Land, Memory, Reconstruction, and Justice: Perspectives on Land Claims in South Africa

By Stacey, Richard | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, May 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Land, Memory, Reconstruction, and Justice: Perspectives on Land Claims in South Africa


Stacey, Richard, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Land, Memory, Reconstruction, and Justice: Perspectives on Land Claims in South Africa. Edited by Cherryl Walker, Anna Bohlin, Ruth Hall, and Thembela Kepe. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010. Pp. xiv, 335; maps, contributors, index. $28.95 paper.

This edited volume in four parts addresses several themes that have dominated discussions of the South African land restitution process. These themes include the challenges of achieving some conception of justice through restitution. As Ruth Hall says: "Land restitution is intended to right the wrongs of the past: to redress dispossession and to heal." (p. 17. See also Dhupelia-Mesthrie, and Fay and James). Other familiar themes recounted here are the bureaucratic obstacles to successful land restitution, the difficulties of reconciling the different dynamics of urban and rural land claims (Walker), and the tensions between imperatives to effect land restitution while respecting existing rights to property, adhering to market principles and developing urban environments (Bohlin, Beyers).

The volume does make a novel and valuable contribution, however, with its focus on the effects of the land claims process on the notions of community and belonging in claims-making communities. This theme recurs throughout the volume and binds many of the chapters together. The case studies point to how a sense of community has been forged or fractured, or both, by making claims, living with the consequences of settlement agreements, and government involvement after restitution.

Part 1 sets out "contextual, comparative and legal perspectives" on land restitution. Hall's description of the formalities of land claims, such as the categories of eligibility, are taken up in both of the following chapters. Fay and James discuss how the discourse of tradition and identity mobilized in making land claims is subsequently undermined by the conditions of modernization that the state places on claimants. At the same time, the sense of community generated by making claims is often fractured in the post-settlement period as the memory of loss "loses its salience as a rallying point for unity" (p. 47). Mostert's chapter describes how the courts have played a central role in managing- mostly expansively- the categories of "community," "dispossession," "discrimination," and "rights" as legislative criteria of eligibility for restitution.

Part 2 offers four case studies. In their respective accounts of dispossessed communities, Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie and Anna Bohlin recount how initial hopes of recovering the sense of community, belonging and ownership associated with their former homes were frustrated by administrative and bureaucratic inefficiency, and gradually gave way to the resigned acceptance of cash compensation over restitution. The two contributions point out the very real challenge in settling land claims, in a drastically altered urban environment, in ways that satisfy dispossessed communities' desires to see the wrongs of the past "righted."

The contributions by Marc Wegerif and by Angela Conway and Tim Xipu describe very different approaches to rural land claims. Wegerif 's approval of "poor people making their own choices- without government, NGO or consultant intervention" (p. 110) is contrasted with tales of failure in nearby community property associations (CPAs) established as a result of land settlements. Wegerif seems to advocate the "occupation of unused land" without government sanction, in light of the "snail's pace of official land reform" (p.

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