and the important Khoe group. She also argued in their favour at discussions – clearly her strategy was to be effective for both groups but she was walking a tightrope.
Things changed for her in 1662, when van Riebeeck left the Cape. Krotoa then married the Danish soldier and surgeon Peter Havgardt. Because of the custom enforced by the Dutch East Indies Company the VOC, Havgardt adopted the Dutch persona of Pieter van Meerhof.
He was both barber and amputator. Such was the life of a surgeon back in 1660.
He was also a profligate adventurer and decided to head off on a slave-raiding expedition to Madagascar where he died – but not before Krotoa was pregnant with their child. By this time, she was living on Robben island not as a prisoner, but as the wife of the Dutch Danish surgeon
Krotoa had a breakdown after Meerhof died, her children were taken away and placed in the care of the church. Two of her four children, Pieternella and Saloman, ended up living with a brothel-keeper called Barbara Geems.
Her one illegitimate son Antonij Evert was looked after by a freed slave couple from West Africa, Anna and Evert van Guinea, while nothing is known about what happened to her fourth child, a son called Jeronimus.
Pieternella and Salomon were taken to Mauritius after the brothel-keeper Barbara Geems passed them on to Bartholomeus Borns and his wife.
We’ll return to what happened to Krotoa in a later podcast but as we embark on this series at times we’ll hear personal tales of the people of South Africa.
So in the decades after the first Khoe-Dutch war the VOC’s frontier of trade expanded much more rapidly than agrarian settlement – the rate at which freeburghers increased their farms outside of the dedicated areas on the Peninsular was still controlled tightly by the company and the local colonial government.
The company’s impact on the Khoekhoe was gradual and cumulative rather than cataclysmic, like the impact on Krotoa if you like. But a turning point was coming in the 1670s as we’ll hear.
In Episode 17 I cover the second Khoe-Dutch war of 1673 which dealt the Peninsular tribe known as the Cochoqua a terminal blow.
The growing population at the Cape meant both the colonisers and the passing fleets needed to be well fed with fresh produce. The colonial programme was created to foster farming to supply the station’s needs – and it was the expanding use of arable land and fresh water that went along with it that further exacerbated the conflict with the indigenous peoples.
The VOC initially offered land grants to individuals from 1657 as we’ve heard – along with many restrictions. This was nothing like the full ownership of property – it was similar to a feudal quitrent leasehold system in everything but name. With this system, a person holding land was obliged to pay an annual rent to the lord of the manor and various services had to be levied. The more rent paid, the fewer services were required.
This form of leasehold system was called Leningplaats or loan farm – and would remain in place for the next 160 years. IT was similar to the other systems of land use in Europe at the time.
But that wasn’t all facing the new freeburghers who’d begun to farm the Cape. There were also grazing licenses which would be issued, followed by the farmer staking a formal claim to the grazed land which was then converted into a Leningplaats bond.
The VOC benefitted from an annual rent of 10 percent of whatever the farm produced.
Think of it as a form of tax – and a way in which the Dutch East India company could control both the freeburghers and the sale of goods to passing ships. Individual freehold was only introduced in South Africa by British governor Sir John Cradock in 1814. So the initial contact between the VOC and the indigenous Africans was that of a collective Dutch company licensed by the Dutch States General.
It so happened that the Dutch VOC system was not very different from the community land ownership under trust of custodianship of Africans where the chiefs were instrumental in dishing out the grazing or farming land. We’ve heard about this in our earlier podcasts.
There is the irony in South Africa’s land history if you think about it – the early forms of land as property where the chief or governor leased locations to people and then demanded constant form of tax payment back for the right to use it.
And both the Dutch and the Khoe had a use it or lose it system.
The Khoe trust ownership was not defined by having feudal or corporate dictatorial powers over land, it was more fluid where the Khoe chiefs for example had no right to dictate to individuals about exactly what they did with the land – just that it should be used and they would gain a portion of the proceeds.
These chiefs had already warned the Dutch about land use – and van Riebeeck’s journals show how these men and women drew parallels with the Dutch practices – specifically when they became angry about the encroachment on their land and demanded what would happen if they went to Holland and did the same.
In this episode I focus on the 1670s through to the 1680s where a whole lot was going on in the south of Africa.
Let me first start with race relations. South Africans probably have no idea that the man who launched the most aggressive drive to expand into Africa was not born in Europe – he was born in Mauritius of Dutch and Indian stock. Had he been born after apartheid’s firm grasp fixed South African in a race-based laws after 1948 he would have been classified coloured.
The man who ran the first version of our country would have been denied the right to vote and forced to take second-class trains. And yet he introduced colonialism in South Africa in its full stark reality.
History. Got to love it in all its irony.
That man of course was Simon van der Stel – who was dark of skin and who was Eastern in his ways – as well as Dutch of course. Half and half.
History is a vicious taskmaster of the bigot, the blind contemporary.
He was to usher in the formation of a whole new people – the Afrikaners. Part black, part white, part French, part Dutch, somewhat Khoe, a spattering of Angolan layered with Madagascan, infused in Africa. Later Afrikaners would be English or Irish or Scots in origin as well, Scandinavians too.
They are the trekboers of the 19th Century and the poets of the 21st.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
When Simon van der Stel arrived from Mauritius, the colony was still confined to the Cape peninsular with outstations at Dassen Island, Saldanha Bay and the Hottentots Hollands mountains.
