Nelson Mandela Foundation

Did we find freedom on the 27th of April 1994? What did this moment mean for the undoing of centuries of colonial and settler domination in the country? And how do we find a meaning of freedom outside of a framing of resistance?

Arguably, we have seen an increasing turn to the longer histories of South and southern Africa, before colonialisation to answer these questions. Therefore, undertaking a metacritique of the “Pre-colonial” allows us to take seriously the possibilities that exist for shaping a future that breaks from a society that perpetually reproduces social injustices and a way of understanding what a different type of freedom can look like.

As a starting point and in looking for what this means, there is a need to deconstruct the concept of “Pre-colonial Africa”. The prefix must be problematised as a Eurocentric way of dealing with the history of Africa as it presupposes history hinges on European periodisation. Arguably, we need to find a new and progressive language in speaking about this period in Africa’s history and is with reservation and aware of these contradictions that I make use of the term “Pre-colonial”.

A conversation on the “Pre-colonial” in African contexts necessitates an interrogation of what constitutes African traditions and identities.  Interrogating these concepts enables us to think through some of the contemporary social challenges that are faced by South Africa and to question concepts such as ‘freedom’. Arguably, what are understood to constitute “uncorrupted” African identities and traditions have long been obscured and at times used in ways that further oppress people of African descent. However, these concepts are also inextricably connected to how we have come to think of ourselves in relation to land and being and how many people understand their freedom outside of liberal democracy.

Therefore, the need to read “Pre-colonial” discourses against the grain of a dominant discourse that works to further the political agendas of the elite and minority groups can no longer be delayed.  The time has come to prioritise deeper studies into the past and invest in a metacritique of narratives on “Pre-colonial Africa”. In line with this task, the academy and research community has a duty to disseminate the results of research work on the past that is underway as this research can positively inform popular discourses. However, this remains a difficult task to achieve in a space that is exclusive by design and one that has failed to reach out to the majority of the country’s population.

In addition, there has to be cognisance that the research work of the academy relies on archives that need to be placed under scrutiny. A project of this nature involves learning and unlearning long established “truths”. Challenges must be posed to the notion that identities are fixed and that “tribes” existed long before colonialism and were marked by distinct differences and were characterised by ongoing intergroup conflict. This would also mean accepting that there is not a singular narrative that can account for “Pre-colonial Africa”, but rather efforts need to be made to incorporate and engage competing versions of history as a stepping stone to better understand the sequence of events that have resulted in the present.  Oral histories from the local communities that have been invalidated and suppressed in favour of longstanding grand narratives from academic historians and other social scientists must be engaged with and there must be a questioning of  grand narratives that are accepted and prioritised, despite the clouds of scepticism that surround them.


In finding true freedom, many in South Africa are engaged in a national conversation around meaningful redress of the past injustices as well as the forms of economics and politics that will provide dignity to millions on the margins. It is within this space, the nexus of memory and dialogue, in which liberatory new imaginings and returns to ideals of history can create new forms of transformation. However, there are also inherent dangers. For example, since the conversation around land expropriation without compensation and relinquishing of traditional authorities’ custodianship of land has come to dominate popular discourse, it has been hijacked for certain types of politicking that fail to achieve the objectives of social justice. Rather than taking seriously scholarship that is committed to uncovering the truth about how people conceived of the land in the “Pre-colonial”, false narratives are portrayed for political gains. Therefore,  just solutions to the land redistribution project and restitution for “First nations” are distorted for political ends.

Similarly, when analysing the mining industry and its exploitation of people and natural resources we see other types of distortions. Since the late nineteenth century migrant labour based on the needs of the mining industry has changed and reshaped the ways in which African communities work, and this pattern has continued without any substantive change in the fundamental ways in which this industry does business. Unreflective ‘Western’ readings of traditions and identity politics have come to be a vital part of the functioning of capitalism on the African continent. Various perceptions of “Traditional Africa” are mobilised to justify consumerist culture that has been premised on concepts of how Africans should present themselves in line with supposedly traditional values.

As tension brews in the country, we can no longer afford to prevaricate on the question of redress. There is a need to take meaningful action that shifts the perception that attempts to correct past injustices are destined to fail. Du Bois argued in Black Reconstruction in America: “If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”  Similarly in the case of South Africa, the greatest nightmare for supporters of old dispensations would be for us to be successful in achieving social justice through putting in place systems of governance that create a good balance of both traditional and modern methods of governing. Such systems would be progressive to the extent that they address past injustices and set us on a path of true self-determination and genuine freedom. 

Patronella Nqaba is an Atlantic Fellow