Author/Compiler: Wade Goodwin

Historians and activists alike also pointed to a glaring omission on the theory of the empty land – the absolute silence on the existence of the KhoiSan (KhoiKhoi and San/Bushman) populations of Southern Africa who roamed much of the southwestern region of the country. Khoisan peoples had been living in the area for millennia when the Dutch first arrived. Their plight and their undeniable claims to the land gets no reference in the ’empty land theory’.

Myths form an integral part of any peoples understanding of self and their place in the world and are central to justifying the current distribution of power and resources. The myth of the empty land into which both Bantu and European peoples migrated at the same time, but from opposite directions, arose after the most violent clashes had occurred between the Bantus and the Europeans. Afrikaner nationalists, disillusioned with the British government at the Cape, had migrated out of the Colony and into the east of the country during the Great Trek. The British had encountered vast numbers of Xhosa at the Fish River and had been continuously engaging in battles and treaties with them. By the 1860s, when Walden propagated his theory, this turbulent period had resulted in large swathes of South African land falling under the dominion of either the Afrikaner Republics or British colonial territory. Both these groups were in a position where a foundation myth that gave them the legitimate right of the land they had claimed was central to their own sense of nationhood.

The Myth of the empty land had become a central tenet of both British and Afrikaner identity in nineteenth-century South Africa and had been used as a justification for the capture and settlement of Bantu land. The Apartheid Government had transformed the myth to serve its own ends. They used it to support the Homelands Act and to confine the Bantu people to particular localities, arguing that the rest of the country had been ’empty’ and therefore could not form part of their Homelands. Since the 1980s however, evidence has shown that the myth of empty land simply cannot be sustained. Rather than being a historical fact, it is a convenient fiction that has served as a political tool.

One final word from perhaps the most famous, honest and admired Portuguese historian; Joko de Barros (1496 – 20 October 1570), called the Portuguese Livy, is one of the first great Portuguese historians, most famous for his Décadas da Ásia (“Decades of Asia”), a history of the Portuguese in India, Asia, and southeast Africa. Joao, a prolific traveller, writer and account holder marvelled at the splendour of what is known today as the “Zimbabwean Ruin” for its size, architecture, beauty, symmetry and splendour. 

He further marvelled at the inhabitants of the land we now know as Zimbabwe’s people’s sophisticated language and the complexity of the language, notwithstanding that it seemed the residents of the great city were reluctant for him to understand it. These events happened decades before the Dutch explorer/conqueror, Jan Van Riebeek landed at the Cape in 1652, so it sufficiently answers the question beyond any shadow of a doubt folks.


Crais, Clifton. (1991). ‘the Vacant Land: They Mythology of British Expansion in the Eastern Cape, South Africa’, in Journal of Social History, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 225-275.|Marks, Shula. 1980. South Africa- ‘the Myth of the Empty Land, History Today Volume 30, South African History Online