Land and community in South Africa

A pragmatic and popular politics of mobilisation, alliance and amalgamation preceded colonial attempts to fix people.

Let us go back in time to 1823, almost 200 years ago, in the middle of what is now South Africa, a bit to the west of what would much later become Vereeniging. A rondavel. A critical moment in the history of the country was about to ensue, unremarked by the outside world.

It was a Sunday in the middle of June. Brisk, blanket-wearing weather. An African man faced two European men drinking a hot liquid. Boiled coffee, if one knew the smell. Kgosi Sefunelo ka Seleka had walked the 200m or so to the houses built for the two missionaries, Samuel Broadbent and Thomas Hodgson. 

They were the first white evangelists to settle north of the Vaal River. Sefunelo found them outside, without their wives, the men only, drinking from their tin cups. The Kgosi, a ruler over thousands, had noticed that the pastors preferred to send a boy for their food rather than eat with him. 

He had tried to honour the strange men in frocks to put them at their ease. At one state function, he cut up their meat for them and tried to feed them with his own hands, an ancient gesture of respect the missionaries barely grasped. Now, Sefunelo said he was surprised they would drink together as they were, alone, “without asking him to drink also”.

White self-separation

It was known that Broadbent suffered from chronic gastroenteric complaints. He tendered what he must have felt was a clever reply, saying he “knew” coffee would not “agree with” the Kgosi’s stomach. Sefunelo nodded, and turned to go, but when he got to the gate he stopped and asked: “Why would you drink something that upset other people’s stomachs?” There was no answer to this. The whites’ self-separation from the modes of survival, interaction, and mutual trust they had encountered was profound. For Sefunelo’s people, eating was a distribution of the fruits of people’s labour in a communal fashion, timed by the patriarch of the household and by the Kgosi.

And, ordinarily, eating and drinking was a sequenced, group action, supporting the regnant patriarchal authority. People didn’t consume alone. In the countryside-wide drought and aggressive jostling between chiefs in the 1820s, doing so was foolish and possibly treasonous. 

Trade and violence together welled up from the Cape. Thousands of guns, and slavers on horseback, had done their preparatory work, often aided and abetted by ambitious chiefs. The worst turmoil coincided with the direct aftermath of the failure of the rains in 1822 and the creation of true drought conditions, when chiefship itself faltered, and livestock and people suffered and communities broke apart.

Kgosi Sefunelo was part of a line of chiefs, but he emerged from a specific politics among “brothers” we can only partly see in the standard, missionary-published genealogies and traditions. We know that he ranked himself first with seven other brothers, and they all killed men in warfare. We know that the question of who was whose brother, and who counted as Seleka (Sefunelo’s division of “Barolong”), was a political matter as well as a (partly) biological one. 

Looking back, we see the frayed fabric of a network in difficult times – the period called the mfecane in the eastern grasslands (what was then the Transkei, Ciskei, the Eastern Cape, the fringes of Lesotho, Natal and Swaziland), and the difaqane on the highveld (from  Grahamstown north up into the Kalahari Desert). 

Zulu expansion was undoubtedly connected with wider-world developments. Portuguese trade at Delagoa Bay included the carrying away of enslaved people in the decades before the mfecane, as academic Heather Hughes has recently confirmed. Kgosi Sefunelo’s own authority faced a future of rocky challenges and trials.

He was already scrambling to secure Cape gunmen and letter writers to defend his authority against other state builders, and now these strange men were importing their own subordinates without asking him first. They dug a well and treated the water as a private source. And on that fateful June morning, they declined to invite him to have coffee with them. 

In sum, they would not honour him as their chief or even a chief. Sefunelo’s ancestors had dealt with change already. The Natal and Mozambique coast experienced episodic contact with Europeans over the centuries, and learnt the ivory and tobacco trade, connecting their iron trade routes to continent-wide networks. They had traded with Muslim (proto-Swahili) traders as well as with the Portuguese, or mixed descendants still calling themselves Portuguese, faraway on the Zambezi River. 

