I remember as if it were yesterday our reactions as black primary school children when we read what the Reverend Mr. Whitehead had to say when describing the relations between the Xhosas on the eastern border and the white frontiersmen. Mr. Whitehead was, I believe, a Methodist missionary who wrote a history textbook which we were obliged to use if we wanted to pass our history examinations. I must underline that my contemporaries and I were not the radicalized and highly politicized students of the sort who were involved in the 1976 uprising and in the current violent protest against the vicious and immoral policy of apartheid. We were rather docile and thoroughly unsophisticated and naive, hardly questioning what appeared to be the divine ordering of our segregated society. It is therefore particularly noteworthy that it was such innocents who found certain features of Mr. Whitehead’s historiography disturbing.

We found it distinctly odd that in virtually every encounter between the black Xhosas and the white settlers, Mr. Whitehead invariably described the Xhosas as those who stole the settlers’ cattle and of the white settlers he would write that the settlers captured the cattle from the Xhosas. We did not press this point at all, or hardly at all, in class discussion; but when we were outside we would mutter that it was very funny. It certainly seemed to be stretching coincidence to breaking point. We often remarked that after all, these farmers had no cattle when they landed in South Africa, and all their cattle had had to be procured from the indigenous peoples.

But if we had given expression to any of these misgivings it would have put an end to our chances of success in the examinations. We would have committed South Africa’s unforgivable sin of mixing politics with whatever else we were at the time dealing with. At other times we were a little annoyed to read that such and such a white person had “discovered” this or that, as if there had been no other human beings, for example, to see the Victoria Falls before this superior denizen of another hemisphere came upon them.

These were the vague and unformed misgivings and perhaps hurt feelings of somewhat unsophisticated and really unlettered black pupils, feelings that had not been buttressed by any scholarly research or evidence that could stand up to critical scrutiny. Much later we heard a great deal about Western historical objectivity; it all seemed to suggest that Western historians were able to describe the naked, the real facts without any kind of embellishment or accretion, that they were quite uninfluenced by who they were and where they were, able, as it were, to stand outside themselves and give an account of what had “really” taken place, which would in all material respects be the same account given by any other self-respecting historian.

I have been skeptical of this claim to objectivity especially when it was made in South Africa about journalism (which chronicles contemporary events as a primary source for later historiography) on behalf of white journalists who, it was averred, were somehow paragons of the virtue of journalistic objectivity, as against what might be described as the engaged journalism of their black counterparts; for example, in giving an account of what took place in the 1976 uprisings. I believed that we could not just speak of the truth. It had to be truth from the perspective of some observer. What was the truth of what set off the Soweto uprising? It seemed to some of us that who you were, and where you were, determined to a very considerable extent what you were able to see as the facts. You were not just an unconcerned viewer from the sidelines. Your values had been formed by the community to which you belonged and what rated as being important and significant depended very much on the sort of spectacles with which your nature and upbringing had endowed you. The aesthetic, ethical, and moral values a person derives mainly from the community in which he lives will determine very largely what he will judge as being beautiful, good, and true.

Leonard Thompson in his scholarly case study of the South African situation from the standpoint of a sympathetic but critical historian gives me good reason to have trusted my instincts about the way history has been recorded in South Africa. He starts by describing what he understands by political mythology—that which seeks to provide the historical element in an ideology and is the collection of tales that are used to legitimize or to discredit a regime. He was attracted to this study by a collection of materials showing how politicians in South Africa had made use of falsified versions of history. He seeks to show that South African politicians are not in this matter a breed apart, somehow unique “in exploiting history for political ends.” It just happens that some are perhaps more blatant than others in doing so.


In defining the character of political myths and mythology, Thompson shows how these are virtually universal phenomena by quoting examples from countries as diverse as the United States of America and the Soviet Union. Hence they are what he calls “ubiquitous,” with a remarkable capacity to be adjusted as the circumstances to which they seek to be relevant change. He also calls them “malleable” for this reason. He then provides three criteria for evaluating the political myth. First, how well does it stand up to the critical scrutiny of the historian who uses a rigorous historical method for evaluating the available evidence and how consistent is the conclusion with the historical data? Second, how closely does the particular myth agree with scientific knowledge? Can it stand up to close questioning from competent practitioners of the science most relevant to the discussion? And finally he uses what he calls a utilitarian criterion, which does not ask whether the myth is true or not but whether its effects are good or bad. Some myths are quite dispensable, such as the myth about the truthfulness of George Washington. Its loss from the American lexicon would not materially affect the nature of American patriotism and national self-esteem. Others are less so, being integral to the entire ideology of the regime they seek to legitimize. It is possible that at a certain stage in the evolution of the Afrikaner people’s self-consciousness, abandoning the myth of an early Covenant among Boers (see below) had deleterious repercussions on their consciousness as a people, believing themselves, as they did, to be besieged by hostile foes in an unfriendly and unknown environment.

Myths, in Thompson’s analysis, are either conservative or radical. The latter are developed by local or foreign opponents of a system that they seek to overthrow, while the former are intended to justify that regime. Since political myths are historical phenomena they will tend to change, adapting themselves to changing circumstances, though the change, it is hoped, would not alter the core of the mythology too drastically.

