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Re-tribalising land issue unhelpful

It was a curious thing, several weeks ago, to hear Moeletsi Mbeki, invoking the 19th century mfecane as a basis for arguing that black people must move on from the politics of the land question.

In the interview on SAfm, Mbeki claimed that black people ought to stop using past dispossession to argue for broad ranging land restitution today, because, he argued, Africans had also themselves dispossessed each other in the pre-colonial era and there was no way of ascertaining which Africans were the legitimate owners of which land.

Mbeki argued that since in the 19th century his own ancestors amaZizi, were ejected by Shaka’s Zulu army from KwaZulu-Natal, and had landed up in the Eastern Cape, there could be no way of ascertaining who should claim which land.

“Mfecane” refers to a series of wars and migrations said to have been begun by Shaka and his rapidly aggressive expansion of the Zulu kingdom from about 1817-1818 when he defeated the Ndandwe state under Zwide.

The expansion of the Zulu state under Shaka has captured imaginations and formed the basis for many spurious political arguments about Africans and their struggles.

Who knew Shaka would be revived, yet again, this time to distort the historical basis for African political claims over land, these being claims about colonial dispossessions of Africans as a whole, and not so much about individual clan losses in the tumult of the 19th century.

While many black South Africans embrace their clan identities, in the sphere of liberation politics, Africans went out of their way to create a universal and Pan-African notion of Africanness that formed the basis of their liberation movements.

One of the strongest political achievements of the ANC, in fact, was its conscious attempt to do away with tribal claims and focus on a joint African identity. It is this universal Africanness that forms the basis of what is broadly debated as “the land question”.

It is thus not helpful then when influential opinion makers such as Mbeki distort the historical land question by retribalising it just as the colonists and the Verwoerds of yesteryear did in viewing Africans primarily as separate tribal units.

Of course there is no point in rehashing well-known history. The question is why someone of Mbeki’s stature would resort to re-tribalising Africans in order to dismiss the idea of land questions.

I can only speculate as to his motives. Perhaps Mbeki sees himself as some type of modernist who believes blacks clinging to some idea of land being returned is backward, or populist and dangerous.

Perhaps he believes there is no way to return the land en masse without causing social and economic havoc.

Perhaps he just believes white people should just keep it. Who knows?

Whatever his reasoning, what disturbed me was when I heard another government representative repeat Mbeki’s “Zizi-fled-mfecane” argument against land claims.

The danger here is replacing one version of unsystematic thinking about land with another glib and unhistoricised thinking about Africans and their claim to land.

In fact, the real danger today of de-emphasising the African universality of the land question is that it is individual traditional and royal authorities today who stand to gain by putting themselves at the centre of land restitution instead of the broad mass of black people, whom they wish to configure as tribal subjects.

Furthermore, the land question can never be resolved through narrow restitution claims, if that is what Mbeki was trying to say in his convoluted argument.

What is required is a broader political strategy by the state to break the stranglehold of existing property relations which tend towards uneven development within our economic geography.

Distorting history will not help.

Every developing country that wants progressive development has implemented systematic land reform that addresses past and present concerns.


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