Land matters in contemporary southern Africa

Authors: Stasja Koot, Catie Gressier and Robert Hitchcock

A series of recent events in southern Africa reveal that the land question—and especially that related to land reform—is a long way from being resolved. There are currently no indications that these issues will be addressed quickly or efficiently. Land reform is at the top of the South African agenda at present, and this is true in Namibia as well, which had its Second Conference on Land Reform and the Land Question in October of 2018. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe stepped down as president after ruling the country for 37 years in November 2017. Arguably, Mugabe’s most controversial political activity had been the fast track land reform programme, in which mostly white farmers were dispossessed of their lands, obviously also having a very strong effect on the, mostly black, farm workers. However, today Zimbabwe’s next president, Emerson Mnangagwa, has announced that Zimbabwe will allow white farmers to get 99-year leases of land again. Meanwhile, in neighbouring South Africa, the new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa said that the country should speed up the land reform process, including by appropriating white farms without payment of compensation. Likely, Ramaphosa and his party have felt the pressure of new, but highly popular, parties such as the EFF, the Economic Freedom Fighters, for whom land appropriation without compensation is their ‘first non-negotiable cardinal pillar’. Since the demise of apartheid in 1994, the ANC-led government’s budget for land reform has never exceeded 1%, and since 2007 the process has only slowed down (Nkosi 2018). In a country with one of the highest inequality rates in the world, it is then not surprising that more radical groups like the EFF can easily affect high level policy decisions and national political strategies, when large parts of the population feel their needs are not being addressed and promises remain unfulfilled. All of these issues make up some of the subject matter in a (part) special issue in the Journal of Southern African Studies (45: 2).

The frustration also shows when white and black farmers get attacked at their farms, attacks that sometimes also come with brutal violence, torture and rape. Of course, such violence should never be allowed, and therefore groups of both whites and blacks have protested against such attacks and asked the government for more protection. What is regrettable though, is that the focus in such protests for some vocal groups remains only on white farm attacks (even white ‘genocide’), and not on violence more generally (see, for example, the view of AfriForum and the response by Elmien du Plessis). In the end, the farm attacks, however brutal and horrific, only form a fraction of the violence in the country (Du Plessis 2018): most of the violence in South Africa (street crime, but also domestic violence) takes place among marginalised people who live in townships or impoverished rural areas. Focusing solely on the white farm attacks arguably creates more racial and economic tensions, strengthening feelings of ‘us’ against ‘them’ while ignoring structural issues of racial and economic inequality, which is nowhere as apparent as it is in the land question.

Who does the land belong to? Or: Who belongs to the land?

So in post-independent and post-apartheid southern Africa two questions that are still highly relevant are Who does the land belongs to?, and the preceding question: Who belongs to the land? The answers to both questions create a large variety of contestations: Under neoliberal capitalism, which currently thrives in southern Africa, private ownership is an important anchor. However, ownership of land is not necessarily congruent with the question who belongs to the land. Many instances show that the latter question continues to lead to heated debates and a large variety of political dynamics, of which we will only highlight a few here. ‘To belong’ is to have a sense of connection; it implies familiarity, comfort and ease, alongside feelings of inclusion, acceptance and safety. The way people belong to place is often informed by political strategies, conscious and unconscious, through which access to various rights and resources are sought and contested. Land has long been among the most highly valued of resources, and nowhere has this been more evident than during the liberation struggles across southern Africa. Claims to belong frequently invoke unique relationships to the land and nature (Gressier, 2015), which, in neoliberal contexts, are simultaneously constructed as highly commodified resources, in different ways by various ethnic groups.

