LANDBACK in South Africa: When, How, and For Whom?



In a previous conversation (cf. The Funambulist podcast and The Funambulist 30 Reparations), Tshepo Madlingozi had told us the Truth and Reconciliation process initiated in 1996 in South Africa consists essentially in recalibrating its settler colonial conditions. This second conversation allows us to go further in this claim and discuss the issues related specifically to land (dispossession, restitution, redistribution), as well as the complex uses and misuses of concepts such as Ubuntu and indigeneity in “the country with no name.”

Madlingozi Funambulist 1
Settler property gate in South Africa. / Photo by Geoff Sperring (2018).

LEOPOLD LAMBERT: Could you please explain to us what kind of land restitution is integrated in the South African constitution? And later on, could you speak about the proposed constitutional reform that would allow for land expropriation without compensation, which has made Afrikaner “landowners” outraged and led to them being given “humanitarian” visas by the cousin settler colony of Australia?

TSHEPO MADLINGOZI: We are talking about the constitution of 1996. As you know, South Africa became a liberal democracy in 1994, with an interim constitution and, in 1996, a final constitution. Now, of course, South Africa is a historically settler colony, and the issue of land in any settler colonies is the main issue, the main point of struggle. In the 1800s, when settler conquerors waged dispossession wars against Indigenous peoples, politically subjugated them and displaced them from their land, Indigenous people often lamented: “Ilizwe lifile” (“the nation/world is dead”). By this, they meant that settler conquest and especially land dispossession and dislocation had destroyed their metaphysical, spiritual, social, and material worlds. This is the fullest import of the proposition that land dispossession is the original sin in this place/camp without a name (so-called “South Africa”). This lament led to the rallying cry of both anti-colonial struggle and the unending struggle to dissolve South Africa, the settler-constituted polity: “Mayibuye iAfrika” (“Return Africa/Resurrect Africa/Re-member Africa”).

 So, of course, the constitution of the “new South Africa” had to take into account the issue of land. Now, there were three problems. The first one is that the African National Congress (ANC), which is in power in South Africa, did not win the liberation struggle. In fact, if we are honest, they did not even wage a liberation struggle: they pursued a democratization agenda. And therefore, the constitution had to be a compromise. It was not like the ANC won, and therefore they could come up with their own revolutionary constitution. Rather, the constitution is a product of compromise between the ANC and the colonial settler minority party, the National Party. Being a product of compromise, it meant that the land restitution program articulated in the constitution was going to be very mild, very watered down. The second problem, and perhaps most importantly, the ANC, since it was formed in 1912, never fought for LANDBACK/Mayibuye iAfrika. Instead, the ANC pursued democratization and integration into the settler-constituted State. So of course, when they took over power, they were not interested in a fundamental and radical program of land return, and therefore the constitution, apart from being a part of compromise, reflects what the ANC is about: no land return, but land must be shared, and Black people must be able to buy land if they can afford to buy land.

The first one is that the African National Congress (ANC), which is in power in South Africa, did not win the liberation struggle. In fact, if we are honest, they did not even wage a liberation struggle: they pursued a democratization agenda.

The third problem is that the constitution is ultimately a (new) South African constitution. It is not an African or Azanian constitution. The constitution is based on the best traditions of Euro-American constitutions. So its framing in its epistemology and its ideology is eurocentric and liberal. Now, as you know, one of the key aspects of Euro-American liberal constitutions is the protection of property rights, as part of civic rights. The longest clause in the South African constitution is the one on property: not on dignity, not on education, not on life, not on equality. What this means is that the property that was stolen during colonialism is protected by the constitution. In practice, this has meant that the State cannot deprive conquerors of land, unless it pays compensation. There are basically three schemes: land restitution for people whose land was taken away because of racist policies; then there is land reform, which seeks to distribute available land to historically marginalized people; and then lastly, there is a program of land tenure, meaning people who work in the farms or small holdings must have a secure tenure on those properties. Now because of the three problems I have articulated above and the befuddled way the property clause is articulated in the constitution the State has only distributed about 5% to 8% of the land since 1996. Studies show that white people, who comprise somewhere between 8% and 9% of the population, own about 77% of the land. The settler(dispossessor)-native(dispossessed) relation subsits.

