Whose Land is it Anyway?


Despite the efforts of politicians and intellectuals, the land issue is not so easily racialized. With the Expropriation Bill on the horizon, many have lauded what they perceive to be a just return of land to their previous owners, while others have condemned it as not going far enough. The land issue has been heavily racialized in South Africa, along the usual narrative of ‘big bad whites’ and their ‘black victims’. This is not always the case.

The land issue is not a moral issue. It is well-established that stolen property should be returned to their just owners. The problem with land reforms is historical. We can’t always know who truly owned what and under what conditions. Groups calling for land reform often imply that South Africa as a whole is the prime property of blacks, with whites as interlopers – ignoring the fact that South Africa’s borders are colonial in the first place, and completely fabricated within their narrative.

Factually, most of South Africa is and has always been uninhabited, and those areas which were occupied were either informally used by nomads or changed hands an indeterminate number of times. Calling for complete land reform has unintended consequences for many Afrocentrist reformists, as blacks were not the only victims of exploitation and whites weren’t the only perpetrators.

Natalia and the betrayal of Dingane

Piet Retief, a Voortrekker leader, negotiated with the Zulu leader, Dingane, for the acquisition of land at Port Natal on which to farm. The deal was that if Retief could recover stolen cattle from the enemies of the Zulus, then they would be given some land. The Voortrekkers fulfilled their end of the bargain and Dingane invited their leadership to a party. At the party, Dingane ordered his men to slay the Voortrekkers, including the women and children, as they slept in their camp.

Piet Retief entered into a legal arrangement with Dingane. For all legal and moral purposes, he is owed the territory mentioned in the deal. The usual narrative of white manipulation cannot be used in this situation, lest one insults Dingane’s intelligence. In hindsight, however, it was clear that Dingane was planning on betraying Piet Retief from the beginning. This does not absolve him of his deal.

Contractually and morally, the Natalia Voortrekkers own the area stipulated in the agreement. Their relatives and descendants have a moral claim of continuity over it.

One may argue that the area they have claim over has been inhabited by many people since, but this would absolve most of South Africa’s current land owners of holding any unjustly acquired property. If land reformers want to be consistent, they have to acknowledge that if blacks have claim over currently held white land, even if the land has changed hands many times after the initial theft, then Piet Retief’s descendants and the descendants of the Voortrekkers have a moral claim to Port Natal.

The Mfecane

Shaka Zulu
Shaka Zulu, a man partly responsible for the splitting of Southern Africa.

Contrary to the belief that Africa was perfect without European intervention, one of the biggest conflicts and causes of hardship in South Africa saw land not being taken by whites, but being taken by black tribes. Shaka Zulu caused mass displacement of many nations in his quest for expansion of the Zulu Kingdom. Not only did he take much territory, but the refugees of his conquests displaced many other groups.

In another effort to remain consistent, land reformists will have to keep this in mind – as well as determining who actually and justly owns the land.

This is a global issue. Conquest is an historical fact, and has to be kept in mind if we are ever to approach the land issue. Current approaches try to seek reform through the collective lens, with American settlers being unilaterally evil and the Native Americans somehow being united in their control of the continent.

The land issue must not be simplified to a mere case of Team A VS Team B, as it is at the fatal risk of the fact that Team B, despite losing territory to Team A, probably took that territory from C, who took it from D. Human history is not a simple binary – it is a process of thousands of years of conflict.

Land reform needs to ignore the collectivistic perspective and approach the matter purely from an individualistic point of view. Individuals own and use land – not nebulous groups. The current approach risks either ignoring history or having to abandon the goal through an inability to determine the true owner.

Individual ownership is much simpler, but still not easy. It is easier due to the fact that it is less abstract. In the collectivistic paradigm, the Khoi are often cited as owners of the Western Cape, but this is not truly the case. The Western Cape is a post-Colonial construct. It doesn’t exist outside of our minds. Nobody can own all of it, especially seeing that much of it was and still is uninhabited. What is true is that some groups of individuals did own some areas, by virtue of occupying it before anyone else did.

The presence of the Khoi in the construct of the Western Cape doesn’t give them control of it, and doesn’t take away the legitimate claim (by settlers) of areas which were, at the time, uninhabited.

As we approach 1994, land reform becomes slightly easier. Records for individual ownership become more concrete. Apartheid land removals can be rectified, but not if approached as one race VS another. The fact is that some land was unjustly taken. This should be rectified, but it must be done right.