A diverse set of ethnic groups is white southern Africans, who remain the most powerful set of ethnic groups from an economic point of view and who have always strongly identified with nature (McDermott Hughes, 2010). Take, for example, how white Namibians who work in the tourism industry and construct belonging through articulating a strong connection to the mostly essentialised local indigenous San people as people of nature (Koot, 2015). Or what about the coloured and white farmers of the highly commodified famous rooibos plantations in South Africa? Both groups struggle to express an ‘authentic’ sense of belonging, but have creatively, and in somewhat different ways, been able to identify more with the plant than with the land (Ives, 2017). These examples are important reminders not to reduce the politics of belonging to place as only a politics of land. And neither is it solely a positive politics; it is mobilised just as frequently in processes of exclusion that are shaped, more often than not, by dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. Take the key issue of labour and its consequent processes of (rural–urban) migration (Njwambe, Cocks and Vetter, 2019), which keenly demonstrate that ‘inherent to belonging is always the potential for its opposites: insecurity, alienation and exclusion’ (Gressier, 2015). Xhosa people working in Cape Town often keep a strong sense of belonging with their rural homes in Centane in the former Transkei, a phenomenon which is referred to as Ekhayeni (Njwambe, Cocks and Vetter, 2019). Labour in particular demonstrates how the politics of belonging are integrally related to a variety of economic push and pull factors, with immigrants stereotypically regarded as a threat to an often already limited pool of work; economic migrants, temporary workers, asylum seekers and illegal migrants are then seen as those who do not belong and, as a consequence, are all too frequently confronted with xenophobic violence (Mosselson, 2010).

Indigenous peoples and their many court cases surrounding protected areas

Despite a lack of formal recognition of the unique histories of the region’s indigenous people, the governments of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa are attempting to assist indigenous (mostly San or ‘Bushmen’) communities as ‘marginalised’ or ‘historically disadvantaged’ through various state-sponsored programmes (Sapignoli and Hitchcock, 2013). The San, who are often considered the ‘real’ indigenous people of southern Africa, continue to endure the region’s highest rates of impoverishment, landlessness and political alienation. While material resources are far too frequently scarce, as Richard Lee pointed out, indigenous people have “what migrants and the children of migrants (i.e., most of the rest of us) feel they lack: a sense of belonging, a sense of rootedness in place” (Lee, 2003, p. ).

Indeed, the San often articulate themselves —and are often articulated by others—as having a special relation to the land and nature. For the last few centuries, they have been among the most prominent victims of evictions for the sake of nature conservation. This is still visible today, when a large variety of San groups are in the middle of a court case or has won court cases already to get (access to) land. The Hai//om of northern Namibia, for example, have filed a collective action lawsuit in 2015, to be able to receive a share of the benefits from the highly profitable tourist gem Etosha National Park and from an area called Mangetti West. However, the Namibian government continues to push those Hai//om who still live in the Etosha park out, under the banner of ‘voluntary’ resettlement. Large donors and the Hai//om traditional authority (who was appointed by the government and not democratically elected) support this process (Koot and Hitchcock, 2019). Such problems with traditional authorities seem to be widespread over southern Africa, from Namibia in the West all the way to northern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, in the East, and it does not seem to be restricted to indigenous people only (Aardenburg and Nel, 2019). Meanwhile, the Hai//om at the Tsintsabis resettlement farm, to the east of Etosha National Park, experience a high level of in-migration, which leads to a variety of social problems, including the rise of shebeens (where the sale of alcohol leads to many socio-cultural problems, such as prostitution, violence and ethnic tensions). Ironically, since Namibia’s independence in 1990 the land reform programme has predominantly favoured those with good connections in the government instead of marginalised groups, showing new elitism based on the privatisation of property. And further to the north, impoverished Hai//om at Mangetti West are today denied access to large tracts of land where they used to gather for food because cattle farmers from far away have now illegally fenced off large parts of the area (Koot and Hitchcock, 2019). Other San groups have also experienced difficulties with illegal fencing in northern Namibia, such as the San of the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy. Despite winning a court case against the illegal fencers in 2016, so far the fences have not been removed and no pressure seems to have been put on the illegal fencers, despite the Minister of Environment and Tourism himself stating that the government will “ensure that the rights of the San are protected” (Namibian Sun, 2016, see also Van der Wulp and Koot, 2019).