Twenty six years later when his son Adrian van der Stel was recalled – it covered many hundreds of square miles with new towns of Stellenbosch and Drakenstein – the former with its own magistrate and council and the latter populated by industrious French refugees known as the Huguenots. They arrive in 1688 and are part of our next podcast.
Van der Stel was driven by a relentless energy and a talent for organizing. Within a month of his arrival in 1679 he was off surveying his command and had identified a site for the new town of Stellenbosch. He had laid out land holdings of 160 acres per plot watered by the Eeste Rivier but he needed immigrants to populate the land.
When he first sailed into Table Bay in 1679 he would have noted a few interesting things in the tiny settlement that adjoined the Fort now built of stone and an imposing building close to the seafront.
There were now around 200 freemen, burghers, freeburghers. Some were unsavoury such as P Bartolemi a carpenter who threatened to shoot the previous governor like a dog. There was J. Jans, a drunkard who in an intoxicated state thought it would be interesting to see what happened if he fed pigs and dogs with sugar and eggs mixed with wine, then picked another drunk’s pocket.
He was flogged, given three years in chains, and all property confiscated. He had turned into a convict. That meant he was technically of a lower status than a slave.
Below the rung of freemen white and black, were the slaves and all were black.
And yet under Dutch law based on Roman practice, slaves had a recognized legal status which did not exist in English common law – nor the common law of America at the time.
This is episode 12 and we’re at the point where Jan van Riebeeck and 88 men and women had setup the refreshment station to provide fruit, vegetables and meat to passing VOC fleets.
As we heard last episode, the fort would take a year to complete. The Dutch had arrived in the Cape at precisely the wrong time, it was Autumn and the Mediterranean climate meant the coming winter would be cold and wet.
Worse, the Khoekhoe had left their settlements on the Cape Flats heading up the east coast to areas which were more sheltered for the winter and van Riebeeck’s men suffered as meat was not available. They were reduced to eating penguins, seals and birds of different kinds to stay alive.
So by eight months and despite Jan van Riebeeck’s determination being tested, earth works had been built, gardens were laid out and seeds had been sown – and he’d even managed to harvest the first vegetables.
This was rather deceptive, because when the first large Dutch fleet passed by in March 1653, the ships themselves were obliged to contribute several tons of rice, together with salted meat and biscuit to the hungry garrison. And yet, some fresh meat was made available for the fleet along with fresh vegetables.
That by itself was quite an achievement. The Khoekhoe had largely left the Cape flats for winter so locating cattle to buy had been a big problem. Soon things improved as the Khoekhoe returned by December 1652 and were happy to trade their animals for tobacco and copper.
“the Saldanha’s seek to show us all the friendship they can..” wrote van Riebeeck on December 8th. But the Khoekhoe moved on a few days later and the Dutch fort commander seemed to forget his orders as he began to consider other ways of obtaining cattle.
The least complicated, mused van Riebeeck, was merely to seize cattle from the unsuspecting Khoekhoe who always arrived to trade unarmed. Then he’d pack them off to India in irons as slaves he wrote. But this was completely counter to the VOC policy and he regretfully noted that he would take no such action – at least not until further instructions.
This obscured the fact that the biggest trouble makers in the first year were the Dutch mercenary sailors and soldiers he’d hired for this adventure. An apparently deranged soldier by the name of Martinus de Hase stole the carpenters tools and food.
When he was tracked down he pleaded to be shot. Dutch soldiers who were acting as herdsmen were also regarded as pretty useless, allowing the cattle to roam further afield where they were stolen by the Khoekhoe. These soldiers were punished with a hundred blows of the butt-end of a musket.
Because the Dutch were under orders not to learn the Khoekhoe language things did not remain peaceful between the inhabitants of the VOC fort in Table Bay and the local community. Since the Khoekhoe moved with the seasons and burned grass to ensure fresh new growth, van Riebeeck began to suspect they were holding back, waiting for the English ships. Not speaking a word of Khoe or San did not help.
The Dutch ignore Khoekhoe languages at their peril
These English appeared to pay more for the goods traded than the Dutch which was a matter of concern. None of the newcomers could grasp Khoekhoe and were forbidden to learn as I said, since Dutch was supposed to be the only language used on the station.
They were worried about the soldiers and sailors going native – to use the somewhat insulting phrase bandied about by colonials. Absolute reliance was placed on a few of the Khoekhoe who learned Dutch and English.
When the Dutch first began to show an interest in the Cape, they had met two men, Claes Das and Doman who acted as interpreters, as well as the little girl who was called Krotoa.
She was given the Western name of Eva and later called “tolkinne” which is Dutch for female interpretor.
Tolkinne was accompanied by her uncle Herrij the Beachcomber who spoke some broken English. Herrij or Harry was the leader of a small band of Strandlopers numbering two dozen perhaps. Harry sailed on board a British ship to the East and learned English during the voyage.
The English nicknamed him “kingh Herrij”.
By April 14th 1653 Jan Van Riebeeck drafted the first report and he was in a dilemma. After his comments three years previously about how wonderfully verdant the Cape was and how he was the best man for the job of setting up a refreshment station, he was now obliged to retract and to offer delicately phrased excuses for failing to have setup a fully functioning operation.
