Elmien du Plessis | Land, Law and (Afrikaner) Nostalgia

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Elmien du Plessis
Elmien du Plessis

The ending of apartheid disrupted the Afrikaner identity. Afrikaners had to, and still have to, find ways to adapt, Elmien du Plessis said in her inaugural lecture as a full professor at North-West University. 

An inaugural lecture, the university’s website states, is for newly appointed full professors, “to present themselves and their area of study to the university and the academic community”. My alma mater, Stellenbosch University, states that it is an opportunity to “share [my] knowledge, scientific discoveries and even personal journeys in [my] field with the public and the academic community”. The Nelson Mandela University calls it “a significant milestone in the academic career of a full professor”. Wits University calls it a “rite of passage” which “for hundreds of years include the test of having to profess your knowledge to a lay audience and fellow academics”. And just to make it interesting, they add that the title “professor” comes from the need to profess, or to declare publicly, one’s knowledge”. This then is, according to Wits, my platform to “share [my] brilliant discoveries, innovative ideas and deep insights with the public and the larger academic community”.

You can imagine that this leaves me fairly nervous. I had to find a topic that might entice the larger public, something I know enough about to profess my knowledge, but not too much, as I must also show what I plan to do in my career in the future.  

And thus I stumbled across the desire to combine my love for history and art, my knowledge of land issues, and my profession – the law – in one lecture. And to allow me some freedom to not have definite answers but to touch on things I think need thinking about in the future.

The title “Land, law and (Afrikaner) nostalgia” came to me on a road trip before the content appeared. The start of a fascinating journey to come up with something presentable to you, my dear audience. So buckle up.


In an intriguing book on The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym also writes about the history of nostalgia. Nostalgia comprises two concepts: nostos, the return home, and algia, longing. In other words, nostalgia refers to a longing home that no longer exists or has never existed. It speaks of loss, displacement, and a romance with a fantasy.

The history of nostalgia tells us that in the 17th century nostalgia was a curable disease, like a cold. Nostalgia was blamed for producing “erroneous representations” that caused people to lose touch with the present. Swiss doctors treated it with opium, leeches, and a journey through the Swiss Alps. A return to the motherland was considered the best cure.

In the 18th century doctors understood that they could no longer solve this ailment. A return home no longer treated the symptoms. Longing migrated, it did not refine itself to the motherland. Nostalgia could not be found in the mind or the body, and was termed the “hypochondria of the heart”. They turned to poets and philosophers for help.

In the 21st century, it was regarded as an incurable modern condition. The future was not something to believe in anymore. The utopian dimension of imagining was no longer directed at the future, but at the past, or sideways, lost in time and space. There is a saying that goes: the past has become more unpredictable than the future.

Nostalgia can only exist if time is viewed as linear. It is most pertinent when the present is deficient. When the present cannot be trusted, and the future is so uncertain, the past seems to be a comfortable place to go. Then, to return to the past, we require objects, images, literature or music.

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It is not always clear what nostalgics long for. Progress seems to exacerbate nostalgia, just like globalisation encouraged stronger local connections. Longing for a community with a collective memory. A condition that seems to appear and reappear with big life changes and historical upheavals.

Boym continues to write about the contradictory nature of nostalgia: that it can make us more empathetic towards others, but that once we embark on replacing the longing with belonging, “the apprehension of loss with a rediscovery of identity”, the mutual understanding change. We can find one another in the algia – the longing – but our nostos  - the return home – that is not the same. The promise to rebuild the home, to go back, something that receives much focus in many ideologies – makes people desire emotional bonding over critical thinking. An imaginary home is put up as an actual home or even a homeland—something to kill and die for.

Nostalgia is common after revolutions, whether bloody or more of the “velvet” kind. A retrospective longing, based on present needs, and setting the stage for the future. Nostalgia straddles individual melancholy with the story of the collective. Of sometimes making sense of “the impossibility of homecoming”.

Why is nostalgia so seductive, or manipulative, depending on how it is used? To understand this, there is a distinction between restorative and reflective nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia focuses on the home, to cross time to restore the home, and can easily look like truth and tradition. Reflective nostalgia focuses on the longing and the ambivalences of this longing/belonging, and it questions truth.

Seen this way, conflict entrepreneurs can easily use restorative justice in national, religious and I will add ethnical, revivals. Restorative nostalgia seeks to return to the origin and thrives on conspiracy. However, reflective nostalgia refuses to follow a single plot and focuses on details.

