A Brief History of South Africa, A Briefer History of Pre-Columbian America And How to Think About Justice

I’m no expert on South Africa, but I did some reading and pieced together a brief history of the country’s last 50,000 to 150,000 years. It begins with the San. Depending on who you ask and what evidence they are looking at, the San people have been in Southern Africa for somewhere between 50,000 to 150,000 years. For most of that time, the San and a related population, the Khoi Khoi (more on them below) have been the only people in Southern Africa. As a result, the Khoisan (as the San and the Khoi Khoi are sometimes collectively called) are somewhat genetically distinct;. The San seem to have split off from the rest of human race somewhere around 80,000 to 100,000 years ago. At one time, the Khoisan were most populous group of people on earth.

In the West, the San are sometimes referred to as Bushmen, and are perhaps best known for their click languages or their appearance in The Gods Must be Crazy. They maintained a Stone Age hunter gatherer culture, and tended to live in small groups.

Somewhere between 2500 and 2000 years ago, the Khoi Khoi (aka KhoeKhoe, aka KhoiKhoi, aka Khoi) began expanding out of their home territory of Namibia and into what is now South Africa. By that point in time, the Khoi Khoi were pastoralists, and they were more sophisticated and lived in larger groups than the San. Nobody was writing history in that region back then, so the precise nature of the interactions between the two groups are unknown. Nevertheless, archaeological evidence is clear: very quickly the Khoi Khoi ended up living in the the choice real estate and the San abandoned those areas to live in the mountains.

Around 1800 years ago or so, the leading edges of the Bantu Migration reached the southern edges of Africa. (I use the word “Bantu” with some trepidation. From what I can tell, it was a pejorative term in Apartheid South Africa and still used that way by those who feel the end of Apartheid was a mistake. On the other hand from my perusal of the literature, elsewhere in Africa the word “Bantu” seems to have no negative connotation. More than that, the word is widely used by the scientific community and is the most precise description of the population in question.)

The Bantus were tribes originating in or around Ghana. Around 5,000 years ago or so, Bantu groups began radiating out from their ancestral home. The Iron Age Bantu tribes were more advanced than the San and Khoi Khoi. The result was that several Bantu groups, the Nguni and the Sotho-Tswana, carved out territories for themselves in areas that had previously been inhabited by the San or the Khoi Khoi. Nevertheless, the displacement of the existing population moved slowly.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, though, the pace picked up. On the one hand, there was the arrival of the Europeans. Sometimes the Dutch and English found virgin territory, but often they simply ousted established Khoi Khoi or Bantu tribes. At the same time, one Bantu tribe, the Zulu, under King Shaka, began a period of rapid expansion. Shaka was cruel but effective, and the Zulu quickly subjugated other Bantu and Khoi Khoi tribes alike. (One of the few benefits of being forced into the worst land was that the San, in general, weren’t subjected to much interaction with Shaka’s Zulu or even the Europeans.)

Eventually the Europeans defeated, subjugated, and marginalized the Bantu tribes, which in turn had defeated, subjugated, and marginalized the Khoi Khoi before them, who in turn had defeated, subjugated and marginalized the San who were the first people in the area.

Fast forward a bit, to a few decades ago. The afore-mentioned Apartheid came to an end. This was brought about through secret meetings between leaders of the European-descended groups and the leaders of one of the most populous Bantu groups, the Xhosa tribe. The South African system has, since then, been run more or less democratically, though it should be noted that the the same party, the African National Congress or ANC (sometimes referred to locally as the Xhosa Nostra in an obvious allusion to the Mafia) seems to win all the relevant elections despite representing less than half of the Black population, let alone the San, Khoi Khoi or Whites.

So how should one think about all of this? Apartheid is obviously horrible system and it is tremendously unfair.  That, incidentally, is the most charitable description I have for it.  Leaving aside allegations of impropriety by the ANC, one person one vote seems, on the face of it, to be the fairest way to run a country. And now, if never before in the last 150,000 years, South Africa does have (in fact or in appearance) such a system.

On the flip side, consider this from a different perspective that is popular these days: the perspective of racial justice. Its a useful perspective since it was a term people used to define the struggle against Apartheid. Maybe I’m missing something, but from that point of view, the current outcome is only fair if the San don’t count. Otherwise, the power, the land, and the resources of today’s South Africa would be hands of the San, the original residents of the area and the victims of 2,500 years of oppression at the hands of pretty much everyone else.

That won’t happen. At this point, the San population continue to face discrimination.  Few of them are left.  There might be 10,000 in South Africa, and maybe 100,000 in all of Southern Africa. Nor is the South African government showing much concern toward the San. For example, South Africa has eleven official languages, but none of them are San languages. Or Khoi Khoi languages, for that matter.

Now let’s change gears and bring this a bit closer to home. We can do a similar look at the history of the Americas, though the time frames are compressed.   The latest genetic research of which I am aware seems to suggest the possibility that in many (most? just shy of all?) places in the Americas, the populations that were present when the Europeans arrived had, ahem, replaced earlier populations that had previously resided in the same areas. The less polite description for what happened (time and again) is genocide.

Now, there’s an old expression in Brazil: Ladrão que rouba ladrão tem cem anos de perdão. Loosely translated – a thief who robs from another thief deserves 100 years worth of pardons. Personally, I disagree with this proverb. But I also strongly disagree with the idea that we can somehow achieve justice by giving unearned advantages to descendants of yesterday’s perpetrators simply because their ancestors have since fallen victim to more effective perpetrators. If we start out with realistic notion that just about all of us are the descendants of both perpetrators and victims, the rule for achieving justice becomes obvious:  try to arrange for everyone to start out on as equal a footing as possible, and then let each person rise and fall according to his or her own merits.