He grumbled in his report that the first outward bound large fleet heading from Amsterdam to Batavia had not stopped at the Cape as promised. Worse, the Khoekhoe had rejected much of the tobacco they’d stored for use in bartering as of inferior quality. The Khoekhoe were connoissoirs of tobacco – and were now driving a hard bargain in exchange for their important cattle.
Van Riebeeck ended his first report with a passionate plea to be allowed to leave the fairest Cape which he no longer regarded as one of Good Hope.
“I will now move to conclude, mostly humbly, respectfully and earnestly pray, that your honours will think of removing me hence to India and to some better and higher employment ….”
We need to take a step back and look at what was happening across Southern Africa in 1652. I explained last episode how the amaXhosa in the vicinity of the Mbashe River between today’s Port St Johns and East London, had begun to expand southwards.
The amaXhosa believed themselves to be the common descendents of a legendary hero called Xhosa who lived many centuries before the coming of the Europeans. As I explained in previous podcasts, their language had become infused with the clicks of the Khoekhoe and San over hundreds of years of contact. The amaXhosa were related to the farmers who pushed into the coastal lowlands starting around 200 AD.
The land where they lived was called the amaXhoseni, the place of the Xhosa people. It’s an extensive summer rainfall region stretching along the southern seaboard of the African continent between the Mbashe River and the Sunday’s River. It features the looming amathole and Winterberg mountain ranges, covered by a thick forest and bush to the north and to the south the lush coastal vegetation grows right up to the sweeping white sand beaches of the Indian Ocean.
Rivers and streams flow erratically down to the ocean from the mountains and hilly uplands, and the amaXhosa preferred to settle in the river valleys that had the best soil and pasturage.
The first accounts of the amaXhosa that were written down came from European sailors shipwrecked along the dangerous coast. The amaXhosa had settled in the area by the 1500s at least, living in scattered homesteads dotting the picturesque countryside. By the 1500s the amaXhosa homesteads took on the standard form that would persist up to the modern era.
Each homestead accommodated the members of the a family along with their dependents, all living under the command of a married man. The status an authority was derived from a man’s genealogy with the oldest man the leader. His wealth came from inherited herds of cattle.
The amaXhosa left their head bare except for minor chiefs, military officers and men who’d distinguished themselves in battle who wore the feathers of a blue crane as a badge of honour.
Women would also wear buckskin caps, while both sexes would adorn themselves in ornaments of various kinds. Necklaces were made of reed, wood, shell and roots as well as beads of unbaked clay. Others wore metal or east-coast glass beads traded from the Arabs and then the Europeans far away in Mozambique. These goods would journey along trading networks to the smallest settlements along the coast. The amaXhosa would also wear iron, copper and brass bangles.
Men preferred necklaces of animal claws and teeth, or ivory armbands – ivory in particular was one of the most highly prized gifts from a chief and indicated a person of high standing.
By December 1652 the group of Khoe van Riebeeck called “The Saldanhas” had migrated back to their grazing lands along the base of Table Mountain – where Kirstenbosch, Constantia and the Steenberg is today. He wrote that
“…the country is covered with cattle and sheep as grass…”
These Saldanhas or Chochoquas were obviously different people compared to the Strandlopers as the Dutch called the small clan living along the Cape Town beach.
“there is nothing degenerate in the proud Saldanhas…” he wrote “they have all the traditional courtesy of the cattle-keeper…”
By now the Khoe had traded all the copper they wanted from the Dutch and refused to sell any more cattle. So van Riebeeck sent out a party of men to try and find people further afield. By Christmas eve 1652 they could only locate two encampments of Khoe – the rest had already left. These few dozen men and women were looking after seven hundred head of cattle and around 1500 sheep but they also refused to trade. It was suddenly apparent to the Dutch that the Khoe preferred to trade their animals with the English and this was not satisfactory.
On the 28th December two groups of the Khoe began fighting close to the Dutch stockade with four killed by the Chochoqua – who then promptly took off with all the cattle but leaving the VOC’s unmolested.
By February 1653 the garden was producing more vegetables and fruit and the men were happier – but then disaster. On Sunday 9th February a swarm of locusts was seen five miles behind Table Mountain and described as
“as if snow-flakes were falling so that the earth and sky was hardly distinguishable..”
The swarm struck the all-important garden on the 15th February. This area of the Cape is not known for locust swarms, but van Riebeeck was just unlucky. The garden was damaged by the locusts but it could have been worse.
For the next two months trading continued to be sporadic until late April 1653 when another group of Khoe passed by, this time thought to be the Kochoqua, not to be confused with the Chochoqua. The Kochoqua lived in the highlands above Saldanha and had heard about the Dutch and traded 28 cattle. A week later another small group passed by trading 18 cattle for copper plates.
By December 1655 more than 20 000 head of cattle could be seen grazing between Salt River and Table Mountain – and not one could be traded by van Riebeeck. You can imagine the growing resentment and anger as this garrison observed the riches of the Cape and yet were not permitted to share in its bounty.
By now Harry had led the Dutch on a song and dance for more than two years and he continued to offer trade solutions – only to disappear with any copper he was given.
The fort had two other male translators by now, along with the young Khoekhoe teen girl called Eva who was helping describe what was really going on.