The nostalgia that I am interested in for this lecture is the restorative nostalgia that turns political – where the romance of nostalgia turns political and is connected to a nation-building of sorts, meant in a wide way. Native songs become purified and rewritten. Ernest Renan states that “[t]o forget – and I would venture to say – to get one’s history wrong, are essential factors in the making of a nation”. And, in the case of institutionalised nostalgia, the stronger the loss, the more it is overcompensated with commemorations. The further we move from the past, the more it is idealised.


What do we do then with the nostalgia of the Afrikaner who benefited from past structures of oppression? I know using the term “Afrikaner” is risky, as Afrikaners are not homogenous, no matter how much the Afrikanerbond and others would like us to believe. Jan Bosman, the chairperson of the Afrikanerbond, lists the various identities of Afrikaners: Christiaan, Africans, Afrikaans, South African, from Africa, world citizens, here in South Africa generations, part of a western European cultural community, economically active, part of various communities, family people. A tiktokker told us that to be an Orania-Afrikaner, you must be able to make koeksisters. The FAK lists religion, respect (for older people or people in positions of authority), kuier in the sense of hospitality, community involvement, Afrikaans music, Afrikaans language and land as characteristics.

The Afrikaner ethnicity developed in the 18th century. It centred on European ancestry, rural existence, farming abilities, Christian values and the Dutch language. Two defining events are engrained in the Afrikaner memory: the move to the interior in 1838 (Die Groot trek), where Afrikaners colonised the Orange Free State and Transvaal, and the Anglo-Boer war from 1899 – 1902. The move to the interior led to the dispossession of indigenous people's land. We know now that the war was not only fought by Afrikaners and British people.

Nevertheless, a story emerged of Afrikaners as martyrs who withstood British rule and the harsh conditions of travelling inland. Despite hardships, they managed to till the soil, make it productive, and claim the land as their own. From the Anglo-Boer war, the narrative emerged of Afrikaners that was harshly afflicted people through the scorched earth policy and the concentration camps. A narrative of suffering and perseverance, a noble volk, who by the beginning of the 1900s managed to disavow their European origins and could create a sense of an indigenised white ethnicity, unlike the British colonists who were always with one foot in England. We have derogatory names for those people.

South Africa became the sole national home of the Afrikaner, both physically and psychological, paid for in blood, sweat and tears. During Apartheid, Afrikaner identity became spatially organised, a nationalist community (“volk”),  within a confined and exclusive geographical area. Now that there is no longer a nation-state, there seems to be a return to cultural nationalism, and land plays a pertinent role in this.  

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I do not wish to deny or minimise the hardships, suffering and hard work. It is also in my DNA, the story of great grandparents who survived the Anglo-Boer war but returned to a farm that burned down, followed by a story of building it up again. But this is not the only story. I wish to complicate the narrative. I want to delve into this identity interrupted by the fall of apartheid, the nostalgia that this disruption invokes, and its effect on land law.

Other Afrikaner characteristics become evident when delving: the exclusionary mythology and victimhood. Afrikaners often clothe themselves in victimhood in response to change. Merged with the laager culture, Afrikaners feeling threatened will form a laager to protect their identity.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela sees this returning to a laager as a form of nostalgia – no longer the longing of the return to a physical home or nation-state, but an inner space of mental and emotional resonance. Not a yearning for the past, but the yearning for a more idealised psychological space of containment – the search for a simplified and stable version of the past. Thus, nostalgia aims to ensure a sense of continuity and identity for the individual and collective when faced with a significant transition. Gobodo-Madikizela writes that “[f]rom a psychoanalytic perspective, at the core of idealisation is splitting, an intrapsychic mechanism in which contradictory thoughts, feelings or aspects of the self are kept apart, and only one of these conflicting polarities is embraced or acknowledged. The idealisation of the past produces only “good” aspects of all that represents the past, both in terms of self-representations and internal object representations”.  

This splitting can be explained by complexity theory, something I will return to at the end, which offers two ways of survival in times of change: survival through isolation and survival through justice. But before I can get there, we need to take a detour to understand how the past influences our current understanding of land rights, and the role of nostalgia in all of this.

The story of ownership 

American scholars Heller and Salzman interrogate the notion of “ownership” and the rules that lurk under the surface of this seemingly clear concept of ownership. They argue that the rules of who gets what and why are constantly shifting, with every choice producing winners and losers. They identify six maxims that justify the initial ownership of scarce resources, which they name:

1) Frist come, first served.

2) Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

3) You reap what you sow.

4) Rule of attachment (it is mine because it is attached to something that is mine).

5) Our bodies, our selves.

6) The meek shall inherit the earth – ownership through inheritance.

