The many nuances of the land question in South Africa

Thobani Zikalala is an Independent Political Commentator. Picture: Supplied

Thobani Zikalala is an Independent Political Commentator. Picture: Supplied

Published Dec 4, 2023



The land question continues to be a hot topic in the country. In the echelons of power, it is discussed whether to amend the Constitution. Giving constitutional expression to the matter would allow land expropriation without compensation.

This essay will attempt to raise philosophical issues that must be taken into consideration when dealing with the land question of South Africa, as it is complex. Many scholars, past and present, have offered their intellectual prowess in trying to understand the issue.

This short submission will seek to analyse the nuances involved in the discussion and proceed to make an argument that instead of the different perspectives used in understanding the land question, a more nuanced understanding should be applied.

Though the different perspectives will not be explored in depth, it is important to mention them. In South Africa, the land question is understood from the perspective of either being an economic object in that land is analysed from its capacity to generate wealth and being economically productive.

Land can also be understood as a political object when control over it is a political action, wielding political legitimacy. Third, land is understood as an object of nationhood and providing identity. This is to say that land is an ontological object that gives credence to existence and provides a basis for identity.

Last, the land question could be understood from the perspective of it being a spiritual object, this is to say that for many, the land has a spiritual basis and role.

Before engaging the nuances around the land question, it is important to first examine the historical background that brings about the land question as a critical topic of discussion. A brief look into South African history informs that the land question in this country finds its Genesis from 1652 when Jan van Reibeeck first settled in the Cape colony.

From there, what followed was a string of events that led to the dispossession of land from the natives by the Dutch settlers, with 1660 marking the battle over land between the Dutch settlers and Khoi people led by Autshuamato. The battles would rage on as South Africa quickly became the exploratory ground for Europeans, with the British later joining the Dutch.

The more they moved inland of the country, the more natives they encountered and engaged in battle. These included, but were not limited to, battles with King Hintsa of the Xhosa people, the battle of eNcome against King Dingane in 1838, as well as the battle of eSandlwana against King Cetshwayo in 1879. This is but a few of the wars fought over land between natives and colonial invaders.

By the turn of the 19th century, almost all locals had been defeated and the Dutch shared the country between themselves and the British, with the country being divided into four territories. The territories were the Cape Colony and Natal under British rule and The Orange Free State and Transvaal for the Dutch.

At the end of the Anglo-Boer, which the British won and had political and legal control of the country, new laws were enacted. These were laws intended to force the natives into labour and to maintain control over their lives. The events would lead to another historical clash in the form of the Bhambatha Rebellion led by Inkosi Bhambatha Zondi. It is worth noting that all the wars fought in South Africa were over land.

Eventually, the British reconciled their differences with the Boers and with that emerged the Union of South Africa which merged all the colonies to form one unified state. During this unification process the African natives were left out as the political, judicial and economic future was crafted.

This stemmed from the fact that those were indigenous because they had no control over the territorial land of South Africa, they were not citizens of this country but rather subjects.

With the appreciation of the land question in South Africa, we now proceed to answer the question posed by this piece, What are the nuances used to discuss the land questions today?

First, it is an economic description. This is to say land is seen as an economic object, as a means of production. This is why when the land question is discussed issues of productivity and economic stability are raised in the conversation.

While this type of analysis is correct, it is not enough to understand fully the land question. Thus, land is a political instrument with which control over it is one of the elements used to define a state. Control over land gives one political authority and power to determine political affairs.

This can be seen through how Africans as soon as soon as they were dispossessed of their land, lost their political power and authority and their right to control their political affairs. Even with this view, though correct, it misses the other nuances.

Land is an ontological object that determines existence and gives birth to identity. This is to say land gives and legitimises the existence of a people and gives them a sense of belonging.

This view maintains that as natives live in a country where they own less than 20% of the land, they almost live as tenants. They cannot truly call South Africa their country. The control over a territory also gives one power to determine beliefs and values even as far as determining the culture of such a territory.

In as much, the whites are a numerical minority but because of their control over land, they are a cultural majority in that it is their culture that permeates the country. The land also gives credence to the basis of nationhood. Control over territory gives the basis to build a nation – for what is a nation without a territory of its own?

Hence the Afrikaners can call themselves, the Boers which is loosely translated to mean people of the land. For Africans the land that buries them because of their spiritual beliefs also becomes an integral part of their spiritual practices. Thus, to have no control over land is to have no control over their spiritual life. When we are born our umbilical cords get buried on the ground and when we pass, we are also buried on the ground.

Land is too much a topic for it to be left to one part of society to discuss and the others reduced to being onlookers. Land is certainly a topic reserved for discussion by a particular few as it is an issue that affects all sections of society.

However, questions can be raised about who has the more legitimate view in discussing the issue. Is it the historically dispossessed and the descendants of those who fought the battles against colonisation?

Is it the beneficiaries of the dispossession and colonisation? Do both these groups have the same legitimacy?

Thobani Zikalala is an independent political commentator.

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