Currently, land is used as an emotional tool – with anyone calling its reform into question cited as an immoral regressionist. As I said, however, land is not a moral issue. It’s an historical one – and as such, needs to be informed by historical facts, and not collectivistic emotional hearsay.


  1. Carried to its logical conclusion, the historical solution is that all land belongs to the descendents of Adam and Eve (or their anthropological equivalent) in equal measure. But did Adam and Eve actually own any land?

    Ownership is a capitalistic principle alien to primitive cultures. No such principle applies to African culture where “ownership” was and still is defined by occupation and nothing else. Consequently, the idea of African ownership is nonsense without any historical basis whatsoever.

    • If we consider ownership a capitalistic principle, then we need to consider what other capitalistic principles say about the vesting of ownership. ‘Recognition’ is not a requirement for vesting. Indeed, original acquisition or legitimate transfer, are the two methods of acquisition. Neither depends upon the acquirer actually knowing that he has acquired something and subsequently become owner. Ownership is a factual state of affairs.

      • My point was to dispute the author’s contention that the land problem is an historical issue. In my view, it is also not an moral issue but a practical one.

        The most serious problems that South Africa (and Africa) faces are food supply and unemployment. The parceling out of land into small holdings aggravates both.

        • But it won’t happen in reality like you appear to envision it.

          The fact is that very few people will be able to prove that they have a legitimate title to land which was taken, and, as experience has shown, if they can, they will prefer to be paid out.

          What the author suggests is not only much more moral than SA’s current land reform policies, but is also much more practical.

          But the notion that only those who farm the best should be allowed to own the land is highly arbitrary. Without security of ownership and certainty relating to property rights, we get what we currently have in this country: fleeing capital and a refusal to invest in large scale.

          • The author’s suggestions are neither moral nor practical for the reasons given. Also, redistribution can not be justified on historical grounds when land ownership is not a feature of African culture. Blacks never enjoyed land ownership as conceived in a modern capitalistic economy and which they now claim as their moral/historical right. They want what they never had.

            My comments dispute the authors arguments. South Africa has a constitution which allows for land redistribution on a willing buyer/seller basis. From there on, how the government sorts it out is their business but fraught with difficulties consequent upon the constitutional principle of equality before the law. Who gets what and where?

          • You make the same claim which I already addressed above:

            “If we consider ownership a capitalistic principle, then we need to consider what other capitalistic principles say about the vesting of ownership. ‘Recognition’ [or ‘conception’] is not a requirement for vesting. Indeed, original acquisition or legitimate transfer, are the two methods of acquisition. Neither depends upon the acquirer actually knowing that he has acquired something and subsequently become owner. Ownership is a factual state of affairs.”

            Africans had, by the Lockean (etc.) principle of homesteading certainly acquired ownership (whether they recognized it or not – neither law nor capitalist principles requires recognition in this context). As the author points out, so did the Boers. Ownership is a factual state of affairs.

          • Certainly “ownership” is a factual state of affairs but I fail to understand how that changes anything. In African culture, the occupier is the “owner” and no other considerations apply whether moral or historical. If an African were dispossessed by another African that would be the end of the story but if by a European suddenly the situation is different.

          • It’s hard to engage when one seems to have a very skewed view of history than what is the norm. Just because they didn’t have title deeds doesn’t mean they didn’t own something. African peoples, nations, individuals and families fought over, developed and acquired land identically to that of the Europeans’ early days.

            Do some research into the Igbo. They were colonised pretty late, so we have more recent records into their society. They were basically anarcho-Capitalists.

          • “African people, nations, individuals and families fought over, developed and acquired land identically to that of the Europeans early days”.

            In both cases ownership consisted of occupation and no other considerations applied whether moral or historical. Suddenly, over a hundred years later, these issues are raised as if the European settlers were guilty of infringing an unwritten law that has existed from the beginning of time. That, of course, is absolute nonsense and so also any moral or historical claims for restitution.

  2. As stated above, most of South Africa was uninhabited. The African tribes with the exception of the Khoi and San people’s migrated south into what they would call their ancestral lands from central Africa. Their call for land ownership is no different from those of the European peoples who came here. Both acquired the land through conquest.

    • Firstly Humans have not existed “for millons of years”, secondly the humans that did populate the territory centuries ago were very very few and far between, one would travel for days and not see a soul…. if you believe history

  3. Great article! Thanks so much! Please account for the obvious and blatant metaphysical dilemmas of the entire notion of private ownership though! Really inspiring, thanks so much!

    • Simplest way of justifying private ownership is to avoid the Tragedy of the Commons and perhaps the Philosophy of Liberty. Others can do the theories more justice than I:



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