Home Blogs > History

The Empty Land Myth - The Real History of South Africa & Western Cape Land

May 27 '16 | By La Afrique Media | Views: 2059 | Comments: 6

This image has been re-printed here with the kind permission of the Western Cape Archives Services, who are the copyright holders. The image may not be reproduced by a third party without the express permission of the Western Cape Archives Services

The Empty or Vacant Land Theory is a theory was propagated by European settlers in nineteenth century South Africa to support their claims to land. Today this theory is described as a myth, the Empty Land Myth, because there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support this theory. Despite evidence to the contrary a number of parties in South Africa, particularly right-wing nationalists of European descent, maintain that the theory still holds true in order to support their claims to land-ownership in the country. 

With his book The Past and Future of the Kaffir Races (1866), W. C. Holden was one of the early writers on South African history to publish a book that used the theory of empty land as an explanation for landownership in South Africa. In order to legitimise European settlement in South Africa Holden argued Europeans and the Bantu tribes had entered South Africa at roughly the same time and that up until that point South Africa had mostly been an ‘empty land’. The theory outlined by Holden claimed that the Bantu had begun to migrate southwards from present day Zimbabwe at the same time as the Europeans had begun to migrate northwards from the Cape settlement, with the two movements finally meeting in the Zuurveld region between the Sundays River and the Great Fish River. This, the theory claimed, gave equal right to the land to whoever could take ownership of it, with force, and maintain that ownership. There were therefore no ‘original’ inhabitants with an ‘original’ right to the land, only two migrating groups who had equal claim to it.

Although Holden was the first to publish the theory of empty land in a book, the theory itself had been circulating in the colony for a long time, with many colonists claiming that they had as great a right to the land as the newly arrived Bantu. Myths of empty and vacant land were common currency by the mid 1840s.

The eastern frontier of the Cape Colony, a point of convergence between the Xhosa and the British settlers. Source

The Graham's Town Journal argued in 1838, for example, that the Xhosa had been “the usurpers of the whole of the territory between the Kye and the Fish River” and that the British had more of a right to the land than a people who "had gained a footing in it by treachery and violence". The British were convinced that the Xhosa had only recently entered into the region and had taken the land by force from the Khoikhoi, and so the British had the right to take it by force from the Xhosa. The British based this belief on two observations they had made. The first was that at the time when the British and the Dutch were approaching the frontier there had been a few isolated incidents of Xhosa clans who were fleeing internal conflicts moving into KhoiKhoi territory, particularly in the Zuurveld region such as when the KhoiKhoi Queen Hoho and her clan had been defeated in a battle in the Queenstown area in the 1770s by a group of Xhosa fleeing Rarabe. Despite the fact that these were very few and isolated incidents, the British and the Dutch jumped on them and vociferously used them to make a claim that the Xhosa had clearly taken all the land between the two rivers by the violent expulsion of the KhoiKhoi. That the Xhosa used KhoiKhoi place names for regions and geographic features was also pounced upon by the British as an unequivocal indication that they must have taken the land by force in recent times. Contemporary historical work shows that there was a long period of intermingling and integration between the western Xhosa and eastern Khoi, giving rise to the Khoi place names in Xhosa territory and the permeable nature of the boundaries between the two groups.

Much of the idea of the 'vacant land' myth in African colonial history rests on White misunderstanding - however wilful - of African sovereignty and land use. Most of the Bantu and KhoiKhoi used land in rotation, often leaving large sections of land fallow while they cultivated another region or moved their herds to greener pastures. As pastoralists they would migrate through various grazing-grounds, thereby appearing to leave a grazing ground not in current use 'empty'.  

An alternative form of the same myth was built around the British and Afrikaner understandings of the Mfecane. The Mfecane, translated roughly as ‘the crushing’, was a time of great political upheaval in the Zulu Kingdom in the first half of the nineteenth century. Both the British and the Afrikaner used the Mfecane to make the argument that the land they were occupying had been ‘deserted’. 

A map of the rise of the Zulu Empire under Shaka during the Mfecane. Source

In the 1850s, when the British began to consolidate the colony of Natal in what is today Kwa-Zulu Natal, they claimed that only 4 000 to 5 000 inhabitants of the land were actually 'indigenous' inhabitants who had a right to that land. The rest of the Zulus living in the area, or moving into it in large droves, were "interlopers", either refugees fleeing the despotic rule of Shaka or Zulus returning to their old homelands after Shaka's Mfecane, which had begun in around 1815 and only came to an end around 1840. Although the latter were understood by the British to be returning to their own lands, the British claimed that "Kafirs have little attachment to any particular locality", implying that the Zulu's would not mind moving to any land and therefore had no particular claim to the land the British had taken. In light of this the British claimed that much of Natal had been 'vacant' land at the time of colonisation and therefore the British had a right to claim it. For the most part they respected the land claims of the Boers who had entered the region just before British colonisation (although these Boers had to submit to British rule), but they used the narrative of refugees and the claim that Zulus were not attached to their land to argue that up to 40 000 Zulus should be removed from the Natal Colony.