People mischaracterize the ANC by claiming it was formed because of land dispossession. No, the ANC was formed, because the Black petty bourgeois, intellectuals and elites of that time, wanted to also buy land. They didn’t fight for the return of the land, they wanted to end discrimination on the basis of race to buy land. As you know, the Freedom Charter is one of the ANC key documents, adopted together with their partners in 1955. This document infamously declares that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, Black and white. That declaration is a clear concession that settler invaders also own the land. The Freedom Charter makes it very clear that the ANC is not interested in land return. We’re not here talking about the Mau-Mau struggle, which was a struggle for land and self determination. We’re not talking about Algeria. We’re not talking about Palestine. All those struggles are anti-colonial struggles. In the case of the ANC, we are really talking about a civil rights movement that is fighting for recognition by settlers, integration into their civil society, rights protection, and distribution of certain social goods to “previously” marginalized groups. So the ANC was never interested in land return. This is to say that it is a mistake to accuse the ANC of ‘selling out”.

Similarly, as I said, the constitution is the result of a compromise. It’s not the Bolivian or Ecuadorian constitution. It is a constitution and an approach based on democratization, not decolonization. Consequently, it protects property rights in a very European sense. In African cosmology, you cannot own land. It’s such a silly notion: how do you own a piece of Mother Earth? It doesn’t make sense! In European legal epistemology, one can have property ownership over land. In our cosmology, you can’t: the land is owned by the community and the community gives it to people, because they’re getting married, because they need land to farm, etc. but no one ever owns land, not even a chief or a king!

The failure or rather the displacement and rejection of the Mayibuye iAfrika agenda and consequent land hunger and homelessness have led to the emergence of parties and movements, demanding land return and agrarian reform. You’ve been in South Africa, you have seen a lot of shack settlements, people living on top of each other… And then you’ve seen places where there are vast pieces of land owned by one person or one family trust, some of them converted into game farms, etc. Some of them are reserved for conservation, and we know conservation has colonial roots in Africa anyway: people are displaced, and then you enclose the land for conservation…. So that’s the situation in South Africa. There’s a shortage of housing, there is hunger for land, and therefore, there is a mushrooming of shack settlements, of slums in urban zones. Therefore, parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), have emerged to take up this struggle for land. And because of the EFF, from 2018, as you said, there’s been discussion about amending the property clause of the constitution, to make it clear that the State can expropriate land without paying any compensation. So from 2018, that has been the struggle to amend this constitution, and ultimately because the ANC was losing votes, it agreed that the constitution could be amended. But we know they don’t mean it. Since 2018, they have been playing for time.

It is very clear that land return is an unfinished business of decolonization. We can’t talk about “post-apartheid,” let alone decolonization in the absence of land return. And we can’t talk about the end of a settler-native relationship until the land has been returned and conditions that led to ilizwe lifile (the ongoing situation of worldlessness, rootlessness, homelessness and unhomeliness) have been terminated.

The final thing I want to say is that, as you know, land for us is not just property, it’s not just this piece of thing. Land is identity. Without land, you can’t say, “This is who I am; this is where I come from.” Without land, you can’t do and perform certain rituals that you need space for. Now, people who live on top of each other can’t even slaughter cows, there’s no space to do those rituals. And if you are not able to undertake those rituals, you are not able to connect with your gods and your Living-Dead. So without land, as African people, we are not people. We are basically cosmic hobos; pariahs on this land. We are not in this world, we feel worthless, we feel rootless, we feel homeless. So the issue of land for us is not LANDBACK so that one can have a place to have property, it is LANDBACK so one can be whole again; one can be re-membered; one can re-world themselves. LANDBACK is a return not just to the source, but to humanity, to the world. It is as serious as that. The ANC government has not taken this issue seriously. I’m afraid that is going to be the subject of the next war in South Africa.

So the issue of land for us is not LANDBACK so that one can have a place to have property, it is LANDBACK so one can be whole again; one can be re-membered; one can re-world themselves.

LL: You place the concept of Ubuntu at the center of a true decolonizing effort. Outside of the Continent, we often hear this concept in a rather abstract way. Can you define it, and tell us what a decolonizing land reform in “the country with no name,” could look like following its precepts?

TM: Ubuntu has been translated into English to mean humanness, togetherness, interdependence, hospitality, etc.. All of those are fine. However, we need to appreciate that Ubuntu is an ethical epistemological prescription. It is a demand that as an individual, in your everyday interaction, you do humane acts for other people—not just for human beings, but also for all other sentient beings. You must interact with them in the spirit of interdependence. So the starting point is that in African epistemology and cosmology, you’re not just a person, you are always becoming a person. As one philosopher put it: “I am, because you are, and since you are therefore I am.” You lose your personhood if you behave in a selfish, self-aggrandizing manner. Hence in my language, we sometimes say: “ha se motho, ke selo” (s/he is not a person, s/he has become a thing).

