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What Was the Mfecane?


Question: What Was the Mfecane?
Lebo wrote to ask: "What was the mfecane and why is it a controversial subject in South Africa today?"

The word mfecane is derived from Xhosa terms: ukufaca 'to become thin from hunger' and fetcani 'starving intruders'. Mfecane refers to a period of political disruption and population migration in Southern Africa which occurred during the 1820s and 1830s. It is also known by the Sotho name difaqane.

Euro-centric historians in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries regarded the mfecane as the result of aggressive nation building by the Zulu under the rule of Shaka and the Nbebele under Mzilikazi. Such descriptions of devastation and depopulation of Africans gave white settlers an excuse for moving into land which they thus considered empty.

By the 1960s the mfecane and Zulu nation building were being given a positive spin – considered more as a revolution in Bantu Africa, where Shaka played a leading role in the creation of a Zulu nation in Natal, whilst Moshoeshoe similarly created the Sotho kingdom in what is now Lesotho as a defense against Zulu incursions.

Modern historians challenge the suggestions that Zulu aggression caused the mfecane, citing archaeological evidence which shows that drought and environmental degradation lead to increased competition for land and water, which encouraged the migration of farmers and cattle herders throughout the region.

More extreme, and highly controversial, theories have been suggested, including the conspiracy theory that the myth of Zulu nation building and aggression was a root cause of the mfecane was used to cover up systematic illegal slave trading by white settlers to feed the demand for labor in the Cape colony and neighboring Portuguese Mozambique.

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