One or the Khoekhoe translators, Claes Das found out that Harry was behind much of the trouble that van Riebeeck faced. Still the year ended with some improvements. The Dutch had taken to storing their sheep on Robben island and there were now 600 along with 370 cattle on that symbolic low-lying rocky outcrop.
As you can see, the desperately chaotic relationship between the newly arrived Europeans and the Africans was growing more and more complex, more and more confrontational. This was hardly going to improve after something that happened in May 1656.
First settlers stake out their land in 1657
The first settlers are about to make their way out of the Dutch fort at the Cape after being allocated land to plant their gardens. This action which Jan Van Riebeeck took in 1657 was to have reverberations which are still being felt across the southern African region – and beyond.
It must be remembered that the VOC did not envisage colonization as an end to itself. It merely wished to substitute limited private farming for state production in order to reduce expenditure.
So far we’ve heard how the VOC company commander at the Cape of Good Hope had managed to grow his vegetables and fruit, but was not able to secure enough head of cattle from the Khoekhoe despite his constant trading and badgering.
The Khoe for their part had realized that the Dutch were not going to go away and had begun to show signs of more aggression – particularly in 1655 and 1656 with groups of Khoe setting up their shelters close to the VOC fort.
By January 1657 van Riebeeck was visited by Harry the Strandloper who had become a significant player in the Cape, along with a local Khoe chief they called The Fat Captain. His name was Gogosoa and he was paramount chief of the Gorachouqua and Goringhaicona. More about him in a while.
He represented a group of Khoe living where Salt River is today – and both were unhappy about what they heard when they received information that the Dutch were going to allow freeburghers to own land.
IT was now that the settlement numbers began to grow from just over one hundred in 1657 to more than 700 by 1695. The number of free burghers who had been granted release from the Company service increased steadily too. The number of Khoekhoe living on the Peninsular and the Flats fluctuated with their migrations – but generally there were a few thousand to be found particularly in summer.
Then in October 1658 something of a miracle occured regarding the Dutch translations. Suddenly the company journal began describing the Khoe in far more accurate ways.
Khoe tribal names were rendered more plausible to European ears and become more circumnavigable to Dutch tongues. It took the Dutch 6 years to piece together the alien sound of multiple clicks and probably prompted by the dawning of the era of colonialism.
By January 1659, Doman one of the Khoe translators we heard about last week had become disillusioned about Dutch aims in the Cape. He’d seen the VOC in action after a trip to the Far East, to the Dutch capital Batavia and was impressed by their organizational capacity and power. But now, back home, he was aware that the KHoe people were no longer able to fully control their futures. And he was angry with Jan van Riebeeck for taking three Khoe chiefs hostage as the Dutch tried to force the Khoe to bring their escape slaves back.
And worse, the Europeans had begun to show signs of settling in for the long haul – after all the first tranche of free burghers had just been given their 28 hectare plots around modern day Rondebosch and between the Liesbeeck and Salt Rivers which was prime Khoe grazing land. Now it was out of bounds to people who had seen generations use the same land.
The irony is Doman had been planning a major uprising for the previous few months but had decided to bide his time until the next winter.
AT the same time, Van Riebeeck decided to send a heavily armed group of his men overland to find the centre of gold production in Southern Africa – Monomotapa.
This of course was mad – he had no idea that Monomotapa was close to two thousand kilometers away in Zimbabwe. But the reports from the Portuguese and Arabs spoke of this immense city of gold so that was highly motivational.
Then in May 1659 the freemen approached van Riebeeck once more about the constant theft of their implements and cattle – and now they had had enough. They petitioned the VOC council once more appealing for action to be taken against the Khoe who had been pilfering livestock.
They also were prone to removing the metal parts of the wooden ploughs and any tools they found attached.
In Mid-May 16 head of cattle were stolen from the freeburghers just to add insult to injury, this time the Khoe who took them also killed the young boy minding the animals.
It was Doman’s doing.
He had convinced some of the younger men to join his action against the Dutch and a tussle developed between the two peoples’.
Doman told his force to avoid killing the whites and to focus on taking their food which would in effect drive them away. He knew by avoiding murdering the freeburghers, it would make it far more difficult for van Riebeeck to convince the VOC that he should take direct military action.
Eventually in early January 1660, word spreads that both the Dutch and the Khoe were tired and both sides clearly wanted to end this spate of killings. There were a series of false starts to these discussions but eventually in June 1660 van Riebeeck discovered that some of the freeburghers had been actively trading both with the Khoe they were supposedly fighting – as well as passing French ships.
The freemen had found a way to bypass the VOC using methods as devious as loading meat under wagon loads of wood. They were cutting out the middle man and van Riebeeck was that man.
Peace restored in 1660
Duly in mid-1660, peace was restored. The Khoikhoin of the Peninsular returned to their homes and the Dutch did not take revenge. The reason was as van Riebeeck wrote, the KHoe’s complaint that they may have stolen a few head of cattle, but they’d actually lost their all important land.
“The Dutch were taking every day… land which had belonged to them from all ages and on which they were accustomed to depasture their cattle…” said one of the Khoe leaders during the negotiations.
They also asked in a pointed comment whether they “were to come to Holland, would they be permitted to act in the same way?”
