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Land claims open Pandora's box

Kwanele Sosibo

President Jacob Zuma's call for traditional leaders to claim old land may do more harm than good.

In Pondoland, mining firms may benefit from royal upheaval. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The Bapo ba Mogale, who this week signed a R546-million share deal with Lonmin, were one of a number of chieftaincies placed under administration by the North West province because of long-running disputes between rival branches of the ruling lineage.

With pressure mounting to push the deal through, and Lonmin desperate to meet its black econonomic empowerment requirements, the province hired an academic to determine the bona fides of the members of the royal family who would form the core of the reconstituted council.

Gavin Capps, a senior researcher at the Mining and Rural Transformation in Southern Africa project at the University of Witwatersrand who has been observing the situation closely, notes that “these kind of genealogical disputes are the very stuff of political competition in Tswana formations, and claims to familial rank are frequently manipulated to mobilise popular support or legitimate the victors”.

“So what we are really seeing here is the use of a state-appointed ethnographer to stabilise a tribal authority by cementing the claims of one faction over the others,” he said. “This is exactly what used to happen under apartheid, but the difference today is that these interventions are increasingly connected with securing the conditions for mining corporations and determining who will benefit from their local operations.”  

Presidential encouragement
In February, at the opening of the National House of Traditional Leaders in Cape Town, President Jacob Zuma urged traditional leaders to “find good lawyers” and “look at the claims on behalf of your people, so that no one is left outside”.

Historians and researchers working in the area of land rights and cultural studies have argued that his statements earlier this year at the opening of the National House of Traditional Leaders in Cape Town can be seen as helping chiefs entrench their custodianship of the land within their jurisdiction.

Capps says “the continued strengthening of the chieftaincy by the ANC means some 17-million people living in the former homeland areas – a sizeable chunk of the South African population – are increasingly confronted by a different form of political power than people in urban areas are, which defines them as subjects rather than citizens”.

This year a flurry of enormous land claims were publicly announced by several royal families, kicked off by the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini ka­Bhekuzulu, whose Ingonyama Trust announced that it was planning to claim for land under the control of the Zulu kingdom in 1838.

In public, the Ingonyama Trust’s chairperson, Jerome Ngewnya, has said the boundaries of the kingdom are still being researched.

Rock solid proof
The East Griqua, a Khoisan community in Kokstad, announced that its claim would be the biggest because rock art found all over the province proved that the Khoisan were the first people in the province.

The Hlubi people are also demanding restitution and financial compensation for the same tract of land as the Zulu king. The Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Act, recently signed into law, only refers to the reopening of land claims after the 1913 cut-off line.

Maanda Mulaudzi, a historian based at the University of Cape Town, says the question we should be asking as a society is: What is the point of kings and chiefs?

“We are a democracy; we shouldn’t conflate African culture with kings and chiefs. People can have a culture without having chiefs. I have no sympathy for the view that customs are unchanging.

“That’s how they were ethnographed by colonialism. Dynamic African culture dictates that I can choose whether or not I want to be under a chief.”


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