South Africa has a mighty tradition of Defying Reality. Some might say that that was what apartheid was all about: its pernickety, cruel, insane attempt to draft laws defining useless racial distinctions, then building a whole society around those distinctions.

But before that came the startling Xhosa Cattle Killings in 1856-57, a disaster that echoes on down the decades to the present day. What was that act of collective mass destruction of the Xhosa people’s own wealth by the Xhosas themselves really about? Views differ.

Thus Gemma Pitcher:

As the Cattle-Killing frenzy swept Xhosaland, rumours flew. The most striking of these was that the ‘New People’ foretold by Nongqawuse were in some way connected to the Russians, against whom the British were currently fighting -and being defeated -in the Crimean War. The Russians were therefore believed to be black, and coming over the sea to liberate the Xhosa and drive the whites into the sea, whereupon a new Utopia for the nation would begin…

So what could have possessed the Xhosa to do such a thing? To answer this question modern historians must ignore colonial theories of ‘superstion’ and ‘delusion’ as well as the long-held belief amongst the Xhosa that the prophecies were planted by the British administration in order to orchestrate the fall of the Xhosa nation. Instead one must grasp both the cultural background to the killings and the historical context in which they happened.

There is a strong place in traditional African religion of vision and prophecy, especially by girls and women. It was therefore not difficult for the Xhosa to believe in Nongqawuse and her prophecies…

Although not intrinsically an anti-European movement, the Xhosa Cattle-Killing can be seen as an assertion of black identity …  As such it should be regarded not as a shameful secret in the history of the Xhosa people, but as an early form of black consciousness and resistance.

Hmm. Vision and prophecy by girls and women. What could go wrong?

Want more explanations, bringing in incest and imperialism? Try Timothy Stapleton.

Or this book by J B Peires – comprehensive but controversial:

This book proved to be a challenging read, taking me several years to research. There are indeed omissions, inconsistencies, conflicting versions and self-serving narratives.

A much more recent example of Xhosa defiance of reality came with President Thabo Mbeki and his AIDS policies. Even Harvard University, no foe of ANC-style democracy in South Africa, thought that something had gone badly wrong here, to the point of 300,000 people dying who might have been saved or at least lived a lot longer by applying different policies:

… from the late 90s Mbeki turned his back on the scientific consensus that Aids was caused by a viral infection which could be combated, though not cured, by sophisticated and expensive drugs. He came under the influence of maverick scientists known as Aids-denialists, most prominent among whom was Peter Duesberg from Berkeley, California.

In 2000 Mbeki called a round-table of experts, including Duesberg and his supporters but also their opponents, to discuss the cause of Aids. Later that year, at the international Aids conference in Durban, he publicly rejected the accepted wisdom. Aids, he said, was indeed brought about by the collapse of the immune system – but not because of a virus. The cause, he said, was poverty, bad nourishment and general ill-health. The solution was not expensive western medicine but the alleviation of poverty in Africa…

Yes, 300,000 people. That’s over seven times more people than are thought to have perished by the Xhosa people’s own folly 150 years earlier. Mr Mbeki is still rambling on even now to defend himself. Here is an impressively energetic assessment:

The issue that we’d all been dreading – Mbeki’s unforgivable policy decisions during the country’s HIV/Aids crisis – finally received its own rollercoaster ride in Mbeki Land. Entitled “A Brief Commentary on the Question of HIV and AIDS”, and published on Monday, it is – and I say this without reservation – the most absurd, tragic, turgid monstrosity that I have ever encountered on the internet. I repeat: On. The. Internet. Where idiocy goes to die. Where Donald Trump goes to Tweet. Where kitten GIFs count as high art…

A health crisis requires a specific type of leadership, the type the Nigerians applied to the Ebola outbreak. In a country known for chaos, Abuja doubled-down on every piece of available scientific evidence and, poof, away the disease went. Mbeki’s job was to do everything – everything – possible to restrict the spread of any and every disease threatening the welfare of the South African people…

Not what in fact happened.

* * * * *

Back to the present, and Cape Town University. An institution busily committing intellectual suicide. Thus a new incantation: Science Must Fall!

“Science is a product of Western modernity and the whole thing must be scratched off!”

Watch this rambling nonsense, all the more disconcerting by being delivered by people who seem otherwise articulate and not obviously insane. The first speaker seems to think that the key thing is to start from what people believe, not what they know.

Yet observe the picture of the video. How many things in it have emerged from ‘science’?

The chairs. The fabric on the chairs. The table.  The supporting metal table legs and laminated top. The varnish on the table.

The dye used to colour the hair of the smugly oppressive woman in the grey top. Her spectacles. The glass in her spectacles and their plastic frames. The elastic in her underwear. The paper and colours of the magazine on the table. The blackboard and the windows.

The precision used by machines to cut each of these items to just the right shape. The engineering cleverness accumulated over centuries of painstaking study often on parchment by candlelight that went into making those machines, and the machines that made those machines, and the machines that made those machines.

The accumulated brilliance of the chemists and technologists who created the myriad products and processes that make all these products work safely together and not decay or fall apart on the spot.

The cleverness and precision of the delivery systems that carried literally everything into that room, a place that was once not too long ago was nothing but rather bleak scrub on the Cape hills.

The cleverness of the legal systems that brought together all sorts of people and organisations to pool the resources to make things.

The impossibly brilliant systems and technologies that let these absurd people burble on while we watch them aghast on the Internet.

There is in fact no way to count the trillions of small invisible pieces of cleverness assembled in that room, all of them depending on ‘science’ and sheer hard work. Merciless attention to detail and concentration. Strict respect for self-discipline and accuracy.

Contrast all that with the slackers and moochers and wannabe looters smirking in that classroom – lazy people who think that the intensity of their self-esteem renders them impervious to criticism.

Yes, science has its ultimate ‘beliefs’. We never are going to be sure about even the basic building blocks of our universe. But those beliefs are subject to incessant testing and testing in the laboratory of Real Life, giving us all something pretty damn close to Knowledge. They rest on theories that can in principle be disproved. They aren’t mere superstition and fanaticism.

What exactly can we say that African witchcraft has brought us and the planet as a whole as compared to ‘science’? Heartfelt mysticism. The sneaky brutal murder of albino children to make muti – magic potion. Anything else?

What, one wonders, would the babbling #ScienceMustFall tendency say if one politely took from them their fancy smartphones and smashed them against Table Mountain? Would they be pleased that their revolting symbols of white/Western modernity and privilege had indeed been ‘scratched off’? Would they ask African witchcraft help them make a replacement?


Back to basics:

Once, an elderly professor of literature, Mrs. Taggart’s friend, saw them on top of a pile in a junk yard, dismantling the carcass of an automobile.

He stopped, shook his head and said to Francisco, ‘A young man of your position ought to spend his time in libraries, absorbing the culture of the world.’

What do you think I’m doing?‘ asked Francisco.