The Mfecane

Painting by C.D. Bell

Before the 1970s historians thought that the Mfecane, or upheaval, occurred at the end of the eighteenth century and derived from the growth of the Zulu kingdom under Shaka. The Zulu impact has now been questioned, the beginning extended back to the 1750s, the geographic focus widened to include the interior of the country, and European trade seen as one of the possible causes. This painting by C.D. Bell depicts Ndebele warriors during the time of the Mfecane. Bell accompanied Rev. Andrew Smith on his journey through South Africa during 1834–1835.

For most African societies in South Africa the hallmarks of the nineteenth century were difficulty, conflict, dislocation, reorganisation, and finally subjugation. The appearance of the Griqua north of the Orange River heralded the imminent arrival of European styles of life, war and government. Before the full impact of this was experienced, however, most communities were subjected to the vagaries and hardships of the Mfecane.

Literal translations of this term show up assumptions about the Mfecane ‘concept’. In older historical works it was a time of ‘convulsions’, of ‘crushing’ and of ‘wan dering hordes’, initiated almost solely by Shaka and the Zulu. But new interpretations have identified new suspects: Europeans at the Cape and Delagoa Bay; European surrogates like the Griqua on the highveld. Historians are divided as to the causes, but the events constituting the term Mfecane reshaped the political landscape of southern Africa.

During the last half of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth, dramatic developments transformed the nature of African societies, and altered the demographic shape of South Africa. These have been referred to as the Mfecane (for Nguni speakers) and Difaqane (for Sotho-Tswana speakers) on the highveld. Before the 1970s, scholars generally thought that these changes derived from the growth of the Zulu kingdom under Shaka in southeast Africa, and that the changes had begun to occur at the end of the eighteenth century. Since the early 1990s such views have been modified. It is now accepted that the Zulu were by no means the only ones responsible for the warfare that spread throughout the southeast African coastal areas and the inland regions.

Now it is generally recognised that other African chiefdoms responded just as vigorously and innovatively to the changing conditions of the late eighteenth century. The geographic focus of the process has been expanded to include the interior of South Africa, and the beginning of the Mfecane has been extended backwards from about the 1790s to the mid-eighteenth century. Geographically, the sphere of the Mfecane has now been broadened to include communities of the entire western highveld.

Nor was the conflict exclusively one between Africans. It has been argued that increasing European penetration into South Africa from the Cape and Mozambique destabilised the African communities along the coast and into the interior. Historians are more divided, however, over the degree to which whites are responsible for the commotions of the Mfecane.

How did the Mafecane begin?

The turmoil spreads

The Difaqane on the highveld

The role of the Griqua

Why did the Mfecane occur?

From small lineages to proto-states

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