This would be the crux of coming conflict between black and white in South Africa. The colonial farmers just did not understand the value of land held by the indigenous people. They thought because it was passed over by pastoralists, blacks did not value the land and also because it was being allowed to lay fallow for long periods as the Khoe migrated back and forth – it looked empty and unused.
It was the opposite.
The land was the mother, and for the Khoe, the Dutch were raping their mother.
We will return to this theme and the myth making around who owned what land in the future. It’s a constant debate in South Africa – with the apartheid government and other political leadership reinforcing the idea that because the Khoe didn’t have written documents showing who owned what land – it could be taken away. This is a long story repeated across the world – and still being repeated.
The standoff in this first Khoe-Dutch war was a defeat for the Khoe. They had failed in their primary objective of driving the Dutch out of the Cape.
Doman was exiled on Robben Island setting the tone for the next four hundred years of its use as an easily accessible rocky outcrop that was almost impossible to escape.
From Mapungubwe to the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, the series explores the history from various perspectives.
When Mapungubwe emerged from the increased trade between central south Africa and the East Coast seaboard including ivory, skins and eventually, gold around 1000AD.
Unlike areas of Africa further north and north west, slave trade did not impact this region for a number of reasons. The main is distance. Each mile further south from the main Arabian, Asian and European – then American centers of slavery meant was a threat to the survival of those unfortunate souls seized as slaves by intermediaries.
So Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe were not crucial in the trade of humans over the centuries, their power lay in goods rather than people.
We heard too how by the start of the eleventh century Mapungubwe culture had shifted from the Complex Cattle Pattern where each settlement featured a large cattle kraal in the centre – to something very different.
The spatial expression of status and the greater social distance between elite and commoner was expressed through the trade and storage of valuable products that replaced cattle as items regarded as most important.
While ivory had been traded for hundreds of years, gold became extremely important to the Mapungubwe people. Gold plated rhino statuettes, a bowl and scepter have been found in the grave or what we think was a royal cemetery on the Mapungubwe main settlement hilltop.
In more modern Shona ethnography, the black rhino is a symbol of political power and leadership so there is some speculation that the golden rhino found in the grave pointed to an important burial site. These royal burial sites are also smothered in some thing else … thousands of gold and glass trade beads.
The area today would not really be able to sustain large-scale grain production. The location of elite and commoner settlements here throughout the tenth to the thirteenth centuries AD sheds light on how the scale of agricultural production was achieved.
It’s all geography of course. Besides finding a place where water flows, these people also setup their settlements near alluvial gold that was washing down the rivers draining the gold rich geology of the Zimbabwe plateau to the north. So these folks were looking out across a landscape that had gold, and an extensive flood plain close to the Limpopo River just upstream from the junction with the Shashe River.
Development of the Sotho/Tswana and Nguni in Southern Africa
Combine this with a continuing trade to the southeast African coastline and particularly Europeans from the 1500s, what Simon Hall calls the historical anonymity that veils much of the first millennium starts to slip.
It is now that we can begin tracing the origin of the Sotho/Tswana and Nguni speakers. Cultural remains of people who are regarded as those of ancestral Nguni speakers first appear around 1100AD along the coastal regions of KwaZulu Natal, while Sotho and Tswana speakers are linked to Bushveld habitats north and south of the Soutpansburg from about 1300AD.
As with our other links, its all about pottery, ceramics if you like, and other cultural items.
Starting 1000 years ago, we begin tracking these people as they migrate over the land – leaving their homesteads to be covered by hundreds of years of South African weathering only to be unearthed by some lucky person in the 20th or 21stCentury.
Stand back for a moment and consider our journey so far. First we heard about the geological change, then climate shifts, then we covered the earliest known hunter-gatherer people who left their mark on the land over 100 000 years. The earliest farmers migrated to southern Africa around 2000 years ago, then by 500 years ago pastoralists’ could be found in the Karoo with their sheep and dogs.
Cattle begin arriving around 500AD and pastoralists dominate the west of the country with its arid conditions suited to livestock but these people did not work iron like those in the East – the wetter summer rainfall areas.
By 900AD the central region is trading with East African ports, which leads to larger empires if you want to use that word which can be found by 900 through to 1300AD.
It is now that the more modern people of South Africa can be identified more precisely, the Nguni, the Sotho, the Tswana.
Standing back once more and looking from above so to speak, its clear that the Sotho and Tswana people populated South Africa from North to South.
But the Nguni people on the other hand are a completely different kettle of fish. We know enough to say there is no continuous record of settlements and homesteads between the early farmer phase of the Ntshekane as they’re known and these pioneer Nguni folks.
What this means in a nutshell is that although there were ancient people who farmed living in KwaZulu Natal, they were not the same as the new arrivals who spoke a form of early Zulu and eventually isiXhosa.
However, it does mean that the origins of both the Sotho/Tswana and Nguni speakers appear to be broadly related. The impetus that was behind the movement must have come from the north of the Limpopo.
Mystery about main cause of southward expansion
The frustrating thing is we just don’t know why they began moving south from the areas as far north as Lake Malawi except because of what is known as fission within kin groups.
Khoe farmers as well as Dutch settlers also followed a form of Fission – which means sons of powerful men leave the homestead to setup their own settlements away from their parents. They moved into virgin territory at times – at others they would bump into existing ancient farmers and coopt them – or fold them into the new culture.
