Literary practitioners have long been, often uncomfortably, aware of the ambivalently fruitful and constraining rhetorical influences of the past. Writers successively utilize or rebel against traditional tropes, poetic conventions, and narrative norms, balancing cultural depth against individualist innovation, acceptability against rejection, public intelligibility against the opacity of private connotation. By such gestures towards the traditions, literature challenges, upholds, or leaves unquestioned the moral, political, and cultural pre-suppositions of its day.
South African historiography is less aware than it might be of its textuality, in this sense, of its immersion in a similar “anxiety of influence,” as Harold Bloom has termed it. Little attention has been paid to its rhetorical lineaments and heritage or to the ways historians have read, used, and departed from one another. This is dramatically illustrated by the case of the historiography of Shaka Zulu (assassinated in 1828). Nowhere else has such poverty of evidence and research spawned such a massively unquestioned, long-lived, and monolithic “history.” Only in the last decade has the legendary, verbal construction of the Shaka figure been seriously questioned; only in 1991, at an important colloquium at the University of the Witwatersrand, was something approaching an academic consensus reached that the mfecane—the notion of Shaka's Zulus as the “storm-center” of a sub-continental explosion of autophagous, black-on-black violence—was no longer a credible vehicle for understanding the early nineteenth century in southern Africa.