That is why he has been delving into the past for more than 30 years, conducting research on and re-writing certain aspects of South African history.


Truth versus myth


“A good example of how history was distorted is the important myth of ‘the empty land’ which was first floated in 1866 by the writer WC Holden,” Bernard says.


Holden suggested that whites and Africans entered Southern Africa at roughly the same time. This idea was reinforced by subsequent writers, claiming that Africans were migrating southwards and the Dutch settlers northwards, and met along the Fish River at the same time.


Writing history right


It was only in 1959 that the first scholar refuted this false narrative. Drawing on reports by shipwrecked European sailors along the south-eastern coast, anthropologist Monica Wilson demonstrated that Africans had lived in the former Ciskei and Transkei long before whites arrived there.


Other scholars, especially archaeologists, have since demonstrated both the antiquity and continuity of the occupation of large regions in the interior of South Africa. The people living there were the ancestors of the present-day African communities, such as the Batswana and others.


The archaeologist Revil Mason, who worked on archaeological sites in the Magalies valley west of Pretoria, concluded that “iron and copper producing Negroid pastoralists” began inhabiting that area between about 350 AD and 600 AD.


This and later work by more archaeologists has finally dispelled the infamous “myth of the empty land” (Giliomee & Mbenga, 2007: 127).


Another myth busted


Another myth is the one that surrounds the South African War of 1899 to 1902.


Many history books denied that Africans performed any combat roles, claiming that their participation was coerced and not voluntary. But research by Bernard and other historians since the late 1970s has found this is not the case.


Still going strong


Over the years Bernard has built up an impressive publishing record, writing about the history of the people of Southern Africa.


One of his well received books is New History of South Africa, which he co-authored and co-edited together with political science scholar, Hermann Giliomee.


While many people his age are starting to settle into retirement, Bernard is currently working on another three books. It seems as if his love of history is still going strong and that we can expect many more publications from his pen.




Building his career


After obtaining a teaching diploma, Bernard enrolled for a BA in education at the University of Zambia, majoring in history and English. This was followed by a master’s degree in Southern African studies at the University of York in England.


Bernard joined the former University of Bophuthatswana in 1987. After obtaining his PhD from Unisa in 1997, he became an associate professor in 2005 and a full professor in 2011.


He has been on the Mafikeng Campus continuously from September 1987, when it was still the University of Bophuthatswana, until his retirement from the NWU in December 2017. He was appointed extraordinary professor for four years, as from January 2018.


An NRF-rated scholar, his research interests are 19th and early 20th century Western Transvaal, missionaries and African chiefs, land purchasing by Africans in the former Western Transvaal, and the role of Africans in the South African War of 1899-1902.



Prof Bernard Mbenga says South African historical writing has always been a highly contested area for ideological and racial reasons.

During the apartheid era, the contents of many history books were highly distorted and history professor Bernard Mbenga wants to set history straight for the future.

Setting the nation’s historical record straight