Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Africa Is Coming to the Cape *

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Africa Is Coming to the Cape *

Article excerpt

After years of pretending that it was not part of Africa, Cape Town is finding that Africa is very much part of it.

--Christopher Hope, 1998

Manifest Destiny: The phrase imputes inevitability to the march of Europeans across the North American continent from Eastern Seaboard to Pacific Ocean. It sounds today disquietingly triumphalist, reducing as it does any peoples already in its path to objects whose only role is to be brusquely shoved aside. During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century Manifest Destiny was, nevertheless, a generally accepted public interpretation of U.S. westward expansion.

When I first arrived in North America as a graduate student in 1970, this conventional view of courageous westering pioneers settling virgin land was being vigorously challenged by a popular book, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). In it, Brown offered a different take on the grand saga of the U.S. West: that of the Native Americans who stood apprehensively on the land they believed to be theirs, with which they were one and inalienable, and who were looking grimly eastward toward an inescapable force majeure seemingly set to dispossess them.

Postulate a parallel in the contemporary South African context: the millennium-long southward migration of Bantu-speaking peoples from north of the equator. Having been apparently stalled for some centuries in the Eastern Cape, this migration of Africans is now reenergized. One of the world's great population movements is currently reaching its conclusion at the Cape of Good Hope. Consider the position today of the mixed-race "Cape Coloured" people there, where they have existed for almost 350 years. Are many of them grimly looking northeastward, sensing that they are confronting the dispossession of "their" far corner of South Africa at the hands of an indeflectable Black African migration? Is the Cape, in other words, finally encountering its Manifest Destiny: that it is to be wedded to Africa?

Yet, is not to draw this comparison in so portentous a manner to contrive a misleading, or even reactionary-spirited parallel? In the new, deracializing South Africa I am not aware, for example, of some triumphalist Black African "March to the Cape" historiography in the making. Nor are Coloureds staring at the face of forced removal, active impoverishment, and quasi-genocide, as did the Lakota or the Cherokee. I could indeed claim the very converse: that in the past decade Coloureds have in fact been liberated from forced removal, active impoverishment, and (with hyperbole) quasi-genocide. And the force that freed them from those cruel experiences of apartheid? In large part, Black nationalism.

Still, there is much Coloured discontent at the Cape of Good Hope over burgeoning Black African numbers. Let us look at some of the sources of discontent in what an American journalist once dubbed "this city at the end of the world."(1)

One could say that old-fashioned regional geography--simply, which features are where--lies at the back of all this. The tip of Africa is a climatic singularity.(2) It does not rain in the summer there, and as one moves inland it hardly rains at all. The Bantu-speaking agricultural peoples' migration down the pluvial east side of Africa came up against the aridity. Their staple foods were sorghum and millet, crops that needed reliable summer rainfall; but after a certain point in their southward migration there was not enough rain. Thus, although hunting parties scouted, penetrating far, the Bantu-speakers' migration apparently halted. So the winter-rainfall Western Cape,(3) at whose farthest southwestern extremity Cape Town now stands, was ringed landward by a steppe and desert buffer (Figure 1). Behind its protection dwelled the Khoikhoi pastoralists and San hunter-gatherers, who had been forcibly supplanted farther north and east by the approach of those same Bantu speakers. Yet at their rear guard, these "Khoisan" found themselves being occupied and then destroyed by what must have come three and a half centuries ago as an otherworldly invasion: that of light-skinned people from, of all places, the open ocean. …

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