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Land and chiefs in South Africa: lessons from history


by Anne Kelk Mager, Emerita Professor of History at UCT

At the time of conquest in the nineteenth century, it was the chiefs, hereditary leaders with substantial popular followings, who were targeted by the British. Indeed, conquest was justified on the grounds that British law would liberate African people from the ‘despotic control’ of their chiefs. Two hundred years on, chiefs do not enjoy the popular support they once had. And yet, in many rural areas, people continue to hold on to, and safeguard, the institution of the chieftaincy and to respect individual (not all) chiefs. What does this mean for restitution, for democracy and for a society governed by a modern constitution?

Colonial dispossession encompassed material elements such as:

·         the loss of land

·         the loss of livestock (which also translates into capital)

·         the loss of capability (skills and knowledge) that enables productive use of land

·         the loss of well-being (affective and spiritual elements of meaning and belonging).

It is for the last of these elements that people hold on to their chiefs. But all the areas of loss need to be considered in the process of restoration if it is to succeed.

Why land expropriation from white farmers didn’t work

In the 1970s at the time of bantustan consolidation, the apartheid regime expropriated land from white farmers in the border districts of the eastern Cape for the purposes of augmenting the territories of the ‘self-governing states’ of the Transkei and Ciskei. In some instances, this land was restored to chiefs who had been dispossessed at the time of conquest. But these chiefs were unable to provide the support and guidance that was needed for productive use of the land; they had no authority, power or capability to guide those who wanted to farm in a manner that would generate a livelihood; and the cronies of homeland leadership took advantage of this limited restoration of land to benefit themselves materially and politically. 

When land restitution fails

A major flaw in the apartheid process of restitution was that little or no attention was paid to tenure arrangements - there was talk of leasehold, and of leasehold becoming freehold; there was also some kind of communal system but none of this was regulated. No title deeds were issued; no boundaries were demarcated; patronage and graft were commonplace, and the land was soon overrun by opportunists seeking to make use of the uncontrolled grazing. Reservoirs, dams, fences and farm homesteads were broken, vandalised and destroyed. The number of livestock soon exceeded the carrying capacity of the land by ten or more times and grazing became denuded. Under the ANC government, the people who had returned to the land in the 1970s in the hope of picking up where their ancestors had left off, are living on social grants.  They may have a few animals, but they are not farming. What do we learn from this history?

Restitution of land will surely fail to improve the lives of people unless there is close attention to tenure arrangements and support and protection for those who have legally recognised tenure. Support is needed for to make the land productive, to make improvements on the land, and to develop the capability of those who receive land in order to engage in productive farming practices. This implies strong local government that works inclusively with chiefs and people, that understands the complexity of modern farming and seeks partnerships with the private sector – NGOs and established farmers – who can help to build capabilities.  Furthermore, if chiefs are to be able to carry out their responsibilities to ensure the well-being and success of their people who may live under different tenure regimes, they will need to reform in line with the Constitution. More land is surely needed, but land without massive support for productive farming will not help the rural poor to engage in productive livelihoods. Land alone cannot change the material prospects of people dispossessed of so much for so long.

*      Anne Kelk Mager is co-author with Phiko Jeffrey Velelo of The House of Tshatshu: power, politics and chiefs north-west of the Great Kei River c 1818-2018 (published by UCT Press, 2018).



"Land and chiefs in South Africa: lessons from history"