The King History Forgot: Makikele, The 19th Century Legend of Phalaborwa, South Africa
Robert T.K. Scully (Kenya 1965-66)
Two Harbors Press
$16.95 (paperback), $5.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Robert E. Hamilton (Ethiopia: 1965-67)
This is not your conventional African historical, political, biographical novel. (Try saying that tongue-twister rapidly three times.) Dr. Robert T. K. Scully has drawn extensively upon his own collection of oral history and oral tradition in the 1970s among “the people of” (Ba-) Phalaborwa (pronounced “Palaborwa)-North Sotho-speaking residents of the Lowveld of Northeastern South Africa. Much of this area of Limpopo Province was incorporated in 1926 into the present Kruger National Park.
Many readers-like this one-personally unfamiliar with this area of South Africa will benefit from reading the “Author’s Notes” at the end of the novel (pages 361-372) for a description of the larger historical context. The book “is the story of a talented man of unusual political acumen and cunning, someone who fashioned his people’s survival, sustainability, and destiny during one of the most volatile periods of [Southern Africa’s] regional history. It is also clear that ancient internal cleavages, running along kinship lines and caused by political and trading rivalries, were a countervailing force held in check by Makikele, but ultimately divided the kingdom, making it vulnerable to outside forces following his death.” (p. 362)
The “volatile period” was the “Difaqane,” which Scully defines in his “Glossary of Northern-Sotho Words” (p. 377) as “Widespread regional upheaval caused by Zulu expansion, 1820s to 1840s.” In the case of the Ba-Phalaborwa, it also included the external threat represented by Swazi, Tsonga, and Dutch Boer cattle raiding and immigration on an unprecedented scale, matched to a large extent by an internal and on-going succession dispute among the royal family which challenged the reign of Kgoshi (king; ruler) Makikele Malatji.
Makikele, Scully says, was “often numbered as the twenty-first ruler” but “is the most praised of those in an extensive and carefully preserved Ba-Phalaborwa oral history.” In this novel, Makikele appears, for Americans at least, as “Lincoln-esque”-though without Abraham Lincoln’s trademark humor and story-telling, something, admittedly, difficult to convey through oral history. “Elderly locals,” Scully writes, “identify Makikele as a hero to his people, praised for his wisdom and strong leadership in dangerous times. Many believe that without his courage and fortitude, the land of Phalaborwa would have been conquered by neighboring tribes, and the Ba-Phalaborwa people would have vanished, absorbed by others, their land taken away from them.” (p. 362)
The vision of unifying all Phalaborwa into a single kingdom is attributed to Kgoshi Meele Malatji, Makikele’s father and predecessor. But it was the son who realized this vision and united the various ethnic and lineage components of Phalaborwa, only to see it eventually divided among four competing political factions.
Why then is Makikele both a hero and “the king history forgot”? Scully’s book appears to contradict the title: it contains useful maps, a Foreword, illustrations (by Chris Freeman), glossary, bibliography, list of Ba-Phalaborwa Kgoshi, historical timelines, and a detailed description of the large book-cover illustration. He doesn’t appear to have “forgotten” anything-except, oddly enough, a Table of Contents. Perhaps the title reminds us of the earlier prejudice that historians should work from written documents-not oral history/tradition and archaeology. It was certainly convenient for Europeans to “forget” that the indigenous populations owned the land and its natural resources (e.g. copper, iron ore, gold, silver, and diamonds) before they were “nationalized” and then awarded to European concessionaires and farmers. The title may alert contemporary Africanists to include the Ba-Phalaborwa in standard popular and school history textbooks of South Africa. Finally, perhaps the title reminds the Ba-Phalaborwa, as well, that they were once united politically. It was suggested that the book be translated into North Sotho and made available as a school text or supplement, a proposal endorsed by Scully’s 1970’s project director, the archaeologist Professor Nikolaas J. van der Merwe, who wrote the Foreword.
Moving quickly through the period of mid- and late-19th century South African history in the Author’s Notes, which resulted in the Ba-Phalaborwa living on “reservations,” Scully states that when Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, the four Phalaborwa rulers of separate settlements won a united claim for the return of the land and mineral rights established during Makikele’s kingship. “Today’s strongly held Ba-Phalaborwa values,” he writes, “concerning rights to the land and its resources, and the distinctive pride of culture preserved in the lowlands between the Lepelle and Letaba Rivers, are Makikele’s legacy passed down to later generations and descendants.”
