“Communal land in rural areas is owned by traditional leaders. It is wrong to insinuate that communal land is owned by the people.’’
– Chief Xolile Ndevu

The recent events of the racist coffin case have triggered demands of #BringBackOurLand! Now this is all very well, but what does this mean in practice?  Most certainly, people that make this demand believe that at some in their ancestry they lived in a veritable agrarian Disneyland, where land was communally owned and traditional leaders acted in the most benevolent manner possible. Cattle lolled as they fattened and crops rapidly grew in vast green fields. It is a very compelling image, and has been well used by the likes of Malema and associates for quite some time. If only things were like they were in the past, everyone would be so much happier!

But, how true is this image?

Over the past year there has been there has been little to no media coverage of the responses by the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) concerning the development of new land legislation. In fact, this non-coverage is particularly surprising, as their responses potentially affect an enormous number of rural South Africans. Essentially, Contralesa are arguing that traditional leaders, as trustees, should have even more authority over traditional land. This includes mineral rights, through which traditional leaders would reap incredible financial benefits. As it stands, their power is quite established, as the custodians of customary law they have the power to dictate land use throughout the former homelands. They are, as some critics have noted, already de facto owners of the land. King Goodwill Zwelithini, for instance, as sole trustee of Ingonyama Trust, controls one third of the land in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Unsurprisingly, even Contralesa are in agreement with this, and contend that traditional leaders are the direct owners of the land. To quote from May this year, Secretary General of Contralesa, Chief Xolile Ndevu:

“Communal land in rural areas is owned by traditional leaders. It is wrong to insinuate that communal land is owned by the people.’’

In other words, the popular vision of an agrarian Disneyland of communal ownership is a myth, at least as far as the traditional leadership of South Africa is concerned. There is no ‘Our’ land, unless you are lucky enough to be born a royal.

Some historians have tried to counter this traditional-leader-as-land-owner argument by asserting that their owner status is a consequence of Apartheid interference, rather than a historical fact.

So, who is right?

Well, it is complicated. Firstly, to paint the members of Contralesa as Apartheid stooges is incorrect, as the organisation was formed in the late 1980s as an anti-Apartheid movement in alliance with the ANC. Interestingly, this, in part, explains the ANC’s strong voter presence in the rural areas of the former homelands. However, the Apartheid government most certainly tried their best to court traditional leaders. In some cases, when it suited them, traditional leaders aided in evictions.

Apartheid-era historians paint pre-colonial South African people as being childlike and lacking in any form of true leadership, unless it is Shaka; in that case, it’s a crazed leadership.

The stereotype of the naive but backward traditional leader who presides almost tangentially over communal land appears to be more a form of Apartheid-era propaganda, rather than having any real basis in historical fact.

If, for instance, we consult nineteenth century Xhosa historians (such as William Gqoba or Tiyo Soga) we find quite a different view of historical traditional leadership.

Traditional leadership then appear every bit as powerful as their European land owning counterparts of the time. They order people put to death, dispossess renegade subjects and even sell land if it suits them. They act as land owners, not as the head of a collective. Ironically, in many ways, very little has changed. For instance, King Dalindyebo (his son has recently taken over as King) is currently serving a 12 year sentence. Why? Well, for a multitude of crimes, but arson was used to evict three families he deemed undesirable. In one case, reminiscent of the coffin scandal, it was trespassing goats. Yes –  goats! The owner of the said goats had his family members kidnapped and his home burned down on the orders of Dalindyebo.

Now, this is not to say that groups of black people never had any communal or individual ownership of land. They most certainly did. Approximately 4.5 million people, roughly just fewer than 10% of our current population, were thrown off the land by the Apartheid government. However, a large bulk of this land ownership, especially if female, would almost certainly been based on Western rather than customary notions of land ownership.

This year, traditional leaders have made an effort to even claim land which is currently black owned. Not only that, but Contralesa opposed Julius Malema’s June demands for people to occupy unused lands. Again, on the basis that they own the land, and that the people are their subjects, and must go through them to determine who uses the land and how. In light of this, Contralesa have made it very clear that even rural community property associations (CPAs) should be dissolved. In one case, a CPA leader was killed in front of his home for defying traditional leadership over damages to water supplies.

The hard reality is that when it comes to land ownership outside of the traditional African elite, we are talking about a historically recent phenomenon. The demand of #BringBackOurLand is based on a false understanding of historical ownership of land in South Africa. Rural life in South Africa is tough. Sometimes too tough, and very nasty, the coffin case and trespassing goats are part and parcel of the same issue. The agrarian Disneyland myth is unfortunately just a political device to capture the popular vote.

Anthony Stuurman (a pen-name) is a regular Contributor at the Rational Standard. The writer is an educator in the Eastern Cape with an interest in neuroscience, ethnobotany and a passion for free speech.