Monday 1 April 2024

The Bantu Phenomenon: Linguistic Determinism and Dehumanisation of A People

In linguistics, ‘bantu’ is an empty shell or artificial term referring to language families and the people who speak them. It simply means “people” or “humans.” Wilhelm Bleek introduced this term into contemporary academic discourse in the 1850s. However, its origins and controversial usage have perpetuated a simplistic stereotype of a people.

This article critiques the influence of European scholars on the understanding and representation of African identities, particularly the ‘bantu’ identity. It also highlights the colonial legacy of European scholars and their imposition of Eurocentric standards, which have marginalised indigenous knowledge systems and misrepresented African cultures. This criticism suggests that European scholars approached their studies of African societies with a biased perspective rooted in racial superiority, colonialism and fiction.

This damage runs deep and even infiltrates seemingly progressive Africanist ideologies. One nonsensical viewpoint suggests that the bantu people originated from central Africa but were predominantly located in Nigeria, a notion further embellished by the comical idea of Nigeria being conquered by the Roman Empire. Consequently, many ‘tribes’ purportedly migrated to southern Africa to evade this fabricated upheaval. Also, claims of a ‘kwantu’ or ‘bantu kingdom’ exemplify mischaracterisation and attempt to paint a monolithic picture of diverse African societies.

Bassey W. Andah criticises how historians, linguists, anthropologists and archaeologists traditionally explain the origins of the bantu people. He argues that our current understanding needs to be revised to definitively explain bantu origins: migration falls short of explaining political, linguistic, cultural and biological connections between the people concerned.

Andah’s criticism is unsurprising since these propagandists, veiled as scholars, were of European origin, and their malicious intent cannot be easily divorced from colonialism. As with everything else, European adventure in Africa was more about undermining the people they found, identities, cultures and all other aspects of their lives. Consequently, the bantu identity remains an empty vessel without meaning or universal application, especially by those it is said to cover.

The bantu migration phenomenon and the myth of empty land

Through aggressive Eurocentrism, Europeans imposed their standards as the norm, relegating other knowledge systems to the abyss. Described by Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ concept of ‘abyssal thinking’, this basically explains how European colonialism relegated alternative knowledge systems to obscurity, creating a metaphorical abyss where non-European perspectives were marginalised and overlooked.

This means Europeans accomplished the mischaracterisation of Africans and all that they are by brazenly europeanising everything to comply with their standard, casting all they possibly stood for into a deep darkhole. And even more worrying, despite the oppressive nature of European colonialism and the Eurocentric biases embedded in Western academia, the influence of European ‘science’ continues to be widely accepted among the very people it sought to oppress.

No historical evidence exists that these groups possessed social or political awareness of a singular, universal or unifying identity known as the bantu. This way of describing social history aligns with the issue of ‘African’. Both terms originate from Western perspectives and lack meaningful connections to the subjects they purport to describe or study. The bantu terminology was created based on language similarities but was later standardised to categorise diverse groups into Gikuyu, Xhosa, Bemba and Shona. This bantusation of a people, or simply artificial classification, has had harmful consequences in the long term.

The term bantu carries a heavy weight in South Africa and the region: apartheid’s legacy, particularly segregation laws and the creation of Bantustans. Besides creating megatribes, the bantu architecture has helped to advance bogus concepts and ideologies, including mfecane or difaqane (often framed as bantu barbaric wars). In South Africa’s case, the bantu concept was employed during apartheid and colonialism to reinforce stereotyping and the myth of empty land (terra nullius), as Shula Marks once argued. It facilitated dispossession and the denial of rights, particularly to land and knowledge.

The Great Zimbabwe and denial of the existence of a people and their prowess

The imposition of the bantu label by European settlers violently downplayed the rich history and achievements of the various African societies they encountered. This included the impressive stone architecture and extensive trade networks extending to China. The Great Zimbabwe complex, which spanned into present-day South Africa, is another example of this under-recognised history.

During the apartheid and Rhodesian days, scientific enquiry was politicised: “Archaeologists were censored from factually stating that the stone structures were built by blacks.” Rhodesian fiction says this massive structure “was made by the Phoenicians or other visitors from faraway places.” This misconception is not unique to the so-called bantu but to all ‘others’. European invaders misappropriated old civilisations like the Egyptian pyramids and the Axum in Ethiopia.

It is worth noting, however, that David Randall-Maclver and Gertrude Caton-Thompson found that Africans had built these massive stone walls, terraced battlements and towers in Zimbabwe. Influenced by colonial prejudices, however, Europeans João de Barros, Carl Mauch, J. Theodore Bent and Richard Nicklin Hall stubbornly clung to theories of the ruins’ non-black origins.