The second thing I can say is that in the context of South Africa, Ubuntu is one of the reasons we were colonized. When settlers came with the ships, we welcomed them with open arms, right? My students always assume that settler-invaders came from the ocean firing guns, like they do in the movies. Not here! They came nicely, disembarked from their ships, and said: “We are these people, and we want to know more about you guys. And we also need a piece of land…” and they were welcome because that’s what Ubuntu demands—there is no stranger, everybody’s your brother and your sister. Shaka Zulu, famously instructed his soldiers to assist shipwrecked Europeans and bring them to shore, proclaiming: “They are also human, please welcome them.” And of course, they took advantage of that.—the notion of open borders, the notion of hospitality… Ubuntu was abused by settler colonizers.

The third thing to say is that in 1994, there was liberal democratization and then in 1996 a ‘final’ constitution was adopted. But something else happened in 1996. As you know, South Africa’s transitional justice process began in 1996 in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And as Black people we are told by the late Desmond Tutu: “You are the people of Ubuntu, therefore, you must forgive,”—forgiveness from Black people by blackmail. So, Ubuntu was appropriated in 1996 to facilitate elite reconciliation, integration and settlement, as well as taming revolutionary impulses. Ubuntu became a tool of epistemic and political violence. This is to say that Ubuntu was (mis)appropriated to displace the Mayibuye iAfrica agenda and thus to consolidate “South Africa.” “Do not ask for land back; do not demand the radical redistribution of political, economic, epistemic, cultural power; do not ask for the destruction of South Africa and the building of Azania…” Starting 1996, you see a flourishing of Ubuntu discourse: people are setting up Ubuntu security companies, Ubuntu loan companies,Ubuntu named buildings, which are owned by white people, and so on… Ubuntu is turned into a gimmick. It’s the most painful thing, it’s a slap in the face that the core of our being, our ideology, our epistemology, Ubuntu, is used against us to consolidate white hegemony in education, in the economy, in the cultural life in everything… And to top it all: Ubuntu is then appropriated by white people to claim their Africanness without subjecting themselves to Ubuntu demands: truth, justice, and harmonization through righting historical wrongs, and liquidating whiteness and all the historical and contemporary privileges whiteness and settlerization bestow. What I am saying is that Mr Tutu and Mr Mandela’s “Ubuntu” ultimately functioned to consolidate the anti-decolonization agenda.

Starting 1996, you see a flourishing of Ubuntu discourse: people are setting up Ubuntu security companies, Ubuntu loan companies,Ubuntu named buildings, which are owned by white people, and so on…

Ubuntu actually at its core demands two things: truth and justice. The truth about what happened on this land, the truth about “South Africa” and all it represents and masks. The truth and honest conversations about land dispossession, political conquest, as well as economic, epistemological, religious, and cultural subjugation. The truth is that there is no South Africa without the subjugation of African kingdoms, in particular the destruction of the Zulu kingdom. Black people in the majority don’t have meaningful democracy. They don’t have a meaningful say in decision making. I do have decision making possibilities and space because as a middle-class professional I can make my voice heard and I can go to court if my rights are not respected. That’s not the case for many people, who are regularly shot at, arrested, and dismissed for claiming basic rights, as we’ve seen in Marikana in 2012 when people were killed for demanding fair compensation in the mining sector. So, remnants of political conquest can be seen in life experiences of the impoverished and invisibilized majority. Economic subjugation is very obvious when one sees the level of racial disparity in income and in wealth: white people still own the economy in South Africa. In fact, white people are becoming richer. As for epistemological and cultural subjugation, you see it everywhere: in the university, in the architecture, in our books, in our standards of beauty… manifestations of neo-apartheid are everywhere. 

But Ubuntu can also be revolutionary. People who decide to occupy the land say: “We occupy the land, because Ubuntu demands that we share, therefore, I’m going to take this land that you are not using, and I’m going to occupy it.” In the same spirit, Ubuntu allows us to say that education is not a privilege, education is a right, and therefore, we will demand free education, as we have seen with Fees Must Fall in 2015. You also see this revolutionary understanding of Ubuntu in gay and lesbian struggles, where LGBTQIA+ folk push back by showing that Ubuntu clearly proscribes homophobia, transphobia, etc. on the basis that this ongoing colonization of sexual minorities is anti-African.

Lastly, Ubuntu is sometimes also abused by patriarchs who misappropriate Ubuntu and lie and claim that Ubuntu demands the obedience and subjugation of women and non-binary people. So we’ve got various controversies about Ubuntu, but the one that dominates is the one that is aligned to the anti-decolonization agenda.

Madlingozi Funambulist 2
A group of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) marches down Vermeulen Street in Pretoria on March 4, 2021. / Photo by Wirestock Creators.

