Land Watch

Land, electricity, Jan van Riebeeck and other ancestors

Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva
Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.jpg

Problems of the modern South Africa with land distribution and electricity supply cannot only be traced back to Jan van Riebeeck, but also to a whole array of black ancestors.

This is the implication of a report released last week by none other than a constitutionally mandated Chapter 9 institution, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL).

At the launch of the Re-use of Graves Report, the chairperson of the CRL, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, said the reason for Medupi power station suffering delays, is because graves were disturbed during construction, upsetting the ancestors.

“The belief systems of some people will tell you that this Medupi dream of yours will never happen. It will be another 10 years,” she said.

The commission would send a report to Eskom on the “bones that were strewn around” and how to deal with them in a way that is culturally and religiously sustainable. If the issue is not resolved soon, the CRL intends to approach the court.

 “We need to go to court over this issue. The damage caused in terms of culture and spirituality is irreparable,” Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said.

A wider issue

The comments by the CRL chairperson should be seen in a wider context of an apparently growing tension in the country between traditional African value systems and others underlying the functioning in a modern state – including legal principles underpinning subjects like private ownership of land.

Some interpretations of the traditional African spirituality also have implications that could be very sensitive and emotional in the religious sphere.

Just consider the following pronouncement by Mkhwanazi-Xaluva at the launch of the CRL report: “The new struggle is to have access to our forefathers...,” and “... according to African beliefs, the ancestor is believed to be living with God and playing a prominent, intercessory role in the life of a particular family. This is your Jesus, it takes you to God.” (Our emphasis.)

Although it might not be at the same level or in the same context it is worth noting that another South African community, the Afrikaners, has taken great care to look after the graves of the victims of the Anglo-Boer War – arguably the continent’s first anti-colonial war.

While on this spiritual level there is ample room for mutual tolerance, respect and accommodation of divergent belief systems, it becomes a lot more complicated when it comes to the legal framework regarding matters of ownership, especially as far as land is concerned.

In a recent article for the website The Conversation under the title “Why land evokes such deep emotions in Africa,” Kenneth Tafira, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of South Africa, writes: “...there is divergence between European jurisprudence and African land laws. The former views land as a private property, a commodity, which underlies the ambition to colonise nature where man rises above it and exploits it for his greedy impulses.

“African land laws debunk the idea of ownership. Instead land is a natural endowment that can neither be bought nor sold. African land tenure is not based on ownership but on use and access. Since Africans have common rights to land, communal rights override individual rights, which are subsumed to the overall communal good.”

Tafira also links the issue to what can be described as the African spirituality and states: “Land is neither a commodity nor an individual possession. It doesn’t belong to humans but is a gift from God.”

African culture in South Africa

There seems to be a drive in South African government circles to bring the national household into closer alignment with traditional African culture, especially as far as land is concerned.

Is it mere coincidence that President Jacob Zuma in recent times has referred to the land redistribution question whenever he was interacting with traditional leaders? The latest example was at the coronation of King Mpendulo “Zwelonke” Sigcawu of the amaXhosa.

Stressing that traditional leaders are the “custodians of culture, customs and traditions”, he, among other things, said: “We need to work together in the land claims. We are correcting what was wronged decades and decades ago. We are going to get there, it will take some time.”

In similar vein, the Preservation and Development of Agricultural Land Framework Bill of 2015, gazetted in mid-March for public comment by 30 May, states: “Agricultural land is the common heritage of all the people of South Africa and the Department [of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries] is the custodian thereof for the benefit of all South Africans.”

The bill, if or when it becomes law, might be interpreted as diminishing some existing ownership rights under South African law and might be heading for court actions.

At the same time, a whole phalanx of measures being floated around by the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Gugile Nkwinti, with regard to agricultural land could seriously impact on both ownership rights and the productivity of such land.

The increasing role that the subliminal ‘cultural’ debate seems to be playing, especially around the issue of land ownership and distribution, is adding another layer of uncertainty to the economic and business environment.

At the launch of a just released report by the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz), one of the co-authors, Lindie Stroebel, manager: agribusiness intelligence at Agbiz, pleaded for ideological and policy certainty. “Slow economic growth continues because of a lack of ideological direction,” she said.

To this uncertainty can be added the danger of the ‘cultural issue’ being hijacked for narrow political objectives, highlighted by Anthea Jeffery of the Policy Research Institute of Race Relations.

It is interesting that in justifying the construction of a cattle kraal and other "security" features at President Zuma's Inkandla homestead, Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko, amongst others, in his preface to his report on the matter, states that the positioning of the discourse over the matter "... are important, as they reflect the mind-sets and cultural orientation that inform the interpretation of the nature and the validity of the upgrades ..." (Our emphasis)

In a recent article on the BizNews website, in reference to the Agricultural Land Framework Bill, she wrote: “The communist goal of vesting all land in the State so as to break the capitalist system will also come closer to being realised. This objective is doubtless close to the heart of the author of the Bill, Senzeni Zokwana, who is both the current agriculture minister and the chairman of the South African Communist Party.”


The land issue is an extremely complex and highly emotional one, and not only for the black communities in South Africa. The fact that the Afrikaans community in the country is often referred to as the ‘Boere’ is a reflection of that community’s deep-rooted identification with the soil of this land and its history.

All in all, it makes for a potentially very explosive situation, which should be handled with great care and sensitivity by all concerned.

Above all, the time has probably come for a frank and open national discussion about the subject, and for doing more to explore the positive elements of a shared heritage.

by Piet Coetzer

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