Celebrating South Africa’s heritage incomplete until land issue is resolved

In September we witness how our citizens, more than any other time of the year, declare how “proudly South African” they are because it is Heritage Month.
In September we witness how our citizens, more than any other time of the year, declare how “proudly South African” they are because it is Heritage Month.
Image: GALLO IMAGES/ LISA HNATOWICZ

In September we witness how our citizens, more than any other time of the year, declare how “proudly South African” they are because it is Heritage Month.

The disheartening reality however is that heritage has for many decades seen indigenous South Africans celebrate this auspicious day in a place they call home, but one they do not own. For over two decades in the democratic dispensation of SA, only our traditions, customs, rituals, monuments, artworks and traditional clothing have been the focus of our celebrations of our heritage.

However, Heritage Month in 2020 comes amid heated debates on the issue of corruption, unemployment, poverty, inequalities and land redistribution without compensation.

Land is central to economic development and social welfare. From time immemorial, land has been used to promote economic growth and human development.

For an African, land has always had a communal dimension whereby members of a community were expected to share its resources, especially in rural areas, under some form of traditional authority.

The traditional authority is important as the custodian (not owner) of the land. Resources under the stewardship of traditional leadership were not only for economic developmental purposes but had significance in cultural and traditional practices.

To this day some families bury the umbilical cord of a newborn baby and the foreskin of a young man after circumcision.

Africans further attach the sacredness of land to the fact that our ancestors are buried in this land. It becomes evident therefore that to the African, land is not only a means of production but is rather an object of identity which is spiritual and transcends any notion that land is purely a commodity to be used for economic, political and power advancement.

Though control of land has been linked to the complex interplay of economic, social and political power in the pre-colonial era, with many tribes moving from places they once inhabited, because they had been conquered by stronger tribes, it is colonial modernity that limits our perception about the significance of land to purely economic uses and denies other forms of land ownership.

After acquiring land, the colonisers commercialised it and then inflated its price leaving most South Africans with no land of their own. This dehumanising act left indigenous South Africans as orphaned exiles in the land of their forefathers. It renders the practice of traditions, customs and rituals passed down from our ancestors incomplete and devoid of their true meaning.

It renders the commemorative events we host annually as a simple ploy to keep the many dancing and ululating to drum beats, in the belief that things have significantly improved since the dawn of our “rainbow nation”. In reality land ownership is still largely racially skewed and the dignity, identity, languages, cultures and spiritualities of those who were disposed, remain unrestored.

The outcry against the expropriation of land without compensation is proof that these proponents are ignorant of how the concept of land is defined in the African context. It can be viewed as the insistence of Euro-Americanism to exert itself and its definition of concepts as superior to all others and thus the only way things should be done.

Expropriation of land without compensation is not devoid of economic considerations, as the economic dimension is part of a people's social, political and spiritual philosophy.

In the African context, life and what it constitutes is viewed as a totality and land is part of that totality. Africa’s children can no longer languish disjointedly from that which connects them to God, the universe, nature, their ancestors and humanity as a whole.

They can no longer be orphans in a land they received as an inheritance from God simply because of a view that refuses to see the connectedness of land to life and livelihoods beyond economic terms. Expropriation of land is imminent and then our heritage will be complete.

Vusumzi Vusie Mba is a PhD candidate at Nelson Mandela University and a researcher for the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders & Zipho Nabe is an alumni of Fort Hare University and a public servant in the Eastern Cape. They write in their personal capacity.



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