LL: Do you think that pan-Africanism can render more complex (in an interesting and productive way) the notion of Indigeneity when it comes to LANDBACK? I’m asking this because many people who live in South Africa come from everywhere on the Continent, especially since the mid-1990s.

TM: Yes, that’s a very fundamental question, and this allows us to talk about a number of things. The first thing we can say is that Ubuntu is not based on nativism or autochthonism. That’s why in pre-colonial Africa, people could move around, and people could settle anywhere. And people could be integrated into different spaces. The notion of strict borders, even within so-called South Africa, was not there: borders were very malleable. Same thing for ethnicities. Ethnicities and cultural identity were very fluid. The notions that “I’m a Zulu,” “I’m a Sotho,” etc. we know that they came with colonialism. Before that, ethnicities were much more mestizo or creole kind of identities…

So it goes back to the question of LANDBACK: land back to whom? My mother died while still in the process of claiming back our land from where we were displaced, even before I was born. But she died before she could complete that process, and she told me to leave it alone, because it involved too much corruption, carelessness, and inefficient bureaucracy. But the land from where we were displaced by white people, if you go back in time, we’d see that we are from elsewhere. All of us have been moving all the time. So if you just say “LANDBACK” to people who were displaced by white people, there might be a counterclaim by people who were there 4,000 years ago. So I don’t believe in land restitution at all! In the context where there were no solid borders, in the context where identity and belonging were so fluid, whose land is it anyway? This is not to say what settlers like to say that “all of us are settlers.” White people say “We come from Europe, you guys come from Kenya, from Congo, etc.” That’s not what I mean of course. What I mean is an internal discourse within so called African people, which says that no one owns land. That’s why I don’t believe in land restitution.

Colonization was very transformative of so-called South Africa, and many people were displaced because of it. However, there was another transformative event or series of events that took place here which was Difaqane. This is when the Zulu Nation was expanding and becoming a nation under Shaka Zulu and displacing everyone from here all the way to present Zambia. Communities were moved, people were running away, everything was transformed. So, in that context, whose land is it anyway?

The third reason why I don’t believe in land restitution is that if we say if the Zulu nation can prove that this was their land, if the Sotho people can prove that this was their land, if the Pedi people…, and all the other so-called Ethnic groups can prove that this was their land and the land is given back to them, what you then is the balkanization of this territory, with very firm boundaries, because people are thinking in a European way. Balkanization would be the triumph of colonization and coloniality. What happens to white people in that context and where do they live if land is reclaimed by different kingdoms? What happens to people like myself, who belong to two or three different ethnic groups? I don’t claim one ethnic group: my mother is one thing, my father is one thing, my grandfather is one thing… which is really the same for a lot of Black people, if they’re honest, if they don’t just claim father identity.  That’s why the title of my PhD dissertation was Mayibuye iAfrika?. A question mark…

In your question, you have added another component: people coming from other countries. After 1994, we saw an influx of people from other parts of Africa because of war, or because of economic migration, or because they wanted to settle here in South Africa. What would happen to them in the context of LANDBACK is going to be a big problem. We know that the most revolutionary conception of our emancipation doesn’t believe in a notion of nation state. It believes in one Africa, one continent, no borders, especially those that were created by the white man. So Africans from other parts of Africa have as much a right to be on this land, as I have. Land restitution is based on the notion of autochthony, of being a “son of the soil” and that I can claim belongingness and certain privileges. That notion is anti-Ubuntu, anti African, and is contrary to our deepest aspiration, which is that there must not be borders. You have seen that people who are xenophobic in South Africa, who don’t want foreigners, they start with that. Then they go to the next part and say, “We don’t want the Zulus in this town: Zulus must go down to Zululand…” This thing never ends: from racism, to xenophobia, to tribalism, to full blown neo-colonialism. So I am very suspicious and very cautious about LANDBACK from that perspective.

What I believe in is land redistribution. Land redistribution doesn’t say, “I deserve land, because my parents were here 20 years ago, or 40 years ago.” It says, “I deserve land because I don’t have land, and there is available land. And I’m going to use this land.” So land redistribution is about equitable redistribution of land, to those who want the land, and who can use the land. Land must be given as a form of reparations. Equitable redistribution: that’s a form of land reform that I’m interested in. I’m not interested in land reform that is based on indigeneity or nativism, or being the son of the soil. I believe in LANDBACK as a way of reversing the unequal ownership of land by white people who got it through colonialism. There must be justice for that: land must be taken and redistributed fairly without compensation to those who are deserving and those who want land. Only then can Africa be re-membered. ■