Furthermore, in neighbouring Botswana, the G//ana and G/wi San and Bakgalagadi of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) continue to be cut off from most government services. This is the latest strategy in the Botswanan state’s sustained campaign to evict residents from the protected area, despite the San having won four (!) court cases affirming their right to continue to reside within the CKGR (Sapignoli, 2018). Such strategies, as well as the land reform programme in Namibia, make you understand why many San in southern Africa consider the ‘new’ governments just as bad as, or at times worse than, colonial governments. Moreover, in South Africa, where the ≠Khomani San have received eight farms back based on past evictions from the current Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, it is not always a given that receiving land ‘back’ automatically also accounts for ‘development’: throughout the years the meaning of land has essentially changed from a ‘total environment’ that was taken away from hunting and gathering people under colonialism, to land as a purely commodified resource today, meant for the development of people who are identifying as hunter-gatherers, but who are first of all people of contemporary society where there is hardly any space for a ‘real’ hunting and gathering lifestyle (Koot and Büscher, 2019).

The recent (part) special issue of the Journal of Southern African Studies (45: 2), for which we have been guest editors, addresses the above issues in more detail. The editorial ‘Belonging, Indigeneity, Land and Nature in Southern Africa under Neoliberal Capitalism: An Overview’ (Koot, Hitchcock and Gressier, 2019) introduces the above topics and some of the case studies mentioned in this blog. It is clear that land remains politically highly sensitive in southern Africa, and the questions of who belongs to the land, and how this belonging is articulated, seems to be more relevant than ever.

References

Aardenburg, E. and Nel, A. ‘Fatalism and Dissidence in Dukuduku, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa: Ongoing Contestations over Land, Resources and Identity’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).

Du Plessis, E. ‘AfriForum’s Own Farm Murder Stats Don’t Support Their Claims’, News24, 7 May 2018, available at https://www.news24.com/Columnists/GuestColumn/afriforums-own-farm-murder-stats-dont-support-their-claims-20180507, retrieved 21 July 2019.

Gressier, C., At Home in the Okavango: White Batswana Narratives of Emplacement and Belonging (Oxford, Berghahn, 2015).

McDermott Hughes, D., Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

Ives, S., Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea (London, Duke University Press, 2017).

Koot, S. ‘White Namibians in Tourism and the Politics of Belonging through Bushmen’, Anthropology Southern Africa, 38(1–2), (2015), pp. 4–15.

Koot, S. and Büscher, B., ‘Giving Land (Back)? The Meaning of Land in the Indigenous Politics of the South Kalahari Bushmen Land Claim, South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).

Koot, S. and Hitchcock, R., ‘In the Way: Perpetuating Land Dispossession of the Indigenous Hai//om and the Collective Action Lawsuit for Etosha National Park and Mangetti West, Namibia’, Nomadic Peoples, 23, (2019), pp. 55-77.

Koot, S., Hitchcock, R. and Gressier, C., ‘Belonging, Indigeneity, Land and Nature in Southern Africa under Neoliberal Capitalism: An Overview’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).

Lee, R. ‘Indigenous Rights and the Politics of Identity in Post-Apartheid Southern Africa’, in B. Dean and J.M. Levi (eds), At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights, and Postcolonial States (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2003), pp. 80–111

Mosselson, A. ‘“There is no Difference between Citizens and Non-citizens Anymore”: Violent Xenophobia, Citizenship and the Politics of Belonging in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 36(3) (2010), pp. 641–55

Namibian Sun, ‘Shifeta Fights for San Rights’, Windhoek, 26 September 2016, available at https://www.namibiansun.com/news/shifeta-fights-for-san-rights, retrieved 21 July 2019

Njwambe, A., Cocks, M. and Vetter, S., ‘Ekhayeni: Rural-Urban Migration, Belonging and Landscapes of Home in South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).

Nkosi, M. ‘Is South Africa’s Land Reform an Election Gimmick?’, BBC News, London, 11 August 2018, available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-45099915, retrieved 20 August 2018.

Sapignoli, M., Hunting Justice: Displacement, Law, and Activism in the Kalahari (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Sapignoli, M. and Hitchcock, R., ‘Indigenous Peoples in Southern Africa’, The Round Table, 102(4), (2013), pp. 355–65.

Van der Wulp, C. and Koot, S., ‘Immaterial Indigenous Modernities in the Struggle against Illegal Fencing in the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy, Namibia: Genealogical Ancestry and ‘San-ness’ in a ‘Traditional Community’’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).

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