Monday, 25 July 2011

The Deaths of Hintsa and South Africa's Recurring Pasts

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Two years into the transition to democratic rule in South Africa, a little-known healer-diviner, Nicholas Tilana Gcaleka, stumbled on to the stage of history. He claimed to have brought the skull of Xhosa king Hintsa back to South Africa from Scotland, where he said he had traced it. Amidst a flurry of media attention, the skull was confiscated from Gcaleka and handed to a team of scientists to “prove” its authenticity. They declared the cranium was that of a human female, and definitely not Hintsa. Gcaleka was proclaimed, at least, laughable, and at worst, a liar.
However, Gcaleka’s quest challenges the concepts of history’s critical function in relation to South Africa’s past, including its colonial and apartheid periods. In The Deaths of Hintsa: Postapartheid South Africa and the shape of recurring pasts (HSRC Press), author Premesh Lalu calls for a history that makes a conceptual difference in the wake of apartheid, and which addresses the transition to a postapartheid era. The author proposes that this transition bypassed the colonial archive and therefore failed to anticipate its resilience. Through mining a rich field of research, from colonial archival material to contemporary museum exhibitions, Lalu states that overcoming apartheid has required coming to terms not only with the effects of history, but with the discourse of history itself.

Essentially, the book traces the “truth” based on colonial modes of evidence that engulfed two subjects who failed to make the cut of history: a king who at the prime of his rule was killed and mutilated by British forces in the early 19th century; and a healer-diviner who, towards the end of the 20th century, recalled that king’s alleged decapitation. Surrounding the king’s death in 1835 and the healer-diviner’s mission in 1996 are lies packaged as truths and histories presented as unproblematic narratives of change. For this, the author says, he allows the misfits to lead the way.

Chapter 1 looks at the killing of Hintsa, arguing that colonial discourses and their forensic evidence have framed and limited what could be said about Hintsa.

Chapter 2 explores the imagined worlds of colonial officials, settlers and missionaries which figured prominently in the various constructions of Hintsa and the justification of his murder.

Chapter 3 examines the significance of settler colonial histories, which lie not only in their racial investments but also in their presentation and form.

Chapter 4 tracks the figure of Hintsa – and the course of nationalist history - in the writings of John Henderson Soga and SEK Mqhayi, two major contributors to Xhosa historiography.

Chapter 5 looks at ways in which Hintsa’s “ghost” traverses the bureaucratic borders that would in later years define apartheid’s homeland system.

Chapter 6 continues the process of invalidation of the colonial archive by exploring the rearrangement of Hintsa in museum exhibitions in South Africa that deal with colonisation.

Taken together, the chapters argue that the end of apartheid was declared without a sufficient critique of colonial conditions of knowledge that enabled a modern system of segregation. Nicholas Gcaleka, in claiming Hintsa’s skull, seems to have highlighted the limits that apartheid posed on the reworking of concepts of nation and identity. By his prompting, the author says, we are compelled to track the process of how a little-known healer-diviner, in his encounter with the history of colonialism, became entangled in the formation, regulation and transformation of historical statements relating to the deaths of Hintsa. Thinking thus, the book concludes, is to engage the possibilities of living after colonialism, and indeed apartheid.

The Deaths of Hintsa: Postapartheid South Africa and the shape of recurring pasts (HSRC Press) is a fascinating exploration of history and society in South Africa, which offers a wealth of valuable material to scholars and researchers not only in the historical field, but across many academic genres.

The Deaths of Hintsa: Postapartheid South Africa and the shape of recurring pasts is written by Premesh Lalu and published by the HSRC Press. Premesh Lalu is Associate Professor in History at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. He is also chair of the Programme on the Study of the Humanities in Africa and a trustee of the District Six Museum Foundation in Cape Town. His earlier writing has appeared in journals History in Africa, The South African Historical Journal, Current Writing, History and Theory and Kronos. Lalu was previously Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Public Scholarship at Emory University in the USA.

Copies of all of HSRC Press published titles are available from leading booksellers nationally, and from the online bookshop at www.hsrcpress.ac.za.

For a review copy of the book, or to make contact with the author, contact:

Karen Bruns
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HSRC Press

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Published in Science and Education