Thompson’s pioneering study concentrates on the central racist ideology of the Afrikaner people, according to which, following much that was current as science in the West, and following in the wake of a burgeoning white imperialism that rode roughshod over colonial peoples, white people were inherently superior to black people. After all, this had been claimed by the taxonomical studies that spoke mystifyingly about brain and cranium size and subsequently about the psychological evidence deriving from IQ tests, etc.

This concept of racial superiority justified various actions and views—for example, that there was nothing wrong per se in enslaving black people or in white men having sexual relations with their womenfolk, since this would ensure that some of their stock would now be improved through this magnanimous infusion of white blood; that there could be no equality between black and white in church, state, or court; that it would be perfectly in order for a white master, without having to be accountable to anyone, to beat the daylights out of his servant who had been uppity. The overall effect was to declare that blacks were human, but not quite as human as white people. The whites had a task imposed on them by God to evangelize and civilize these benighted natives, who were likely to remain as children needing the white man to bear the burden of being their guardian.

This is a view of the nature of things which has remained tenaciously part of how most white South Africans have perceived God’s ordering of things. And it is not only Afrikaners who have been guilty of these supremacist views. Even the socalled liberal English-speaking South African has deep down in his heart tended to hold to such views, but he has been careful not to be as blatant in their expression as the less subtle Afrikaner. Racism certainly did not see the light of day in South Africa only in 1948 when the Afrikaner Nationalists, under Dr. Daniel Malan, won a shock victory over General J.C. Smuts with their unashamed doctrine of white baaskap (overlordship), of keeping the black man in his place. This aim was enshrined in the policy that has come to be execrated in the word apartheid (separateness), attracting the opprobrium from the world community which it so richly deserves.

Professor Thompson shows that the Afrikaner political mythology began its career as a radical liberation mythology intended to mobilize the Afrikaners in their struggle for self-determination against a rampant British imperialism. He describes the evolution of the political myth in the story of the uprising of Afrikaner frontiersmen against British hegemony in 1815. It is quite remarkable how selective the chroniclers turned out to be in their accounts of what actually took place. (Perhaps it should not be considered remarkable at all—all history is selective. You select what you consider to be significant. The question is whether your selectivity gives a rounded narrative that tries to take account of all the relevant information and material.)


It is instructive to note how later historians gave an interpretation that seems to have eluded those whose experience was contemporary with the particular set of events. The Afrikaner uprising provided convenient material for agitating against the British administration. First, those who rebelled were shown to be principled people. They were held to be right in refusing to allow a white person to be compelled to answer charges in court brought by a servant. Even more important, they were quite right to resist being apprehended by a British-controlled contingent made up of Hottentots. To show the British administration in an even worse light, the emotive name of Slachter’s Nek (Butcher’s Neck) was used of the rebellion when the execution of the rebels took place in another place with a more innocuous name. The British were callous and quite unmerciful because the ropes at first broke and the condemned men fell without being killed. Many believed, or so it was said, that when this happened British tradition was to pardon the miscreants. A later myth had it that just after the execution was eventually carried out successfully, a reprieve for the condemned arrived. Nothing is said about the character of the rebels or about their dubious sexual morality. Nor is it pointed out that hardly any self-respecting Afrikaner frontiersmen joined the insurrection and that many of these people concurred with the action of the Cape administration. When the British had withdrawn and the Afrikaner had attained independence, it was important that this myth of British injustice be played down to foster unity between the English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans.

We are given another example of such manipulation of history for practical motives in the myth of the Covenant allegedly made on the eve of the Battle of Blood River in 1838 by the Afrikaners against the Zulus. Professor Thompson points out how striking it is that no one has preserved the precise wording of this Covenant, which has such a pivotal place in Afrikaner history. It is said to have enjoined the Afrikaner and his posterity to observe the day with religious solemnity and to build a church to commemorate the victory over the Zulus. But strangely enough, for several years afterward, those who first took part in the Covenant organized no ceremonies to commemorate the event; and there is no evidence that those who built a church connected it with the Covenant.

It was much later that Afrikaner politicians used the event as an important rallying point for their people in their struggle against the British and the blacks for supremacy in South Africa. Before the building of the Voortrekker Monument between 1938 and 1948 and the emergence of South Africa as a republic outside the Commonwealth in 1961, the Covenant was used in a thoroughly chauvinistic manner. The annual commemoration of what was called Dingaan’s Day (later the Day of the Covenant and then Day of the Vow) was used to beat the Afrikaner jingoistic drum. In more recent times, government speakers and others have sought to make the observance a more national affair, one that includes even the blacks who in former times were virtually pilloried. Some Afrikaner historians have called in question the folk mythology relating to the government. One of these was tarred and feathered for his pains.

Professor Thompson points out that he has not referred to the political mythology of either English-speaking South Africans or the blacks. But he has certainly put us in his debt by the gentle process of demythologizing he carries out in his book and by the ways he calls us to the task of continuing such analysis. My own concern is why the Afrikaners, in view of their history, have been so unsympathetic to the aspirations of blacks. Of all the whites in South Africa, the Afrikaners should have been the most sympathetic because they once believed themselves to be oppressed; and once they embarked on the course of liberation, no one was able to stop them. Why do they think that the same inexorable logic of history will falter in the case of the blacks? Or is it that, as a wit once put it, “we learn from history that we don’t learn from history”?

This Issue

September 26, 1985