It was Sefunelo’s renown among some southern traders, in fact, that first led a family of well-known Cape-descended mixed-race people (the Kok family) to him, and led Broadbent and Hodgson to follow the Koks to Sefunelo in his capital (called simply Thabeng).

And so, for the first time in the middle of what us is now South Africa, north of the Vaal, in 1822-23, two white families lived among black African people. The Africans had full and clear political authority, and full “title” to the land.

The missionaries, Broadbent and Hodgson, did not dwell in Thabeng itself, but slightly outside it; they carved out an “exterior” domain to signal a difference in how law and power would operate with and through them.

Ordinarily, any patriarch who wished to live with Sefunelo would respectfully present himself and his wishes to him, as Kgosi. Sefunelo would ordinarily bestow on a recent arrival a sort of package deal. If the immigrant were important or alone: town housing in the cramped centre-ville, the area around the Kgosi’s court, since he was now an ally of the Kgosi directly; or housing on the far outskirts as part of a new section of the community, perhaps with other co-origin people, still welcomed together. 

Land for growing sorghum and millet would be a little further off than older residents’ quarters, with a few more stumps no doubt. Water sources were for everyone. But in this case, it seemed, the ruddy-complexioned newcomers preferred to build their dwellings some way off from the Kgosi’s kgotla, or royal courtyard, as if they were near-equals, a kgosi’s court in themselves.

Their teachings seemed to claim superior knowledge about a common past, in the time of Sefunelo’s own distant ancestors. Broadbent, made miserable by illness, was not always an easy man to deal with. The missionaries had disrespected Sefunelo’s protocol, and, for instance, refused to give a tobacco gift to a visiting Bushman “captain”. 

When they had “discovered” water by drilling for it, Kgosi Sefunelo already knew not to expect to access it freely. He visited and smilingly told them they could not have worked out how to dig a well themselves, and that their forefathers must have told them how, which was, of course, true. The coffee-break snub later was only the final straw.

The missionaries were connected to institutions and people in the Cape and Britain, which drew their sense of meaning and authority from outside their physical space. They were not placing themselves as subjects under Sefunelo, nor did they imagine themselves as a separate court in a negotiated relationship with Sefunelo, one of brotherhood.

Imagine that instead of holding themselves away from Sefunelo as emblems of a wider order of whiteness and Christianity, they had adapted to where they found themselves. They would have been more successful preaching Christian ideas, perhaps, but they would not have continued to be “white” people in distinction to others. They would have been just people, and there would have been no “land alienation” to follow.

Missionary aspirations for authority

Nineteenth-century missionaries were jealous of the impression of power chiefs made in the minds of their subjects. They wanted that power in order to affect people emotionally, in church, and to make people modify their behavior outside of church in fear of that power. Because people originally understood their ancestors and God as one concept, there were two choices available as the decades wore on.

If and when a powerful chief kept control over land and converted to Christianity, an orthodox Christianity might spread quickly in keeping with chiefly power. But if and when chiefs were weak, or many, and tried to control nascent churches in the countryside, or themselves were “traditionalists”, mass Christianity really took only hold when their power was crippled – their power over the land.

Broadbent and Hodgson, and the missionaries that followed them, did not intend all that. They did not want power over the land for whites, or capitalists, or for others yet to come. They contested something else about the chief’s authority: the naturalness of his say over the life and death of those living around him. That, they said, was God’s prerogative.

Missionaries also called “rainmaking” a superstition, missing the point, which was to connect the physical wellbeing of the country to political leadership on an experiential level. Chiefs controlled water and led people to watered land, and commanded the spaces in their domains necessary to time their people’s harvests and cyclical movements. 

Missionaries divided authority into various compartments. Land as a concept was an effect of the associations between people, subject to chiefship and its ways. Land relationships could, however, come to be ruled by another form of authority, mediated by text on paper in wood-panelled courtrooms and enforced by men under arms.