When the Afrikaner Trek Boers reached the Vaal Highveld after their incursion across South Africa from the Cape, they made a similar argument to the British in order to justify their claims to the land in the Highveld. They claimed that upon their arrival the region was almost devoid of any African inhabitants because, the thinking went, they had all fled in the face of the Mfecane. The Boers believed that the land was deserted and abandoned and therefore theirs for the taking. Part of the Afrikaner Boers mythology also claimed that the Boers had rescued the few scattered tribes of the region by giving them protection against the forces of Shaka. This myth, of a Vaal region that was deserted by the Bantu, is one that still has number of proponents in some Afrikaner communities. 

George M. Theal, 1890s Source

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 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 of 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, but 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 RegimeSource

 In the 1980s revisionist and liberal historians and archaeologists began to argue against the theory of an 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 the ways in which the myth of the vacant land had come into being and were able to show how its emergence coincided with the increasing clashes for land between the Bantu and the British and Afrikaners. 

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 south western region of the country. KhoiSan peoples had been living in the region 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 Woulden 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 which 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 particularly 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 the empty land simply cannot be sustained. Rather than being historical fact, it is a convenient fiction that has served as a political tool. 

References:• 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, Available at: http://www.historytoday.com/shula-marks/south-africa-myth-empty-land [accessed March 5, 2015].
• McClendon, Thomas V. (2010) 'Makwerekwere: Separating Immigrants and Natives in Early Colonial Natal' in Karl Ittmann, Dennis Cordell and Gregory Maddox (eds), The Demographics of Empire: The Colonial Order and the Creation of Knowledge. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, pp. 113-129.
• Nigel Worden. (2012). The Making of Modern South Africa, John Wiley and Sons Ltd: Chichester, West Sussex.
• Pheko, Motsoko. (23 February, 2012). 'Desperate colonial madness', in The Witness, available online at http://www.witness.co.za/?showcontent&global%5B_id%5D=77170 [Accessed 08 March, 2015]
• Author Unknown, ‘The Mfecane: Why did the Mfecane occur? The Myth of the Empty Land’, available at http://newhistory.co.za/Part-2-Chapter-4-The-Mfecane-Why-did-the-Mfecane... [Accessed on March 5, 2015]

Last updated : 11-May-2016

- See more at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/empty-land-myth#sthash.D1dmjCjO.dpuf
Aug 21 '16
Apr 3 '17
African Traditional healer of lost love spells (cal)l or(whtspp) +27(0810565417) is unique herbalist healer like no other. He checks using Ancient methods and he can tell all your problems or anything about your life before you say anything to him, he communicates any time with the spirits.Sim dallu has been tested and approved by the Africa’s traditional doctors’ association of Africa worldwide. He is specialized in the following
This spell is meant for someone that has feelings for you and you want them to be stronger and more focused for whatever reason like the love is dying or surrounding problems distracting your lover from their feeling and stressing them out and you feel they're taking it out on you.Love is life. It is a vital force, and one of the most powerful emotions you can experience. Whether you've found your love, are still looking, or want to bring it back to you - The 7 witches Coven have a broad range of Love Spells that work to help you with affairs of the heart.

These Love Spells are great ways to ensure long-term happiness and contentment - something everyone deserves. They are the perfect solution if you're feeling lonely, ignored, heartbroken or even if you're seeking new romance.

Please feel free to browse through our selection of Love Spells below. These are some of our most popular Spells we have but if you need something special, something tailored specifically to your needs, we'd be delighted to craft and cast a Custom Love Spell just for you.

