Academic journal article Africa

Burial Sites, Informal Rights and Lost Kingdoms: Contesting Land Claims in Mpumalanga, South Africa

Academic journal article Africa

Burial Sites, Informal Rights and Lost Kingdoms: Contesting Land Claims in Mpumalanga, South Africa

Article excerpt


In the new South Africa, the promise of land restitution raised millennial-style expectations amongst dispossessed and dispersed former landholders. Partly prompted by emerging policy discourses, iconic tropes of localized cultural experience such as grave sites, initiation lodges and cattle byres acquired new significance. Because they proved what the Land Claims Commission calls 'informal rights' to land, they became verifiable evidence of effective possession, and thus grounds on which to claim the restoration of such land. The meaning of land, the nature of ownership and the legitimacy of its restoration were all matters contested between claimants, policy makers and human rights lawyers. They were also contested by those at different levels in the hierarchical social order of the new South Africa. Members of the African nationalist political elite, in dialogue with lawyers, cherished one set of understandings, while ordinary migrant/country-dwellers tended to hold to another. Both, however, were mediated through the new discourse on informal rights. It is neither purely through the activities of cosmopolitan elites with their 'political demand for land' nor through the unmediated localist experience of less sophisticated country-dwellers with more practical orientations that the significance of land becomes evident, but in the interaction between the two. Based on local understandings, transformed in the course of thirty years of 'land back' struggles, and finally negotiated over the course of the last ten years, a new diasporic consensus on what 'the land' signifies has been established.


Dans la nouvelle Afrique du Sud, la promesse d'une restitution des terres a suscite des attentes de style millenaire parmi les depossedes et les anciens proprietaires terriens disperses. Pousses en partie par des discours de politique emergents, des tropes iconiques d'experience culturelle localisee comme les lieux d'inhumation, loges d'initiation et etables ont acquis une nouvelle signification. Parce qu'ils ont prouve ce que la commission chargee d'examiner les demandes de restitution de terres appelle des <>, ils sont devenus des elements de preuve verifiables de possession effective, et par consequent des motifs de revendication de restitution de ces terres. Parmi les sujets de contestation souleves par les demandeurs, decideurs et avocats specialistes des droits de l'homme figuraient la signification de la terre, la nature de la propriete et la legitimite de sa restitution. Autant de sujets egalement contestes a differents niveaux de l'ordre social hierarchique de la nouvelle Afrique du Sud. Les membres de l'elite politique nationaliste africaine, en dialogue avec des juristes, affectionnaient un corps d'interpretations, tandis que les migrants/ruraux ordinaires avaient tendance a se referer a un autre. Tous deux, cependant, passaient par le nouveau discours sur les droits informels. Ce n'est ni dans les activites des elites cosmopolitaines et leur <>, ni dans l'experience localiste sans mediation des ruraux moins sophistiques et leurs orientations plus pratiques, que l'importance de la terre devient manifeste, mais dans l'interaction entre les deux. Fonde sur des interpretations locales qui se sont transformees au fil de trente annees de luttes pour le <>, puis negocie au cours des dix demieres annees, un nouveau consensus diasporique a ete etabli sur ce que signifie <>


In the tumultuous early 1990s, the social order in many national settings looked set to change completely. Such changes were forward-looking but were premised on the restoration of past property regimes. They prompted millennial expectations which were nurtured by an intense interest in the past and a promise of former lives to be regained. In South Africa, politicians standing for office in the first democratic elections of 1994 pledged the return of the land from which many country-dwellers had been alienated during the Apartheid period and under earlier colonial regimes. …

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