Sharecropping arrangements spread and whites had preferential access to markets. In time, all relational rights could be bought and sold in the market for “land”, but not by blacks. The forces of the market thus moved African-owned land to Boer and Briton. Black people could not buy, with or without a deed: only their selling was encouraged. The date usually used as a benchmark, 1913, marking the Native’s Land Act, followed the destruction of even the vestiges of African sovereign power beyond a carefully circumscribed vicinity.

The house

Before this destruction, a complex kind of politics structured African people’s relationships with each other and the land. Men and women had different rights. There were political ways, contested and debated ways, to build alliances with distant kin, or even strangers. 

There were ways to divide and amalgamate polities in wartime and peacetime. Land access often came with formally recognising a chief, either near or distant. Land meant enough space for grazing to feed the big herds; enough well-watered land to grow food; wider circuits for long-distance grazing and hunting; and, of course, a defensible territory for housing a town full of people in winter. 

What is the internal memory of ethnic particularity – so commonly encountered in the countryside and invoked in statements such as “We are really MaLete”; “Originally we are BaKhulukwe”; “We came from Kgatleng”; “We say Zulu but we know we are Qwabe” – if not the memory of past polities? Each of these statements names a once-living chief. The history that moved people from one ancestral place to another is old. It was old before the Boers arrived in the Cape, and it left a layering of ethnic identity in every major chiefdom.

According to the historian Jan Vansina, the major principle of the farming people of central and eastern Africa, who were the distant ancestors of the farmers in South Africa, was “the house”. The house was a functioning association of people, using terms of kinship (such as mother’s-brother, uncle, cousin, brother and sister, aunt, father and mother), that included, in many cases, people unrelated, strictly speaking, in terms of genetic descent. 

The strength of the house was, in fact, a political matter. A strong house was capable of absorbing some retainers and bereft aunts and adoptees. This form, after its transformation in southern Africa over hundreds of years, became a means of taking in (useful) foreign households. They were ranked and a place found for them, sometimes for whole communities, especially in times of turmoil or famine. The pairing of courts permitted viable forms of conquest or domination when the alternative was death. 

This is why Mzilikazi’s invaders in the 1830s were called generously “people of Tebele” (the seniors).

The internal logic of allowing people to live with one another and share the land (even in unequal relationships) was expressed in lore and oral traditions, with stories and memories about twins. How could stories about twin dikgosi / izinkosi reveal people’s political histories and orientations before 1800? The idea of almost-equal, but not-quite-equal, pairings offered a way for two chiefs who were strangers to craft their relationship with each other. As a pattern of thinking, it lies secure in oral traditions. Ordinarily in southern Africa, the arrival of an inferior (weaker or hungrier) group of people would become subordinate, the “junior”: the elephant (tlou) crossing the stream becomes the little elephant (tlouenyana). 

On the other hand, an arriving group of formidable soldiers could be granted “senior” status. In preparation of my book Popular Politics in the History of South Africa, ca. 1400 to 1948, I discovered that several oral traditions of major chiefdoms named two brothers as very ancient ancestors, and that the senior brother was often named Motebele and the junior Motebejane (small Motebele), or similar names very much like these.


We might look at the genealogical inclusion of this kind of twinship as a way of thinking (via oral tradition) about amalgamations of the past. The root of the Teb- name is most likely “to found”, thibela– the big (Tebele, founder) and the little (or junior).

Behind all other pairings of courts, in ancient lore, there were two courts in oral tradition, the BaHurutshe and BaRolong, who were small polities related to each other as brothers, but “not in the same kraal”, as an elderly person said to this researcher. In other words, they were ranked in circumcision-practice order. One was the junior, circumcised after the other senior. It is interesting that the linguistic case can be made that the -ong signifies junior. I make the case in my book.

In other words, two chiefs would, perhaps, move together or settle in side-by-side courts, and later on, their direct descendants could interpret the two as having been “brothers”.