Once they were established in South Africa distinctive Sotho/Tswana settlements appear between the 14th and fifteenth centuries spreading south.
These Sotho and Tswana were actually part of a new frontier farming community – as strange as that may sound to the modern ear. There is not a great deal of oral history about the first century or two of this intermingling where the ancient first farmers were overtaken by the Sotho and Tswana.
There is a subtle incorporation of some early iron Age decorations into the style of Sotho/Tswana pottery and in eastern Botswana we know they shared the landscape at first.
The fifteenth century was a busy time – and not just for the Sotho/Tswana and Nguni people’s beginning to spread around southern Africa.
Further afield, in Europe, moves were afoot that would have a cataclysmic effect on global history – it was the time of Portuguese and Spanish expansion. Soon thereafter to be followed by the Dutch, French and English.
The arrival of the Portuguese
In Episode 6 and 7 we heard how Portuguese explorer Bartolemeu Dias had rounded the Cape and landed at Mossel Bay in November 1488. He was the first person to sail around the continent to the South and his journey revolutionized commerce in Europe – and southern Africa.
Dias dropped anchor in Mossell bay and as his men filled their water barrels, they were approached by Khoe herders who were nearby.
There appears to have been some sort of confrontation, stones were thrown, and when the Portuguese fired back with a cross bow, one of the Khoe herders had been killed.
This was an ominous sign for future relationships. The first contact between Europeans and traditional Khoe herders ended in violence. It is not clear exactly what set this off but neither group could speak the other’s language which didn’t help.
Dias sailed onwards to Algoa Bay, then satisfied he’d rounded the tip of Africa, sailed home again passing Cape point and the future location of Cape Town on the way back.
As he journed home and just beyond the southern tip of Africa, Dias’ ships were hit by gale force winds and a major storm – so naturally he gave the Cape the name “Cabo de Todos los Tormentos” or Cape of Storms.
When he returned to Portugal King Joåo was delighted to hear about the route, but not exactly pleased with the name – but he had a good eye for public relations and ordered it changed to “Cabo de Båo Esperanza” or Cape of Good Hope – a name which remains in use to this day. I ended last episode by explaining how name changes are a natural human compulsion and King Joao was no different.
Dias then tried to drum up support for another expedition down South but he faced a challenge. Other explorers were more interested in a direct route westwards across the Atlantic to the New World – the Spanish were dominating this route and were already plundering South America and King Joao rejected Dias’ plans for more Cape exploring.
By 1500 the ancestral Tswana settlements were well established below the 5000 feet contour line of South Africa and to the north of the southern grasslands of the Free State.
These folks built their homesteads along the lower reaches of hills closer to the rivers whereas the older people, the first farmers, tended to build their homes a little higher. They were still utilising the central Cattle pattern layout. The preservation of these earliest Tswana sites is poor and yet we have found evidence of sorghum and millet agriculture.
IT was a mixed farming system here in a well-resourced habitat. Some of the more interesting finds are around Marico in North West province where early Sotho and Tswana are also backed up by the Hurutshe oral tradition
The Barolong were associated with this region too and predate the time when increased population meant a fission process that led to the formation of the BaRolong. Most of these early 1500 Sotho/Tswana homesteads appeared to be self-sufficient.
They are also missing a core ingredient which is always found in south Africa when people are linked to the eastern ocean trade network.
This week’s episode delves into the origin of the Mapungubwe empire which emerged from the Limpopo valley close to the Shashe River starting around 900AD and reaching its apogee around 1200AD.
First we take a look at what was happening in the West around Namaqualand and the present day Western Cape.
The distinction between the eastern and well-watered part of the country with summer rainfall and good soils, and the more arid western region with its mainly winter rainfall is critical to understanding the spread of domesticated grains and livestock.
Pastoralists who farmed cereals are called Agro-pastoralists and these people preferred the Eastern region with its higher rainfall.
Sheep and later cattle herding pastoralists favoured the west initially.
This is one of separation points in South African history because the western people never did manage to manufacture their own iron-implements they merely bartered these when required.
They exchanged iron products from the Tswana and Sotho as well as the isiXhosa who were able to manufacture iron implements and weapons.
The western peoples including the khoe and San, manufactured stone implements in the same way their ancestors had done for hundreds of thousands of years.
Then the arrival of the first livestock, sheep, can be traced to the western reaches of South Africa around Namaqualand roughly 100BC or 2100 years before the present.
Settlements and villagers the first thousand years AD were largely self-sufficient, in the second millennium empires began to grow.
One of the most visible empires has left its legacy on the landscape – the Mapungubwe state at the junction of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers where ancestral Shona speakers molded clans and tribes into a powerful system.
This empire grew large because of trade with the merchants on the eastern seaboard, as well as the deepening trade with central Southern Africa. Remember we are not fixating on borders as they now exist, we must understand the region based on climate, soils, rainfall, landscape and people able to walk across thousands of miles of landscape largely unhindered.
Mountains are rivers were boundaries, not cartesian maps. In the south, Nguni and Sotho as well as Tswana speakers expanded their power bases in the summer rainfall regions beyond the coastal areas and bushveld and finally into the highveld.
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This is episode 4 and we’re at the point where the first farmers arrived in Southern Africa 2000 years ago. AS we now know, prior to this event, there was broad cultural continuity in the hunter-gatherer groups going back another 10 000 years at least.
