Layers of meaning

2009-01-26 00:00

The past 14 years, post the end of apartheid governance, has seen our country focused on unravelling the ravaging effects of dispossession and attempting to rebuild a unified country. This is, and has been, no easy task and we have all witnessed the way in which these processes have affected our lives and the people around us. Some people, like Cherryl Walker, have not just witnessed these events, but have played an important part in trying to direct the ways in which the unravelling and rebuilding actually takes place.

Professor Walker spent the seventies and eighties witnessing and documenting the processes of removals in KwaZulu-Natal through her work with local organisations such as the Association for Rural Advancement and the Church Agricultural Project. She then had the unenviable task of being the first land claims commissioner in KwaZulu-Natal tasked with overseeing the government’s restitution programme after 1994. This she did for five years. Currently, she heads the Sociology and Anthropology School at Stellenbosch University.

Walker’s recently launched book Landmarked: Land Claims & Land Restitution in South Africa is a very authoratitive contribution to documenting our most recent past of rebuilding and recasting our society. However, it is not an ordinary history book, as it offers keen personal insights about how reclaiming the past, through rebuilding, is experienced by ordinary South Africans.

This book makes a valuable contribution in assisting us to understand the complexities of the variety of ways in which dispossession affected people’s lives and how this is now affecting people’s abilities to rebuild their futures. Through her detailed interpretation of her experiences in three of the many restitution claims in KwaZulu-Natal, Walker helps us see through the eyes of a few families who are part of these claims. In doing this, she argues that the existence of a “master narrative” about how dispossession affected the majority of people is too simplistic. It is a story most South Africans know well, which declares that the majority of South Africans were dispossessed of their land rights and that it is right that they now be restored.

While this is basically true, Walker suggests that in its over-simplification of how dispossession affected people, it results in exclusion and so reduces dispossession to merely a loss of physical space rather than social, political and economic lifestyles. This does not enable us to implement an effective restitution programme that would assuage people’s memories of loss, as we now focus exclusively on trying to reconcile through restoring pieces of land. In doing this we forget that the past land holdings, prior to removals, were not necessarily equal nor were they held by a “timeless-bounded group”.

The bittersweet stories of the three claims of Cremin, Bhangazi (on the eastern shores of St Lucia) and Cato Manor are captured in detail through personal accounts by Walker, as the commissioner, and through members of the claimant families. None of these stories can ever be properly told as they are merely slices of the ongoing lives of people. It is about the recent brief period of state intervention in their lives, which was supposed to assist them to recapture their past and regain citizenship, but has rather dragged them through a simplified, legalistic and bureaucratically unclear process that leaves one with great sadness and a fear for our future.

While Walker makes an important attempt to show why the “master narrative” cannot be simply about a physical loss of land she also does not give an alternative. The point being made is that a “master narrative” was important in unifying people to overcome the apartheid system and it is important in the process of unifying people in building a future, but it is not a true reflection of people’s lives, losses, memories and expectations.

In the case of Cremin, original landowners came from many places across the country through a common relationship with a church. When they were dispossessed, they had tenants on their land who also lost their land rights. In claiming restitution, they returned without the tenants. What of the tenants’ losses and restoration?

In Bhangazi, the original leader of the claim, Mr Mbuyazi, who argued hard for land rather than compensation, was forced out of the area by other local interests of traditional leaders and later environmental concerns. In the end, the Bhangazi people took compensation rather than land and Mbuyazi died a few years later, in 2005, landless, in a shack dwelling 60 kilometres away from where he had lost his land and identity.

For the people of Cato Manor, the planning and development interests and the processes of city planners meant that many claimants of Indian descent did not get their land back. They were argued out of it in the public interest of building and supporting new integrated communities made up of black people who had settled informally in the area.

And so we are left perplexed by what we know as the “master narrative” of dispossession and what this dominant story means in daily life for people who are trying to regain their identity through reclaiming their physical space.

Walker tells an incredibly detailed story in her role as witness and role player in our recent past. In one chapter she also tries to understand her place in this past as a white South African before concluding this episode of our history. Despite the importance of doing this, a feeling of overjustification of her decisions and role in the rebuilding is created. As the most personal chapter in the book, it should be respected and perhaps applauded for its honesty and integrity, which she clearly tries to bring to her role as a commissioner.

This is an important read for all South Africans.

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