The pattern to be followed was in their own lore in its oldest roots. I discovered it in Sefunelo’s chiefly behaviour, too, as he established a twin-court arrangement with a cousin’s town, in part to withstand the warfare of the era involving, most notably, Nguni invaders.

Over the centuries, armed men came from the eastern grasslands looking to establish (found) settlements and power on the highveld. It was, therefore, natural to call their court Matebele, the people of the senior of the pairing (with tebeyane or tebejane). This is where the word ‘Matebele’ comes from.

Over time, via the racist, tribalist, white way of seeing the African past, all “Transvaal Matebele” (or “Ndebele”) were grouped together and, more broadly, put with the “Ndebele” coming out of the wars of Zulu expansion (under Mzilikazi). Political formations, with diverse origins, were presented as stable, and ancient, ethnicities. But although they were all “people of Tebele”, they were not ethnically the same.

In highveld genealogical lore, many chiefdoms come from the child of Queen MoHurutshe, named, in traditions, Motebele (“Senior Founder Court”, in our reading of the meaning). The other child, Motebeyane (“Junior Partner”), however, spawned even more Tswana chiefdoms.

My argument is against the notion of ancient tribes, and that that these names are not a real record of the movement of political authorities at a particular moment, or of a real queen (MoHurutshe) with twin sons. Instead, such recalled twins are a memory of an ascription to a non-patriarchy, a wider order (Ba-Hurutshe) based on prestige, encoding the various outcomes envisioned for Senior-Junior (Tebele-Tebeyane) pairings. 

In my book, I argue that the Zimbabwean “Rozvi” and the 1820s highveld “Ba-Ha-Rootze” (BaHurutshe) were reflections of the same pre-1700 phenomenon, a lost proto-name denoting access to long-distance trade. The overall notion of Rozvi and Rotse implied an alliance through ranking men that dispensed with ethnic divisions. 

If there were a lot of such pairings of two courts or chiefs, or more, in a larger VaRozvi-BaHurutshe and BaRolong domain, one would expect that there would be old ruins with pottery and artefacts that might show such ranking. And there are.

In the book, I discuss the ancient Botswana archaeological sites of the 1100s, excavated by capable archaeologists, and in two cases, there are two chiefs’ courts side by side; in one situation, the pottery styles in the twin-court settlement remained very different for a century.

The people were in some way culturally different, and perhaps, ethnically distinct, yet lived in twin courts together for their mutual benefit. (This relationship was not one that white patriarchs, even missionaries, had in mind for themselves.)

Ethnic difference was broached in many ways. Women moved from one town to the next and there were customs of adoption and “raising up seed” for inheritance, which made inheritance a conventional, not biological, matter. In the book, I suggest that this was how the countryside was populated with vital chiefdoms: bringing together difference.

This was a particular genius: it is why the “S-Group” Bantu speech designation is shared across such a wide area in southern Africa. Southern Africans communicated broadly with one another.

I focus on the highveld, not the Zulu area that is perhaps more associated in Durban with the precolonial past. It can be said, however, that Nguni-associated settlements such as Thulamela (1500s) had more obvious connections with the Zimbabwe plateau than further west. They were not just connections born of inheritance and descent, but joining and prestige, too. 

Proximate difference perhaps meant sharpening some distinctions across twin-court divides, but it also inevitably meant borrowing and engaging others. In sum, this was especially so for the Shona (Kalanga)-“Bechuana” continuum in the “S-Group”, and hence the Rozvi-Rotse societal flowering.

The missionaries were not interested in such a relationship. They did not wish to participate in a network of ranked people as citizens, and farm, herd, raid, and eat and drink with African people. This commitment to racial exclusivity was new. It was certainly not discernible as a political principle in the past of the central and southern African Bantu-language speaking (“S-Group”).

Further evidence for twin courts

After my book came out, a fellow historian alerted me to a German manuscript by Gustav Nachtigal that featured an 1860 BaPedi genealogy, apparently not in print, that I had not seen. It is headed by the very early twinship of “Matlebo” and “Matlebyane” – a clear variant of (Mo)Tebele and (Mo)Tebeyane. 