Archaeologist Webber Ndoro argues that “when you come to southern Africa, where you have a long history of colonisation, there was an attempt by the colonial governments not to attribute anything of significance to the local populations because then their superiority would be challenged.”

Regarding backwardness and uncivilised character, the bantu phraseology appears prevalent and dominant. This led to an unfortunate conclusion that a “civilised [read: white] nation must once have lived there [Great Zimbabwe].” In the 1800s, the problematic Cecil John Rhodes and his British South Africa Company sponsored investigations to prove the ruins’ exotic origins. This led to destructive excavations by Hall, who sought evidence of white builders.

Hall’s reckless actions severely damaged the site, hindering future scientific inquiry. In ‘Ruins of an unknown African civilisation’, Henri Bart confirms that European wealth-hunters “plundered the ruins” after discovering “abandoned mine workings thirty go sixty feet deep or so, scattered across the land.” If artefacts and heritage were not destroyed or stolen, as evidenced by the thousands of African artefacts in museums across European capitals. European governments continue to ignore calls for them to return these to Africa.

Nonetheless, Mauch’s line of reasoning was inextricably steeped in European racist views that have barely changed to date. There are claims that Rhodes bought into Mauch’s take without a second thought. On Rhodes’ first visit to the site, it is purported that local Karanga chiefs were told that “the Great Master” had come to see “the ancient temple which once upon a time belonged to white men.”

Applying this frivolous line of reasoning, one might suggest that as bantu people migrated southwards, they trampled on the legacy of white men. And many of those who subscribe to the new notion of ‘first nation’ do not even realise that bantu versus Indigenous is a poisoned agenda. The argument that others migrated southwards is utter garbage and belongs in the dustbin.

Apartheid used archaeology to spread bantu migration propaganda to make South Africa an enclave separated from Africa. This helped the descendants of Dutch settlers, now calling themselves Africans (Afrikaners), to perpetuate a myth until the 1980s that bantu only arrived in the seventeenth century, erasing their long history in the region.

Language and people

The languages in question should ordinarily exhibit similarities due to proximity, which occurs when people live close together or interact frequently. This is because of factors like trade, shared history or simply being neighbours. Words and grammar can be borrowed or evolve in similar ways over time. Many African languages have influenced each other throughout history.

Therefore, more than migration is needed to conclude why languages like Zulu, Gikuyu, Buganda or Chichewa share similarities. People belonged to one polity, later subdivided by European settlers into several Westphalian states. Political construction in Africa was never the same as that of Europe, creating unfounded claims that the conquered were civilised by locking them in labour reserves.

With fewer exceptions, languages were also attached to the recreated structures. Nevertheless, languages share deeper connections beyond mere migration, especially considering Western concepts. Consequently, it is typical for languages spoken in the same region or by communities with significant interaction to exhibit similarities in structure, vocabulary and pronunciation. This reality cannot be simplified using the migrations of bantu people thesis.

If the migrations of bantu people alone were indeed so influential in shaping the linguistic landscape, then the world would be significantly different today. This statement implies that the extent of the impact of bantu migrations might be exaggerated. The Western lens of the world is binary and creates imaginary enemies from nothing. Bantu migrations are presented as a revised version of the story of Indo-European tribes, Celts, Romans, Germanic tribes, Slavs and Vikings.

The dominance of languages such as Arabic, English, and Spanish and their displacement of local people and languages did not solely result from migration. Instead, these languages were imposed through violence and the subjugation of local populations, a dynamic that has not been definitively demonstrated in the case of purported bantu migrations.

In reality, languages and identities in Africa have undergone extensive manipulation, distortion and standardisation. This manipulation served a straightforward goal: to support colonialism and further evangelism. The mischaracterisation of the term bantu remains largely untested and has become a cliché. Among the foremost architects of modern standardised versions of bantu languages are European missionaries and linguists such as Clement M. Doke, Derek Nurse and Gerard Philippson.

This standardisation came at a considerable cost since many languages were discarded and even treated or relegated as mere dialects. As so-called bantu people, we have not fully synthesised the meaning of this term, which was initially used to group languages but later transitioned to categorise tribes, ultimately contributing to the destruction of nations, languages, cultures and identities.

A truth and reconciliation, comprising universities, academics and researchers, is needed in South Africa: academia played its part in the slaughter of people, heritage, culture and identities. This is necessary to determine how far academic institutions have repented after three decades since apartheid supposedly died.

Siya yi banga le economy!

Source: Siyabonga Hadebe

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