They then explain that none of these is quite true. Ownership is just a storytelling battle amongst these six stories. Property conflicts' origins lie in these competing stories. Everyone picks the story that supports their claims as the morally preferred claim to convince everyone else that their story is the story. And while there are no natural or correct descriptions of how to frame ownership, the choices of how to solve this dilemma can be better or worse.  

So my interest is: who makes these choices, and how are these choices made? Because ultimately, these choices end up in legislation and how jurists in general and judges, in particular, interpret the law.

The relationship to land and the representation of this relationship is often held up as a justification – a starting point – for the current claim to rights in land and the protection of these rights.

I will briefly touch on what I think are the most prevalent stories for justifying ownership. I will then show how literature, music and fine art are used to continue telling these stories. Based on this, I argue that we need to examine these stories, however difficult they might be. We cannot merely use reflective nostalgia to erase the difficulty. Instead, we must consider the different and often conflicting stories when interpreting the Constitution and applying laws. But now I am ahead of myself – let’s return to the story of possession as justification for ownership.


The Afrikaner justification for land ownership rests on mainly three of these stories: possession, in the sense that physical control over the land is the focus, and physical attachment to the land makes it more valuable. If you want to take it away, you need to pay more than the person did when they established possession.

One story is that possession the conqueror established possession through conquest. This is the story that land acquired through conquest is a valid way in international law to acquire land. At least until after World War II. Often, in tandem, is the justification that the conquered people's cultural and economic inferiority justifies this imposition of foreign rule. This conquest was often brutal and destroyed more than people’s claims to the land. It often also resulted in the loss of other property – in South Africa, for instance, cattle.

How should we today go about the fact that current land holdings might be based on such injustices? Should we except that the passage of time justifies current rights? Are we compelled to right the wrongs of that dispossession? My colleagues who specialise in decolonial studies focus much on this, an area that I have only scratched at the surface up to now. The answer probably lies somewhere between the idea that subsequent land owners can not be held liable for the original dispossession and that current ownership does not per se freeze the prior claims.

Possession through negotiation is the story of acquiring land through fair agreements. Do we believe the storyteller or the story, in this instance? I have elsewhere delved into detail into the story of Piet Retief and Dingaan, as often, when Afrikaners today are willing to have tough conversations on the issues of land, the Piet Retief story is invoked to warn them about the untrustworthiness of the people they converse with.

However, this story is relayed differently by various storytellers, each with their own interpretation, some of which undermine the veracity of the claim that the dealings were in good faith or the understanding that a leader like Dingaan could legally make a deal to give away land on which a community live. Interestingly, this is a problematic idea that still persists today, and which was recently criticised in the Ingonyama judgment. Other accounts state that at most he could give use rights and not ownership. According to this version, there simply was no agreement. If there was no agreement, there was no initial possession. How should the law respond to this?


The second ownership story is “I owned the land because I worked for it”. Fruits of your labour. A Lockean idea that the labour of a man’s body leads to a claim of property rights.

Of course, what counts as labour is also qualified in this story: unless the land is tilled to the highest possible use – the gift of the colonialist – there is no labour to speak of, and thus no property right. Ownership was only ownership if the blood, sweat and tears turned land into farm units that were familiar in the European motherland.

But if labour does lead to property rights, how does one explain the denial of rights of the many commercially successful black farmers and the black farm labourers? There is no value-neutral way to justify one form of labour above another. It is not neutral, empirical, or uncontestable. In fact, we are contesting it in our daily conversations on land law. Ownership is a conclusion and not a fact.

We were here first

There are also traces of “first come first served” which is perhaps more difficult to justify. It rests on the principle often employed in law that whoever is earlier in time has the stronger right. But being first is also not an objective fact. If this was so, the Khoi and San people should equally succeed in their claim for ownership. This idea of who is first resting on a specific notion of how we define first. Is first those who first labour? Conquer? Use? What counts as first is often through the lens of the colonialist, not the indigenous. In The Little Prince, the businessman states that he owns the stars because nobody before him ever thought of owning them. But surely this cannot be?

Is it possible that jurists, legislatures and we, the people, are constantly contesting what is first to shape the justifications of rights in the land? With these justifications often rest on guesses about how the world works.

The concept of terra nullius is central here. Terra nullius suggesting that the land belonged to nobody. This empty land was then occupied, a form of deed was established, and this vested property rights to the settler in terms of European law that was as foreign to the indigenous people as the foreigners themselves—dispossessed not only by physical occupation but also by a legal system. What does this say about the legitimacy of the legal system to those without land rights?

The origin of the term terra nullius is contested, with some legal historians claiming that this term was invented ex post facto (that is lawyer speak for a thing done afterwards) to justify occupation rather than to establish rights. If this is so, what implication does this have for current claims?