Other archaeological excavations clearly feature two large courts, side by side. The arrangement was not uncommon. The pairing of taken-for brothers, senior and junior, as chiefs, in alliance; relatedly, the creation of intermarrying but non-inheriting royal patrilineages, paired with the court; these practices went along with ethnic amalgamation.

The ranking of young men in circumcision; the adjustment of lineage relationships (with the constant use of kinship terms) within two generations, according to necessity, custom and courtesy – these were established political practices useful for dealing with different people coming together and settling on the land together. 

There were, as we know, pairings of “Tswana” and “Griqua”, in twin courts, crossing the “racial” divide, including under Andries Waterboer. To my surprise, in my research, I saw the substantial looseness in how the two designations were used in the past.

They were joined particularly through the odd conjuncture of statuses and ethnic affinities of being “Christian”. At times, a person might be able to choose which to ascribe to, Griqua or Tswana. One of the very first towns encountered by English-writing travellers on the Orange River was, in 1770, described as having two courts, joined together reciprocally, and including in the townspeople resembling Bushmen and people who looked like the farmers of the north, speaking “a language with clicks” – some of them, not all of them, understanding the colonial emissary’s rudimentary isiXhosa. 

This twin-court community (the “Gyzequa”) had a partnership with “BaTlaping” (fishing-place) chiefdoms to the northeast. Some “BaTlaping” preferred to live in a stone-center “BeChuana” town community, some in a grid-plan, one with a church with a Griqua pastor.

There were Tswana villages under Griqua sub-chiefly rule, too, and vice versa, not to mention schools in which “coloured” (Griqua and other Cape people) were taught in the same classrooms as “Tswana”. They might then also “be” Griqua.

The system of webs of pairings or relations did not prevent entrepreneurial and imaginative leaders from breaking through them and rearranging norms – Shaka, MmaNtathisi, Ngwane, Mzilikazi, Sekhukhune and Moshoeshoe are obvious examples. 

But recent research suggests that even these kings paid attention to sensitive protocols and seniorities, both in honoring some and selecting which ones to break (with some violence in Shaka’s case). After taking land, and people, they all developed careful political relationships with and through them. 

Ordinary political practice was organised in a tradition of accepting and negotiating difference. Twin-courtism was a flexible device. But this did not mean that everyone saw one another as equals even within a single court.

For the Zulu kingdom, scholars now grasp that speaking a certain way, dressing particularly – say, as “true” high-status Zulus – might be done deliberately, or catch on if political forces favoured it. Conversely, a conquered people could be scapegoated and turned into a metaphor for indolence or foolishness, their subtle dialect exaggerated and mocked. There were layers of belonging.

The emergence of ‘the tribe’

In my book, I show that so-called tribal identification replaced this political framework. In rural and urban domains, ideas about fixed forms of ethnically constituted political organisation began to replace the ranking and alliance system from around the middle of the 19th century. Between about 1840 and 1855, the understanding emerged that there were tribes, with, more or less, claims to land, in perpetuity; that tribes might be “weaned” from the land, as if their access to land were indolent; that tribes might be easily shorn of land used for “hunting” and “grazing” only. The tribe was an ethnic organisation and was imagined to hold land simply and non-politically.

At this very time, the last major stirrings of huge, non-ethnic, multi-chief military alliances unfolded against the sudden extension of British imperial dominion. This “almost war”, like most almost events, is scarcely registered in history books. It’s true that Western (mostly white) historians have looked at some aspects of it, such as whether “Griqua” were mobilisable, or whether Moshoeshoe would join with Faku and make war on the colony in the “prophet” Mlanjeni’s name. 

But there was a collective effort to throw off white authority and retake the land afoot, especially between 1849 and 1852.

Gathering people

The making of alliances across ethnic difference, and the assembly of vital political groups within that web, enabled a successful, expansive tradition. It was met with gunfire. State-building chiefs were pushed to the margins. The voices of people-organisers echoed more and more in a religious, and more specifically, Christian idiom. 