Makikele Malatji’s biography is presented as a chronological narrative of his life, court intrigues among the royal wives and their supporters, and the struggle for succession to the Copper Throne, so-called because of the large quantity of copper and iron ore mined, smelted, and forged as agricultural implements and military weapons within the kingdom. The Royal Triangle of Lolwe Hill copper mines, the political capital at Kgopolwe, and the sacred burial site of royalty at Sealene were all within a few miles of one another, giving this center real and symbolic significance for its residents as well as those in outlying farms and villages on the periphery.
The copper and iron trade within the Northeast Lowveld and to the coast was a major source of wealth, complemented by a royal tax on elephant hunting and the ivory trade. It was-although Scully does not use the term-a mercantile economy, centrally controlled by Makikele, who drew significant support from his male cohort group.
At age 16, Makikele left his royal Kgopolwe residence for the male initiation (koma) and regiment-formation (Dikomathuku) camp and training. Kgoshi Meele had approved for the first time a kingdom-wide (rather than district-wide) koma and Makikele was appointed the cohort commander, giving him a large base of political and military support throughout his reign. The long physical training camp, circumcision surgery and healing, as well as cultural and social schooling were a rigorous male bonding exercise. North Sotho informants told Scully of a leopard appearing near the age-mates, looking straight at Makikele, and symbolically saluting him with a wave of its tale-foretelling that he would become the next kgoshi, rather than his older half-brother Ramatladi, the son of Kgoshi Meele Malatji and wife Setakgale Mathipa, the older cousin of Mokadi Mathipa, Makikele’s mother.
Having, myself, collected oral history and oral tradition in Asante, Ghana, in 1968 as well as 1972-3, for my doctoral dissertation on the political and economic causes of the Yaa Asantewa War of 1900, I was sensitive to Scully’s challenge in not only collecting such material but in publicly presenting it in a faithful, respectful, but readable manner, especially given the political divisions which characterize kingdoms-whether in Africa, Europe, or elsewhere.
The book is not always an easy read, particularly the first half of it, as Scully has taken on the daunting task of “historical fiction” in an African political context of 150-160 years ago-or longer. In the case of some historical fiction-such as Shaka Zulu-the task can be easier because of an historian’s or novelist’s access to written traveler’s accounts, in a variety of European languages as well as Arabic. This would certainly be the case if one were to write a historical novel about a queen-mother like Yaa Asantewa.
But, Scully did not have extensive documents to consult and was constrained in what he could invent as interesting personal social qualities which Makikele and other major characters displayed; Makikele’s conversations were not recorded at the time, apparently, by literate visitors, missionaries, or traders. There is considerable repetition among the accounts of events as informants repeated stories which they inherited from ancestors or cultural specialists and passed them on verbatim to Scully. Thus, the Royal Triangle’s description and significance appears frequently as informants provided context to specific events. A hagiographical quality takes shape as Makikele, Mokadi (his mother), and others are described by their descendants as having supernatural powers to understand and/or direct the behavior of climate, weather, flora, and fauna. Likewise, the ambitions and character traits of Makikele’s detractors and competitors often give the novel a soap-opera quality as the hero-king works to unite his people and defeat the forces of darkness and evil.
In other African locations, kings and lesser leaders of Makikele’s historical period considered ways to accommodate and incorporate technological, economic, social and even political change to deal with external as well as internal threats. In Scully’s account of Makikele’s life and reign, Kgoshi Meele Malatji and Kgoshi Makikele Malatji introduced measures to consolidate their power using traditional institutions as they rightly perceived a growing political and economic threat from traders and migrants-African and European–eager to control the lucrative resources of the kingdom: minerals, cattle, elephants. Makikele used the forces within his control to protect the interests of the kingdom, fearful that an increasingly diverse invading power would succeed and that, as in the case of Chinua Achebe’s famous historical novel, the center would not hold and things would fall apart.
Dr. Robert Hamilton’s latest Kindle book is Short and Shorter: Short Stories and Poetry (2013). He lives in and writes from Portland, Oregon.
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