History of dispossession in old Cape Colony true heart of land question

Expropriation is about historically white-owned land, not communal areas. The last time I experienced overt racism was at a workshop of top land researchers of which the majority were white.

One of the white researchers was set on belittling my work and taking it out of context, so out of anger I walked out of the meeting.

It was ironic because we were in Hogsback – that hippie haven in the mountains – talking about land redistribution in an area completely dominated by white landowners.

What seemed to upset this researcher is that my work focuses on white-owned farms.

She wanted me to talk about so-called “communal areas”, that is, former Bantustan areas.

While there is definitely a mess in land administration and titling systems in the former Bantustans, those areas are not the true heart of the land question.

The land question in this country relates fundamentally to unbroken historical white dominance on land.

However, for some reason, there are people who keep attempting to divert the land issue to being one of the so-called communal areas, even though these were the last pockets of land black people could hold onto after being conquered.

Yes, there are critical questions of land administration in the rural areas, specifically in relation to traditional leaders.

These need to be resolved in line with our democratic aspirations.

But the painful and real land issue is the one which relates to areas of near unbroken, back-to-back white land ownership, such as the Karoo where I did my doctoral research.

The Karoo areas form a large part of the former Cape Colony where the original dispossession of the southern African indigenes of San, Khoikhoi and Khoi-Xhosa clans occurred between 1750 and 1799.

One of the most famous Khoikhoi kings of the Eastern Cape Karoo region was Hinsati, related to the Sukwini Xhosa clans, this king is still remembered in Eastern Cape oral traditions up to this day.

It was these indigenous societies that came to be conquered and incorporated into the Cape Colony – first under the Dutch and then the British.

They were then forced to become pass-carrying farmworkers on boer farms from the late 1700s.

By 1806, the Khoikhoi were forced to hold a contract with a boer on a farm and to carry this around as proof they were not “vagrants”, that they were bonded to a specific Dutch master.

The conquest of these lands and the making of the Cape Colony, and its working class on farms is the foundation of our land question today.

There are generations of black and coloured families who only know the farms as their home because that is where their ancestors were dispossessed and forced to work.

To grapple with the land question today means dealing with the land that formed the Cape Colony.

An audit on the extent of black ownership in the Karoo and Western Cape coastal areas needs to be conducted with much seriousness for here lies the origins of native dispossession.

Let me return to the hostile researcher at the workshop.

Her own family comes from the Karoo, her attitude was unsurprising.

In recent years, the Karoo has been an eco-haven of sorts for the wealthy.

The wealthy Rupert family and Dutch Princess Irene own massive private nature reserves there, and were actively involved in resisting fracking, in spite of both families making their fortunes off unbridled capitalism.

The Dutch royal family made its money from the politically notorious oil company Shell.

Those who were once farmworkers on those farms, likely now live in RDP settlements in the townships of the Karoo.

The question posed today is whether the descendants of Hinsati could ever dream of calling those lands their own again?

Can they ever have a share?

How will the state support them to be productive on that semi-arid Karoo land?

This is the land question vexing South Africa today – not the smaller communal areas.