The government only recognised the rights of what it saw as tribes, and religious groups, to meet. No political convocations among blacks were assumed legitimate. The overall effect was to turn even mobilisations demanding land “religious”.

The International Commercial Workers’ Union, concerned with bettering rural people’s lives, spread most widely when its power was understood as connecting people to their ancestors. Real power came from the chiefs of the past, without going through their living chiefs. 

Alternatively, some ancestral-chiefly revivalist groups strived to represent themselves to the state as bypassed, authentic “tribes” or ethnic units.

AAS le Fleur stood in the same people-gathering heritage of the 19th century, with his redefined 20th-century Griqua and his dedicated national Griqua church, promising something like divine intervention for those who joined him. 

For Le Fleur, being Griqua was open to anyone who accepted fellowship with other people calling themselves Griqua. The access granted by Le Fleur to all comers was taken as a major provocation by the racist government. Noting the mixing of “natives and coloureds” in 1921, policemen said the “Griqua church” was a cover for the political mobilisation of such diverse people in search of land.

In my book, I focus most on the restorative movement behind Chief Samuel Moroka, who was Sefunelo’s grandson. Sefunelo’s lineage had a twin-court relationship with another court, the chiefdom of Tawana. (Samuel’s line had lost the right to rule Thaba ’Nchu by the actions of the gun-toting agents of the Orange Free State, in 1880.) 

The chief left in power in Thaba ’Nchu was a descendent of Tawana’s, who was named Tshipinare. He had been raised by Moroka in his own household along with Samuel, who was one of Moroka’s putative “real” sons. Tshipinare was favoured by the Boers. He moved the territory and chiefship of Thaba ’Nchu towards a system of private land ownership, dividing parcels and handing many of them to allies, black and white, as private farms.

Against these changes, the supporters of Samuel demanded a return to open grazing and fellowship in Thaba ’Nchu. They wanted to restore free communal access to government-designated “Barolong” reserved land, and ultimately reopen the black and white (now Free State) farms, the breadbasket of the country, to their crops and cattle. 

Race and blood

In contesting them, Tshipinare’s anti-Samuelite forces allied with white authority in the Orange Free State. Tshipinare’s men argued that it was important that Samuel might not have been his father Moroka’s biological son. The emerging late-19th century emphasis on race and blood empowered this argument. Orange Free State state president Johannes Brand agreed.

But this invidious ruling was only possible because the Moroka chiefship had already lost its sovereignty to the Boers. 

In 1936, the claims of the Samuelites were given serious contemplation by the South African government. The question arose as to who was classed as “Barolong” (or even, “Seleka” of Tau) Barolong for the purposes of resettling in the (small) government-controlled property added to the reserve land. Who could show who they were?

The same question, about biological (racial) descent, had deposed Samuel. This new emphasis on belonging and race remained alien to precolonial forms of African political life, which continued to accommodate alliances. Men and women moved about and people of Khoisan descent married into highveld chiefdoms (and into grasslands ones much more). If cattle were paid, as one chief put it, the children belonged to the chief.

When asked to specify who could and could not return to a proposed, fully open Thaba ’Nchu, in 1936, “Samuelites” would not say. In fact, James Moroka, later briefly the president of the African National Congress, testified to the government that anyone with a family history in Thaba ’Nchu should be able to return. That would include “Matebele” and “Basuto” whose ancestors were there – they were welcome to return with their families. 

The “door should be open” regardless of blood descent, he said. 

The Native Affairs Department of the government rejected this solution. (And in turn, the Samuelite section of Thaba ’Nchu rejected the ethnic “African” definition “Tswana” in the 1950s that was imposed on them.) 

People had been made landless by other people, not by the value of the land. The political and juridical solution they lived was imposed on them.