The movement of farmers into the eastern summer rainfall areas in the first one thousand years AD took place as the climate stabilised.
The ancestors of these first farmers domesticated sorghum and millet in the Sahel north of the equator and then brought their new skills southwards as they migrated.
When Bantu-speaking people arrived in southern Africa they integrated at times with the local population– the San and Khoe. This is proven by the incorporation of the hunter-gatherer clicks in both Zulu and Xhosa. You don’t assimilate parts of foreign languages without adopting something of the culture.
We heard last episode how important pottery has been in tracking what happened and when. On the basis of the style of pottery, three separate streams of movement into South Africa have been investigated. They’re known as the Phillipson’s Chifumbase Complex and is the research into deposits of shards of pottery that represent migrating people traveling and living from place to place on the landscape.
Two of the streams have a common origin in East Africa known as the Urewe Tradition.
The least controversial of the three is called the Kwale Branch linked to two distinct phases.
One was the Silverleaves which dates between 250 AD to 430AD and the second, the Mzonjani between 420AD to 580AD.
The pioneer phase involving these agriculturalists was centred on the coastal plains of southern Africa and many were found in present day KwaZulu Natal particularly around the Tugela River.
Here the Mzonjani settlements are distributed in a line along the coast and none are more than six kilometers from the beach.
This episode we’re moving forward into the early stone age as it’s known and much of our story covers the period after the last ice age which ended 10 000 years ago.
Prior to this the oceans had subsided as ice covered much of the world – leading to the coastline along the Indian and Atlantic seaboard of South Africa moving around one hundred kilometers out to sea beyond today’s beaches.
That poses a challenge as we investigate origins of man and woman on the sub-continent. Much of the archaeological evidence is now under hundreds of feet of sea water way offshore.
We do have some material inland, as well as the shellfish middens that began to appear much later in the record which allows us to piece together an increasingly accurate picture of what was going on.
South Africa’s prehistory has been divided into a series of phases based on broad patterns of technology. The primary distinction is between a reliance on chipped and flaked stone implements which is referred to as the Stone Age which begins with the peolithic period 2.5 million years ago – that’s the early stone age.
The middle stone age starts 150 000 years ago and ends around 30 000 BC, while the late stone age ends 2000 years ago.
That is when new people arrived in South Africa who had the ability to smelt iron weapons and tools – the Iron Age had arrived with these farmers from central Africa.
The first peoples of the region predated both the San and Khoe and of course we have no clear idea of their language. But we do have Mitocondrial DNA evidence and cultural artifacts.
First, let’s consider Hunter-gatherers who foraged along the seashore for shells and fish, and cooked seafood over fire -the original people of this land.
As there are a lot of hollowed caves along the South Eastern coastline of South Africa, many were extended and improved by the people living in them.
These caves in the sea cliff some high above sea level providing an extremely safe environment against enemies or predators. And it was in this relatively warm environment that new born babies could stay in the crib for at least one year without having to fend for themselves; thus it is believed that modern humans started to deliver helpless infants kept safely in these crevices.
Human language was developing at the same time. Specialists say it is plausible that the frequent use of the tongue to produce click sounds contributed to the unique mandible of modern humans. As I explained last episode, the most diverse range of sounds humans make is by those who speak the San and the original Khoe languages which leads linguists to summise this diversity indicates these are directly linked to the earliest languages spoken by humans.
These hunter-gatherer societies which lasted tens of thousands of years were going to find their lives changing inexorably from around 2000 years ago.
That is when sheep and then cattle, as well as domestic plants including sorghum and millet first spread to southern Africa.
They were brought into the region by people who migrated from the north, from central and central west Africa. By analysing the remains we have a much more accurate picture of what daily life was like than you’d expect considering we don’t have written evidence.
The evidence however, is stored in the science of archaeology.
And so some of these hunter-gatherer units were transformed into a mixed society as the pastoralists and farmers spread. Others retained their ancient ways.
These new people brought new ideas.
The herders, to be technical, are people who maintain domestic stock and are mostly mobile – moving from graving area to grazing area.
Pastoralists and farmers, on the other hand, are more sedentary and mix agriculture with the use of domestic animals.
This differentiation will become clearer as we go along this journey together. But it is crucial because the history of South African followed a trail based on the interaction of these types of people.
Like the rest of Africa south of the Sahara, the landscape features a dominant high central plateau surrounded by coastal lowlands. Any glance at a proper map will show you that.
One of the more prominent features is the Great Escarpment between KwaZulu Natal and Lesotho otherwise known as the Drakensburg. That was caused by lava flows which are more resistant to weathering than conglomerates or sandstone.
Most of this lava has eroded away but a small patch remains and covers much of Lesotho today.
This mountainous area has a major part to play in our story, although these days South African’s are pretty disparaging about the tiny mountain kingdom.
Some regard it as the tenth province. That would be an historical mistake although Lesotho is utterly dependent on South Africa for its income – but that wasn’t always the case.
Consider what happened when the Boers first arrived at Basotho King Moshoeshoe’s door. The trekkers were escaping from British rule in the 1830s.
The Boers bartered meat and other goods for grain from the Sotho.
At that point migrating Dutch were not very good at planting or growing grains in sustainable volumes but much better at livestock management.