What literature, music and the fine arts tell us

These stories gets reinforced through the arts, often cleansed from the problematic past. I will touch on literature, music and TV.


Doris Lessing once stated that “[t]he emotional impulse behind nearly all white writing … is a nostalgia, a hunger, a reaching out for something lost; hard to define, but instancy recognisable”. This was later echoed by JM Coetzee, who wrote that “white writing” had a “retrospective gaze”, where indigenous people were imagined as idle primitives, that can be displaced or made subject to the needs and the desires of the incomers.

The white writing I am particularly interested in because it tells us something about the concepts of “land”, is the plaasroman – farm novel. The plaasroman places the farm in its centre as a bastion of a distinct way of life, filled with Afrikaners values and absolute dependence on God. It speaks of the close relation to the soil, the strong family ties, and the deep interpersonal relations with fellow Afrikaners. Coetzee speaks of the myth of the natural right to the land, erasing the violent history of how the land was acquired. A founding father earned the unoccupied virgin soil through blood, sweat and tears and fenced it to protect the land. Every subsequent generation re-establishing this right through good stewardship and by ensuring that the family bones get buried in the land. This inherited ownership also speaks of a sacred trust between generations and creates a natural right for subsequent generations.

The origin of the first nostalgic remembrance of land in the form of the plaasroman dealt with the loss Afrikaners experience when the land could no longer be divided into economic units. The lure of the city drew people to the city. Class differences emerged in the rural areas but also in families. The city was an alienating space full of sin, greed and poverty for the Afrikaners. The solace that the memories of the farm instilled served as a comfort for the Afrikaners in the city. In this remembrance, a farm can be cordoned off from the outside world. Every farm has as its king the patriarch. Millions of small children are running around, ready to inherit the farm one day. Black people are visibly absent unless they appear as antagonists and threats to this kingdom.

The Karl Schoeman book Na die geliefde land, translated as Promised Land, deviates from this and tells the story of a community now home to obstinate rural Afrikaners refusing to integrate into post-apartheid South Africa. It shows a community so obsessively attached to the past that it forgets to live on into the future. Looking back at the past express a desire for something, and looking forward to the future invokes fear.

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It interrogates the notion of a community’s custody of a mythic historical past and what happens if it is fossilised. In a sense, it is a warning against nostalgia. The book speaks of a specific understanding of time: time as linear. Apartheid is in the past; it is over and done with. 1994 brought a miraculous end to Apartheid, and we are now post-Apartheid. What will happen if we not only view Apartheid as something in the past, and how it will force us to reconsider what redress entails? Because time is not so linear, seeing it as fluid might be an obstacle to restorative nostalgia.

Other books also question rural nostalgia. For instance, books like Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk question patriarchal and race relations. It examines the “natural bond” between the volk and the land, often used to allow Afrikaners to claim that they are native in this country. Recently Galgut’s The promise addresses the reader directly, telling us midway in the book that we have not cared to ask about worker Salome because we did not care to ask. A farm novel that makes sure the invisible becomes visible. In an interview, Galgut stated that it is not the story that is new but the way of telling it, and writers are starting to tell the plaasroman differently.


The longing to return to the farm is repeated in Afrikaans music. However, we have not yet seen a self-interrogation similar to what is happening in literature.

Take the song De la Rey, a song about a long-dead Afrikaner leader, which was used to reclaim identity and heritage, articulated perhaps in a way that speaks to pride or fear. It speaks to a time of a (relatively) untainted Afrikaner, victims of British imperialism but not perpetrators of apartheid. Baines explains how De la Rey invokes a nostalgia that does not necessarily yearn for the sentimentality of the past but shows how the imagined past is used in the present. It skips over apartheid, sanitises and selects, and presents the past as complete, stable and coherent. Unlike the present, which is lacking, unstable and chaotic.

Some videos do not necessarily engage with past figures but portray, like farm novels, the yearning for a cultural laager connected to the rural area. It justifies the rights in the land by showing how the farmer himself, farmworkers always noticeably absent, tilling the land. Add a child or a grandchild, and intergenerational stewardship is established.

In a song by Appel called Boer loop deur my are we see this intergenerational link between grandfather and grandchild working with the soil, with the child yearning for the farm once he returns to the city. At the bottom of the YouTube video is a request for a donation opposing “Expropriation without compensation”. There is very little critical engagement with any other claim there might be to the land.

This idea of urban people constantly longing for a spiritual home on the farm also appears in the group Jan Jan Jan’s song Ek bly ‘n boer. Sporting the brand Boerboel clothing, urbanites flex their muscles as they sing how they yearn for the farm, with the statue of Paul Kruger visible in many scenes.