Under siege

Much later, particularly after 1959, the government would warm to the idea of chiefly authority over land questions. By then chiefs’ domains were often destitute, windswept places, and chiefs despised figureheads. Had chiefdoms not been kept from white land, they would have moved in search of fresh pastures and farmlands in the intervening decades. 

As it was, the situation was dire. From ’59, chiefs were made part of wider circuits of employment and benefit. Like the first missionaries, they were now immersed in external connections taking them out of local concerns. They enforced unpopular agricultural rules to deal with soil erosion and cattle disease.

Discontent with the so-called “Bantu authorities” sometimes came to violence against chiefs who fed positions and land to cronies. Men attacked Kaiser D Matanzima and the Transkeian paramount chiefship. The Eastern Mpondo domain erupted in rebellion in 1960, resulting in military repression and killings, and more than 20 hangings.

With rural people compressed and under siege, the tradition of bridging difference and welcoming junior-status strangers lapsed. The government insisted on dividing and stabilising this or that tribal belonging, based on their racist, exclusivist understanding of the human condition. It was made out that Africans had always self-separated into ethnically distinct tribes, each with an ancient homeland in a specific territory.

White people put that misunderstanding into primary school spelling books and history lessons. And when white ownership took over, the idea of excluding African newcomers began to line up with people’s lived experience of land scarcity, of being hemmed in, and – thanks to their education – of belonging to a ‘tribe’.


What can be concluded from this brief summary of a longer work on land and the period before 1948? First, that black African people, not this or that ‘tribe’, possessed the land in their own imperfect but vital structures in the heartland of South Africa long before foreigners came. 

Second, that the politics of land are not, and were not ever, separable from the political relationships among people. Perhaps it is true that today in South Africa the options before the lawmakers and the courts suggest either expropriation without compensation or without market compensation. But for much of the country, that question is only a beginning, and so too is whether to mount a massive drive to achieve universal title deed land reform, with some grazing commonage, or achieve a massive capitalisation of (undervalued) farmland for existing inhabitants (whose claims might still be fragile).

Now and in the past, the successful resolution of all these questions about the use of the land will require political and legal authority to be reshaped, and strengthened, in the city as in the countryside.

Third, before the historical racialisation of South Africa and the alienation of land, people understood that what they did together, not who they were, was what mattered. Exclusion from fellowship in spite of purported brotherhood typified Europeans. It was certainly not a principle of organisation found in the distant past, in the alliance- and difference-bridging strengths “chiefs” found with one another.

Today there is an urgent imperative to remove the patina of neutral legitimacy from the “ownership” of property. 

There are available forms of associational life, some that gather people (such as Abahlali baseMjondolo) without regard to ethnicity or points of origin. They include Christian churches, societies, cooperatives, guilds and unions that might create viable forms of collective access to land. There should be no one blushing that this is not “traditional” enough, that some kind of racial, regional or “tribal” heritage must be conformed to.

It should be remembered that the creative amalgamation and ranking of factions resonating with ancestral claims is very old in southern Africa, but that the specific forms of local political organisation everywhere varied immensely. Means of mutual accommodation, even if not mutual preference, should be sought.

Various different means of nonracial and non-ethnic joinings have long been deployed by people’s movements trying to recover the land for whole communities. There have been explicitly descent-tied, ‘ethnic’ efforts, too, it is true. But even these designations cover other forms of political complexity.

From twin courts to fluid notions of becoming “Griqua” or “Matebele” or “BaTlaping” to the agrarian radicalism of the Samuelites, the deepest politics of rural South Africa invited in different kinds of people. Trust among equals was signalled by being willing to eat and drink together. 

Similar kinds of political questions confront people in cities today, sometimes in violence. In thinking about what is normal, what is extraordinary, when survival is at stake, when cold at night and hunger press on people, a framework might be made to recognise a forward-moving political project and stabilise occupations of precariously occupied, or unoccupied, places. 

This would resonate with the Freedom Charter’s declaration that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. Peace might be chosen over the tragic cycle of increasingly violent evictions. It can be done.

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