I have been studying Southern African history since 2012. I am a historian, and my work is to turn dead time into living time, or to bring the past back to – forward into – the present. In order to do this, I cut textiles into threads of words and weave my own clothes: I read books, articles, pamphlets, songs, pictures, potentially any form or support able to conceive messages; I apply my fallible intellect to critically analyse them, and write about my results in what is generally a sharp and arid language. I also give presentations in conferences and seminar series, teach in classrooms, and check other scholars’ work in a peer-reviewed journal, Africa: rivista semestrale di studi e ricerche. My workplaces are the library and the archive, my working tool is a digital typewriter. Few things make me happier than corridors with open shelves and dusty archival boxes.

Historians of the Grasslands: The Highveld Oral Traditions of the Ronald Stretton Webb Collection in the Royal Geographical Society Archive

What creature lives at Tomotomo? Some say it is a large snake, with glaring eyes, capable of killing a man without even touching him. The bravest have entered the cave, reached the spring and heard that murmuring sound – is it really the water producing that tomotomo? – but have stepped back in haste. And what happened to ‘Maghagha, the last ruler of the forgotten Bakubung lineage, a queen who is said to have disappeared into that very cave, years before the difaqane of the 1820s turned the world of the Highveld upside down? At around the same time, a German traveller was told by a Griqua that ‘an enormous serpent’ lived in the spring of Kuruman, and was considered a ‘sacred animal’ by the Batswana… is it the same ‘water snake’ that still lives in the Vaal and Orange rivers, according to the Griqua and San?

And then, why do the mountain princes of Lesotho, in their praise-songs, sometimes appear in the shape of horned crocodiles, or with eyes of fire, or black snakes of the deep pools, maliba? Koena – crocodile – is their seboko, the animal they praise and dance for, so why meddle with those weird serpentine beasts that can be seen depicted on the caves of the Maloti, painted by the ‘Bushmen’ during their trance dances? After all Moshoeshoe, the king, once told Moletsane, the famous war leader of the grasslands, that ‘a Bushman cannot rule’! And yet, one such serpent guarded the brook just below his mountain capital.

The precolonial Highveld was a place of syncretism, mixture, accretive identities, seizures, overwritings, and borrowings. The research project participates in the recent trend of scholarship that is dismantling the old, residual tribalistic paradigm that defined the African communities of Southern Africa as solid ethnic blocks, juxtaposed one to the other. Change and resistance to change, aggregation and dispersion were the forces at work, creating a varied human landscape that was continuously reshaped by the actions of powerful rulers, ambitious brothers, rebellious subjects, unruly bands of runaways and hunters, and by all the women and men who chose who to follow and who to oppose – who to praise and remember, and who to despise and forget.

In my Doctorate, I proposed a reconstruction of the political culture of the region between the Maloti-Drakensberg and the Molopo river, working mainly on African sources such as praise poetry, myths, tales, historical narratives, and the documented actions of the inhabitants of the Highveld captured in written form by colonial observers. Having worked out a lexicon of power, violence, war, subalternity, and rebellion, the thesis narrated the pre-1800 political history of some of the communities of the Highveld: the Barolong, the Bakubung, the Bataung, the Batlokoa, and the Bakoena Bamonaheng. The postdoctoral project builds on this ground.

The research project is the first to address specifically a hitherto largely unknown group of transcribed ‘oral’ traditions of the Bakubung, Bataung, and Batlokoa, now held at the Royal Geographical Society in London, connecting them with other collections in Southern Africa. Knowing that these sources need careful handling and cannot simply be read as plain narratives of the past, the first step will be to study their process of production, including the personalities involved, their backgrounds, and their motivations; then the project will move on to work on the common traits of such sources, testing whether they can reveal a Southern African way of narrating oral history; after this historiographical analysis, the project will include the new findings in the political history of the precolonial Highveld, attempting to flesh out the events, personalities, social and economic processes that took place before the turning point of the early nineteenth century. Under that perspective, the main research hypothesis is whether the lifaqane was indeed a major break in the history of the region, and whether the politics of warfare, and protection, already existed before..

As mentioned, these new sources grew out of specific individual relationships that were built over a few decades, while South Africa was undergoing the momentous change of apartheid. The two protagonists were Abraham Aaron Moletsane and Ronald Stretton Webb.

In the early 1950s A.A. Moletsane, an old Motaung, started a voyage back into the memory of his own community, the Bataung, and of their kindred and senior ones, the Bakubung, also known as Lihoja. His ancestors had lived on the hilltops and along the streams of central and northern Free State, between the Caledon and the Orange rivers. He went to their villages in ruins, spoke with local elders and members of his extended family he had never seen before, stepped into Tomotomo and gazed at the hill at Mekoatleng, where his own famous grandfather Moletsane had ruled, a hundred years before, now fenced by Afrikaner farmers. He claimed with pride that Moletsane was ‘of lighter complexion’, and took a deep interest in the many ‘Bushmen’ who had lived with the Bataung. Eventually, he wrote about his journey, and about the history of the Bataung.

His efforts were supported and motivated by Ronald Stretton Webb, a First World War veteran who had moved to South Africa after surviving the gas bombings on the trenches in Ypres, carrying his war ghosts with him. Having relinquished his Royal Artillery uniform, he dressed the clothes of land surveyor, and became sympathetic of the claims the Basotho laid on large tracts of the Free State. The time, however, was most unwelcoming for such researches, as South Africa moved from segregation to apartheid, and theories about the ‘empty land’ became the founding stones of Bantustans and of school curricula. He stimulated Moletsane to start his journey, and assisted him along his path. Together, they collected a large collection of documents and testimonies, including manuscript oral traditions in Sehoja and Setlokoa, and wrote essays that sketched the precolonial world of modern Free State. Moletsane and Webb then attempted to have them published, but failed, and Webb died in the 1970s with the bitter awareness that their researches had to be put away for at least ‘25-50’ years, and resurrected in the 21st century, seen as a ‘time of freedom’.

Such archival documents, it is clear, exert a powerful mandate on the researcher: grown out conversations that took place in the past, they were eventually archived with the explicit aim of starting a conversation with a reader in the future. For this reason, one the main caveat of the research will be not to have it dictated by Webb and Moletsane, but, once more, to unpack and rewrite. And yet, it might be about time to trace back their steps into the precolonial Highveld, and to write a history suited for this new century.