Spirituality, Land and Land Reform in South Africa
by Mr Z. Nkosi, South Africa
Land ownership in South Africa is still racially skewed. About 80% of land is still in the hands of the white minority. Africans used to occupy, not own, only 3% of South African land before I994. Since 1994 an ambitious Land Reform Programme is attempting to address the land question. The reason the Black South Africans continue to suffer is that all three components of this programme continue to have serious limitations. For example, the Land Restitution Component, meant to help the previously evicted communities to reclaim their ancestral land, get an alternative piece of land and/or get compensated, is seen as a disaster. Out of about 25,000 claims, six have been finalized and only about 20 are in the Land Claims Court for further negotiation, settlement or ratification. In land redistribution only about 50,000 people have benefited. The Tenure Security Reform element has had dismal failures because the farm dwellers and other tenants continue to be evicted from the land of their ancestors in big numbers despite the government’s attempts to secure the rights of the victims.
History of Land Acquisition and Spirituality
While land is a birthright of every African Indigenous person, it has a communal dimension whereby all members of the community are expec-ted to share its resources, especially in the rural areas, under some form of traditional authority. Traditional authority from an African point of view is very central and important because, despite the fact that it is a uniting force, the community leader is seen as a steward with divine authority over land.
The colonizers acquired land in an insensitive manner, driven by greed, and the process was intended to vanquish and dehumanize the original owners. This was achieved through military subjugation. The Zulu-Anglo War of I879 and the Anglo-Boer War of the early I9th Century can be traced back to the struggles for land. A number of massacres of Black South Africans were nothing other than an insensitive, greedy and cruel method for dispossessing Blacks of the land. Land was acquired with total disregard of traditional beliefs and cultures underpining our spirituality as Black Africans. Indigenous communities were stripped of their dignity, many lost their identity, languages, cultures and spiritualities. In this sense, land was acquired and used as a political tool.
After acquiring land, the colonizers commercialized it and later inflated its price. That left us with no land we could call our own. We soon found ourselves in exile in our own country. It is painful to note that churches, especially those that own land, were involved in the process which left Africans with nothing except ‘ubuntu’, a confused culture and a hope that God and their ancestors were still with them in their pain and happiness.
Belief and the Importance of Land in the African Context
Our belief that land is a gift from God and from our ancestors has not left us. We continue to see ourselves as stewards of God’s resources, especially of communally owned land. Even though land ownership has been men’s domain, it is interesting that many women, with support from our constitution, beginning to access or acquire land in spite of traditional prejudices.
In many African families the umbilical cord of a new born baby is buried. In other communities when a boy is circumcized, the foreskin and blood is also buried. The sacredness of land in Africa is further linked to the fact that our ancestors are buried in it. Without land, we would not have a home for a dead body. That is why we kneel barefooted next to the grave when we want to communicate anything to our ancestors, showing a lot of respect for the land on which they lie. When death strikes in a family, no one is allowed to till the land. We mourn until that person is buried. After a funeral, in some cultures, we do not touch the soil with a hoe, do not plough or till the land until a ritual of cleansing the family is performed. Some communities like the AmaZulu, do not till the land for a year when a member of a royal family has passed away. The Zulu tribe believes that the elders and young men must go to hunt so that a sacrifice can be made to the ancestors before the land where a leader is to be buried is touched.
Land is valued as a resource of livelihood. The land produces food and water, which give life to all living things. When people go hunting or looking for herbs in the bush especially in KwaZulu, they burn incense and request their ancestors to give blessings to their foray and pray for the land to be dug. The custom of asking for rain or making rain through the help of the ancestors and God still features strongly in some communities. People either go to the mountain as a community, or a rainmaker coordinates the process. Climbing the mountain to pray also happens when a certain disaster has befallen a community and there is a feeling that God has left or turned against them. The mountain on which they pray is always valued, respected and reserved as a sacred or a holy place. A few communities continue to make sacrifices before they eat from the year’s harvest to thank God and their ancestors. Every time the South African Council of Churches (SACC) meets with communities which struggle for ancestral land, we start with prayer under a shelter or in ancestral graveyards.
Factional fighting and political violence can often be traced back to the struggle for land. Many South Africans are still in exile in their own country or outside because they were pushed into homelands or ‘reserves’ where most of them were impoverished, overcrowded and unemployed. People were evicted and replaced by trees and animals. It is shameful that, in some cases, the churches that own vast tracts of land were among those who dispossessed people of their ancestral land. The barriers to free movement imposed by the previous regime met with a lot of resistance because territorial borders were an important factor in peoples beliefs regarding land. For example, the BaTswana believe that God gave them the North West while the AmaZulu believe that the KwaZulu Natal Province is theirs and the place where their cultural beliefs should be maintained.
Challenges and Lessons Learnt
Policy changes, legislative and constitutional reforms are not solutions without the commitment of decision-makers to the process. Resistance to change by directly affected stakeholders, especially the present owners of land, poses a serious challenge and threat to peace. The continued evictions and deaths of farm-dwellers/tenants, and the deaths of many white farmers -- which is seen as retaliation on one hand, and a way of deliberately getting the white farmers off the land on the other -- creates uncertainty about the future of the Land Reform. Loss of a sense of community and further destruction of moral fibre in our society raises more questions than answers about land and our spirituality as Africans. A growing tendency towards greed and commercialization of land, even by Africans and especially in urban areas, gradually destroys the sense of ‘Ubuntu’ which is the basis of our spirituality. Failure to provide answers to the land question through Land Reform has led to a number of invasions by frustra-ted and desperate communities who desperately want to return to their land.