For a number of years the historiography of Southern Africa has been dominated by a materialist framework that has focused upon modes of production and forms of socio-political organization as the determining factors in historical change. Those historians concerned with the history of women in pre-colonial societies – even those who have privileged gender relations in their analyses – have largely been content to construct women's history by applying the insights of socio-economic and political analyses of the past to gender dynamics, and by projecting the insights of anthropological analyses of present gender relations into the past. Some of these historians have concluded that until the arrival of capitalism no substantial changes in the situations, power or status of women took place within Zulu society, even during the period of systemic transformation known as the mfecane in the early nineteenth century.
More recently, Zulu gender history has become part of a larger debate connected to the changing political and academic milieu in South Africa. Representatives of a revived Africanist tradition have criticized materialist historians for writing Zulu history from an outsider's perspective and of focusing overly on conflict and power imbalances within the nineteenth-century kingdom in an effort to discredit contemporary Zulu nationalism. To counter this, historian Simon Maphalala has stressed the harmony of nineteenth-century Zulu society, the power advisors exercised in state government, and the lack of internal conflict. Maphalala also claims that women's subordinate role in society ‘did not cause any dissatisfaction among them’, and argues that ‘[women] accepted their position and were contented’. In recent constitutional debates many South African intellectuals including members of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (CONTRALESA), invoked this ‘benign patriarchy’ model of pre-colonial gender relations to oppose the adoption of gender-equality provisions in the new constitution. As Cherryl Walker has noted, the hegemonic definition of traditional gender relations to which such figures have made rhetorical appeals often masks not only the historicity of these relations but also hides dissenting opinions (often demarcated along gender lines) as to what those relations are and have been.
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