By Joseph Wade
The current land debate in South Africa has particular resonance for Indigenous KhoiSan peoples. We agree that the redistribution of resources in contemporary South Africa is an imperative question. The pace of change since the official end of apartheid has been slow, and it is important that questions around a fairer way of living in this country are understood. As a people, we welcome that the unresolved issues of land redistribution are back on the national agenda with new urgency.
In these times, we as the Cobuqua people wonder what these discussions mean for our communities, who for many centuries before the arrival of the Europeans were stewards of this land, from which we drew our livelihoods. Concepts such as private property and individual ownership are peculiarly European imports that have expanded across the world through colonisation, when otherwise we were accustomed to collective management of resources shared amongst ourselves. The gradual appropriation of these territories by violence and by repression rendered many South Africans destitute and dependent on an alien economy to survive, with our people being the earliest victims of this loss.
While the rate of white ownership of land across South Africa remains disproportionately concentrated, statistics would suggest that on average for KhoiSan people who became part of the Coloured community in apartheid South Africa, access to land has improved. But regional breakdowns suggest that in areas where traditional governance still holds sway – KwaZulu Natal, and in the Eastern Cape where our territories as the Cobuqua people still lie – the redistribution of land has not favoured us at all, in comparison to others. Traditional leaders in these regions are already jockeying for positions of power in this political climate, by saying that land should be turned over to them in trust as part of any process of expropriation. For KhoiSan people living in areas of traditional governance, where our own land rights are not recognised, we fear that such a process would only deepen our alienation and dispossession.
We will not be passive pawns in other people’s games. In assemblies, in the media, in political fora, KhoiSan people are already challenging the simplistic analysis of land questions in South Africa. As a community, we are beginning to ask for our rightful place in this country. But we also bear in mind that our call for a just land reform for South Africa stems from a recognition that from land comes livelihood. We have been dispossessed of this role for many generations now, and we include all South Africans who have had their right to an independent livelihood expropriated from them over the generations in this quest for protecting our most valuable resource.
For us to come together as South Africans, we need to look dispassionately at the details of our history of living together in this country, and at the nuance at the layers of history that have unfolded on this land. The Cobuqua have walked the territory along the eastern shores of this country from time immemorial. Our dispossession from it has lasted centuries. Our economic plight continues to deepen in contemporary South Africa. Only an honest reckoning of our right to have a livelihood from our land will be appropriate redress.
We thus embrace the recent call for a National KhoiSan Federation. The proposal asserts the need for a strong collective voice of KhoiSan peoples to speak truth to power and to assert the will of the people. It speaks to how land issues, economic disparities, and indigenous rights have not been taken seriously by government to date.
A national federation of all KhoiSan peoples addresses the need for oppressed peoples to organize against those who have exploited us, and stripped us of our lands. We urge you to raise your voices, and to work for change. Accompany us in our journey with the Democratic Federation of KhoiSan Peoples to create a better future for us, and for our land.