They were more like the Khoekhoe and San – less like the Xhosa and Zulu. This fact will sit most uncomfortably with those who believe some races are somehow genetically predisposed to be more effective farmers than others.
The Lesotho mountains were eroded in the south West by tributaries of the Orange River which drain the highlands away from the escarpment, making it rugged and particularly scenic landscape as the rivers head off to the Atlantic Ocean.
These mountains can rise to ten thousand feet with the highest peak of Thabana Ntlenyana at 11 500 feet.
Not a place to drive an ox-wagon then which is why settler movements have been funnelled to the east and west of Lesotho. It is also why Lesotho survived politically. More about this later.
The escarpment slopes away to the west and is flat – tilted slightly higher in the east then sloping gently downwards to the west at about 1000m above sea level.
The downward slope to the south is less pronounced while the plateau also slopes northwards towards the Limpopo Lowveld which is less than 500m above sea level.
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Parts of South Africa feature some of the oldest rocks you will find anywhere on the planet. In what is now the Mpumalanga province near Barberton for example where igneous or volcanic rock peeps out from the bottom of the famous escarpment and if you strike it a lusty blow with your trusty geological hammer, you’ll chip bits of 3.5 billion year old sedimentary rock known as the Barberton Greenstone Belt formed in the Archaen age.
History by definition is about humans. But humans live by eating animals and vegetation directly associated with the soil and climate so we must take a quick geological tour around Southern Africa then understand what changes in climate occurred.
How will that work?
Every week I will present an episode which follows the history of South Africa chronologically. Everything that happens follows a time line which makes more sense because that is how time works. So the series will track South African events starting with a broad overview of the geological origin which obviously predates humans by billions of years.
This series won’t necessarily stop at the modern borders of what is South Africa as that’s just a couple of lines on a map. The sub-continent extends the reach of humans both across the land and the sea so we will have to track the past with an eye on what I suppose is more like a satellite image than an old fashioned map.
Blinded by bias
In this series I’ll view events from the perspective of variable shades of black and white. The real truth about history, particularly early South African history, is that its more about brown and pink than black and white.
Those those who think our history is only black and white are simplifying everything blinded by their modern bias which developed inexorably as settlers in the sub-continent tried to differentiate themselves from others.
“Huge swathes of South Africa are now dominated by people who’s skin tone is a delightful caramel…”
Unfortunately this still happens which is rather peculiar since a quick whip around local white DNA shows an awful lot of black mixed into the chromosomes. Don’t tell the ethnic fundamentalists that, it will drive them to extremes of denial. A quick whip around of black DNA does the same. Huge swathes of Southern Africa are now dominated by people who’s skin tone is a delightful caramel. Most try not ask too many questions, particularly if you’re a modern race fundamentalist blindly believing in “purity”.
Too bad for you my friend. If you think you’re “pure” African, think again.
And “pure” white? Sorry for you too. These blind myopics will discover that survivors of Portuguese ship wrecks setup entire clans amongst the Xhosa people before 1600. Their blood is mingled with those of the Pan Africanists of Cofimvaba.
Love and marriage
The marriages between early Boers and Khoekhoe were convenient for both. Later the odour of racism permeated settler logic as they became terrified of being tarred with the Khoesan brush. This was not the initial perception of Portuguese and Dutch who took up carnal relations with Africans of various hues.
A delicate swab at the back of the mouth and all your ancestors will be revealed.
The University of the Witwatersrand Origins Centre is probably the most distinguished in Africa. Take a chance and head off there if you can to discover your past.
My DNA emanates from Eastern Turkey and western Iraq, its Mesopotanian. But its also French, English and Algerian. We humans are a conglomerate of genes, a concoction of loves, a chronology of intermingling.
At times Africans controlled settlers, at other times, British, Dutch and even French administrations rejected white colonials and their politics. It turned into what we see today where judging the past through the politics of the present mutates the truth.
Melanin fades or darkens based on geography and the amount of sun a few generations experience and our world is based on millennia and not a single generation’s limited cognitive awareness of the recent past.
The original people
So our history is tens of thousands of years old, and our human DNA the most diverse on earth. The caves on the South East coast of the continent have middens going back tens of thousands of years before modern humans departure from Africa. Our ancestors walked out of Africa into the Middle East and Europe, South East Asia, Australasia and ultimately the Pacific islands.
And what’s more, genetically its now known that there was someone like Eve. A female progenitor who can be called the Mother of all the Nations.
We must be proud of this. Here in South Africa we are the warehouse of the world’s genetic diversity. The further from Southern Africa you travel, the less diversity is found.
The transhumant journey is now believed to have started around 70 000 years ago and the Pacific Islands were finally colonized by humans only around 1300 AD.
“Themes in one epoch become the laughing stock of the next“
That is a long time to be shuffling about the earth, poking a stick into pools and eating mussels and clams. Then sharpening the stick further and spearing a fish. Then daubing poison on a small stick and shooting a passing Springbok. It is all chronological with the emphasis on LOGICAL. So this is the reason why the podcast series History of South Africa is following time and not themes. Revisionists love to fixate on themes like colonialism, political change, gender. The real world is not sliced and diced like a cheap pizza.
It is full of dead-ends, corners, grey bits. Themes in one epoch become the laughing stock of the next.