Author/Compiler: Wade Goodwin

In the 1890s, the renowned South African historian George McCall Theal, considered to be the grandfather of South African history, once again gave credence to a theory that the Bantu had migrated into South Africa at the same time as the Europeans. 

In his voluminous works on history, based on an analysis of place names and supposed archaeological evidence, Theal claimed to give scientific evidence that the Bantu people had only begun to cross the Limpopo river at roughly the same time as when Europeans began to settle at the Cape, leaving the rest of South Africa a veritable ‘vacant land’. Theal’s work reaffirmed the myth of the vacant land in South African historiography and in popular memory. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the idea that South Africa had been populated by Europeans and Bantu at the same time and that large tracts of Bantu land had been deserted, left vacant, during the Mfecane, became accepted ‘fact’ in South African society.

The myth of the empty land became particularly destructive in the hands of the Apartheid Government. The Apartheid Government used this myth as a justification for their construction of the homelands. Although the homelands in South Africa housed 70% of the population, they only comprised 13% of the total landmass. The Apartheid Government justified this incredibly unequal distribution of land by claiming that the land in White hands was historically ’empty land’, land that had belonged to nobody and therefore could not form part of a homeland. The homelands, they argued, were made up of all the land that had been occupied by the Bantu people whilst the rest of the country had had no indigenous inhabitants and therefore legitimately belonged to the White inhabitants who had claimed it first.

 A map of the ‘Homelands’ under the Apartheid Regime Source

 In the 1980s, revisionist and liberal historians and archaeologists began to argue against the theory of empty land. Using new archaeological evidence they were able to show the presence of Bantu like people in the eastern half of South Africa since around 300 AD. They were also able to show that even though there had indeed been a large Bantu migration into the region at a later date, that date was somewhere around the 12th century AD, rather than in the seventeenth century as had been previously argued. Historians began to unpack how the myth of the vacant land had come into being and was able to show how its emergence coincided with the increasing clashes for land between the Bantu and the British and Afrikaners.