Love Spells can make that vital difference in your life - the extra push needed to let Love flourish. Don't let your chance for happiness slip away.You all welcomed Worldwide
Address:Sandton Rivonia Woodmead creek cres 19
Cells :+27(0810565417)
Local :0810565417 (whtspp)
working days: Mon -sun
Time: 8:00am-5:30pm
By appointment only
African Traditional healer of lost love spells (cal)l or(whtspp) +27(0810565417) is unique herbalist healer like no other. He checks using Ancient methods and he can tell all your problems or anything...See more
May 20 '17
Traditional magic rings/magic wallets/ magic money bag +27736047327 in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Alberton, Kempton Park, Vosloorus, Katlehong, Duduza, Elsburg, Tembisa, Elspark, midrand, kwaThema, Benoni, Boksburg, Springs, Brakpan, Nigel, Soweto, Primrose, Pretoria, Vereeniging, Kopanong, Carltonville, Cullinan, Brokhorstspruit, Alexandra, Diepsloot, Randburg, Midrand, Roodepoort, Centurion, Atteridgeville, Hammanskraal, Soshanguve, sandton, Melrose, rosebank, tsakane,
PROF. SHAIKH KAJA is an experienced SPIRITUAL doctor/healer and can help you get results on any problem with in 12hrs. Below is the list of problems I can solve. But even if your problem is not listed below, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Our experienced psychic will venture into your problem and offer immediate solutions. Among these:
• Relationship problem solution/husband wife problem solution/get back lost lover
• Work related problems/get promoted at your work/win work hearing
• Win bonds/Tenders/contracts/loans within 12 hours
• Criminal matters/legal matters/court cases/divorce cases
• Lottery wins/ lotto/horses/soccer big wins/ all gambling activities
• Body cleansing/property cleansing/ business cleansing.
• Business promotion/sales promotion/ customer attraction.
• Unfinished jobs by other doctors/ Delayed jobs/ failed jobs.
• Magic ring/ magic wallet/ magic stick for wealth and marriage.
• Spells for getting married to the lover of your life.
• Spells for love, victory and sympathy.
• Fix broken marriage, relationships and finding a missing person.
• Spells for getting job/employment/higher pay/job protection.
• Spells for loan repayment/debts and financial problems.
• Expert in destroying effects of black magic/evil witch craft.
• Magic money/magic wallet/magic ring & necklace
• Fertility medicines/ impregnation of a woman/birth medicine.
• Spells for release of a captive/prisoner in 12 hours.
• Spells for fulfillment of any need within 12 hours.
• See your enemies in dreams/in mirror.
• Free telephone reading/palm reading/ tarot reading/ photo reading.
• Spells for bad dreams/ night mares/ sleeplessness.
• Cure of stress/hysteria and all forms of worry.
• Passing exams at all levels/ and interviews.
• Work/ visa/ travel/accommodation.
• Cure of diabetes and high blood pressure.
• Spells for achievement of wealth and sustenance.
• Spells for getting rid of evil designs of enemies/ evil spirits.
• Protection of life/wealth/business.
• Cure of colic, leprosy, shaking palsy, leucoderma, epilepsy.
PROTECTION CHARMS *Do Have Bad Dreams, tokoloshe Of Any Kind Come for Protection *Are you fired & You Want Your Job Back? *Do You Have Problem With Your Bosses At Work? WOMEN CHARMS Charm for Men Admire You & Propose you *Is He Unwilling to Marry You? (Come Now) *Is There Same One Disturbing You is Relation Ship? (Come Now) *Is Some One Against You At Work? SO DONT DIES WITH YOU PROBLEM. Call me on; +27736047327 Prof. Sheikh Kaja NO.1 HERBALIST, FORTUNE/SPIRITUAL TELLER (SANGOMA)
Traditional magic rings/magic wallets/ magic money bag +27736047327 in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Alberton, Kempton Park, Vosloorus, Katlehong, Duduza, Elsburg, Tembisa, Elspark, midrand, kwaThema, Benon...See more
Oct 12 '17
Blessed Magic Ring To Return Back Lost Love Fix Marriage Spell ultimate Powerful Magic Ring For Leadership Preachers Fellowships Pass All Assignments Ie Work-interviews School Exams Soccer Interviews Win Tenders Or Contract Win Lotto Famous Rich Protected Whats App Mama Farida +27729833601
Blessed Magic Ring To Return Back Lost Love Fix Marriage Spell ultimate Powerful Magic Ring For Leadership Preachers Fellowships Pass All Assignments Ie Work-interviews School Exams Soccer Interviews ...See more
Oct 30 '17
DO YOU REALLY DONT KNOW THE USE OF SANDAWANA OIL AND SKIN, +27638208000 THESE TWO THING WORK TOGETHER TO GIVE THE REAL RESULTS. SANDAWANA OIL AND SKIN HELP IN THE FOLLOWING: *do you want to boost your business and get much money. *when you lost your things such as lovers,money,job friend and othe related items *when your are in a desparate life sandawana oil can do the best to bring you the life you ever liked before *when you have been working and nothing you show or save just come to sandawana oil and skin wont leave your life the same *when some one is cheating on you just get sandawana to stop the habit *you can get the job, manage business,family and anything else as long as you use sandawana oil and skin properlly following my instruction REMEMBER IT HAS NO SIDE EFFECT +27638208000 on whtapp CONTACT LORD RAJEEV. Visit My Web Site:www.lordrajeev348.wixsite.com/sandawanaoil.DO YOU REALLY DONT KNOW THE USE OF SANDAWANA OIL AND SKIN, +27638208000 THESE TWO THING WORK TOGETHER TO GIVE THE REAL RESULTS. SANDAWANA OIL AND SKIN HELP IN THE FOLLOWING: *do you want to boost your...See more
phumi lerato
Nov 30 '17
Mama Kisa, a spiritual Healer, specialized in the fields of Love, Money, Power, Success, Luck and Witch Craft. I can help you with any problem that is disturbing you & your business I have more than 15 years experience in the field of Spells Casting / Spiritual Healing. Over the years I have worked for thousands of clients in more than 178 countries all over the world. Do you have love problems /issues that you need sorted out? I have a variety of love spells that will change your life forever. Have you lost a loved one? Are you in love with someone who doesn't seem to care about you? Is your loved one in love with someone else +27715694688Mama Kisa, a spiritual Healer, specialized in the fields of Love, Money, Power, Success, Luck and Witch Craft. I can help you with any problem that is disturbing you & your business I have more th...See more
You need to sign in to comment

Search People, News and more..



La Afrique Media has more than 100 Thousand Members. Get news and info that matter to you, a daily brief on what’s happening in your network, and a quick way to reach out and keep in touch. Connect. Find. Rate. Be found. Learn. Share & Post a Story

Become a member