Franja du Plessis’ Gee my ‘n Boerseun  makes being a farmer desirable. In the music video, three Afrikaner men are doing all the manual labour on the farm, again in their Boerboel outfits. It reminds me of the Voortrekker song Mamma, ek wil ‘n man hê.

In the song Die Land various artists promise their children the sun and the sea and the land, ending with “this country belongs to you”. You in the singular. Just like the lyrics, the scenery shows an empty countryside, empty of any other people who might have an interest or history in the land.

Perhaps the most striking example of nostalgic commentary on the land reform comes from the Robbie Wessels video Plaasjapie where the song starts with him stating that the government took his farm and that he now lives on the brink of poverty in his three-bedroom townhouse in the suburbs. At some stage he sings, “Mr Ramphosa, give me back my farm”. We are shown a well-taken care of house in the suburbs, with a swimming pool. Robbie takes the groceries from Woolworths from this white bakkie. Again, the bigger context in which this all takes place is noticeably absent from the video.

Fine art

Traditional landscape paintings are likewise symbols of selective forgetting. The viewer can enjoy the beauty of the empty landscapes. It does not carry the reality of the possible contestations.

This notion of empty land was specifically emphasised from the 1920s,  along with the increase in land regulation to ensure racial segregation. It confirmed the seemingly natural land rights of white people to the land. A strong link developed between landscape and nationalism, and landscape came to play an essential role in articulated nation (Afrikaner) identity. The relationship between the landowners and the dispossessed played out in this politics of belonging to a specific territory embedded in a particular landscape. Those who do not belong are excluded from the representation, just as the law slowly ensured their erasure from the land.

Recently artists started revisiting landscape paintings, as shown here. Adding other layers and stories to the landscape or de-romanticising it. This made me wonder what this would look like in law.


Because like art, law must be interpreted. And, if ownership is constantly up for grabs, how do we decide what story to favour, or put differently, how to interpret legal rules and principles? And how do we go about with the urge to simplify these stories and restorative nostalgia’s insistence to purify the stories from any problematic histories? These are questions that mulled in my mind listening to the different contestations during the deliberations on the amendment of section 25 of the Constitution. Similar conversations are taking place in decolonial studies, where assumptions about the justification of the initial ownership are questioned, alongside the continued legitimacy of such land rights.

This is what I seek to interrogate in future research: how to mediate between various stories and what should inform our decision for the choice of one story above another.

In this regard, I have started interrogating the notion of transformative justice, not to be confused with transformative constitutionalism or transitional or restorative justice, that requires us to transform systems when addressing current issues and difficult legacies. This is also true for the property law system and the stories that notions of ownership rest on.


The ending of apartheid disrupted the Afrikaner identity. Afrikaners had to, and still have to, find ways to adapt. One survival strategy is to forget history or at least skip over its complex parts by invoking nostalgia, with the aim to create an exclusive minority group, denying the multicultural community in which it is situated. I reckon this will be a slow self-death.

Another way is to deal actively and responsibly with the inheritance, finding ways to interact with other South Africans and ensure the survival of a group through justice, and I would argue through transformative justice. To open up to engagement and diversity without expecting conformity, to overcome the fear of the other.  

In this regard I find Wicomb’s study of Afrikaner identity and complexity theory useful, where there is a dialectic relationship within the identity and between the identity and the environment that allows for adaption of the identity. This is done by incorporating the history of the (identity) system, including the history of the land, but in its entirety.

“Transformation”, Wicomb writes, “is only possible when new meaning is created. And transformation is necessary because a system needs to adapt in order to survive in a changing environment”. It can only survive if it does not close itself off as a homogenous unity, allow different members of the system to be different, and allows a rich and dynamic interaction.

Resistance to this transformation and change employs restorative nostalgia as a way of remembering. The memory of a group is important, but it needs to be dealt with responsibly and ethically, as it is an integral part of describing ourselves. History remains open to contestations and multiple interpretations.

Since memory plays such an instructive role in identity, a single narrative will prevent the transformation of a system, making it unable to organise itself in a complex environment. This neither requires a denial of our individual and collective memories and remembering nor an abandonment of the myths created by nostalgia. But it does require us to interpret them constantly. To take them apart and examine them. To transform, and be transformed, by the new understanding. And to thus open ourselves up to the future in all our complexity, not just based on one characteristic, good or bad, of the Afrikaner. As people who can use tensions to create new meaning and relationships with others and the land, rather than to detach and isolate, and to then move forward.

- Elmien du Plessis is a Professor of Law at the North-West University.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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