Arguments about land and who should own it has been a contentious issue in Africa for centuries.

More recently, it became a political hot potato in Zimbabwe with land grabs by Back Zimbabweans of White owned farms, which didn’t appear to do much for the economy or production.

It is an emotional debate that is very much “front and centre” at the moment in South Africa. The Government has tried several approaches to rest the land from the Whites, who own most of it, without much success, it would appear. There is now more talk of land appropriation without compensation.

The government wants the land, which they believe, quite rightly in almost all instances, was taken from their ancestors by White colonial powers and later by the Apartheid regime, to be returned to the rightful owners, who in their opinion, are the Black majority in the country.

But would that be fair?

Are the early ancestors of Black South Africans the rightful owners of the land based on the assumption that the occupation of inhabited land makes you the legitimate landlord?

Well, yes and no – which is a stupid answer as it is completely contradictory. The correct answer is probably “sort of”, also stupid but perhaps closer to the truth.

Based on the principle of “first come, first served” the Black folks were not the first to arrive in many parts of South Africa.

The population of South Africa came about over thousands of years and started with the people who were originally ensconced on the land.

The SAN peoples

Historically referred to as “Bushmen”, a name given to them by the early Dutch settlers meaning those who collected their food off the land and had no domestic animals, the San people are perhaps best known for their curious “click language”, their world-famous rock art, their hunting and survival skills and a 1980 South African movie in which some poor San guy, is hit on the head by a coke bottle falling from the sky, rudely and painfully introducing him to so-called “western civilisation”.

According to various authoritative publications, it seems that the San, along with the   Khoekhoe peoples, are aboriginal to South Africa meaning they are descendants of the first people who ever lived here before black or white people migrated into the region.

And just to rub it in a bit more, the following statement is from the South African San Institute (SASI) website:

“Archaeologists tend to agree that the San are the descendants of the original Homo sapiens (modern day man) who occupied South Africa for at least 150 000 years. Geneticists say that the oldest gene pattern amongst modern humans is that of the Khoe-San. It dates back to about 80 000 years ago. All other peoples on the planet, Europeans, Black Africans, Asians, North and South Americans, Australians are all descendants from this original gene type. The only possible exception is that of the Hadzabe hunter-gatherers of Tanzania who split off very early from the Khoe-San.”

If that doesn’t put you first in the queue for ownership than nothing will.

I have taken the liberty of “borrowing” the following map from South Africa Travel and which is a website worth a visit.

They have a brief but concise overview of Black tribal migration to southern Africa which certainly warrants a visit.

Map showing the distribution of African language families and some major African languages

The Khoikhoi peoples

A bit later in time, around 2000 years ago a group of people who owned small livestock (sheep and perhaps goats) moved into the northern and western parts of South Africa and migrated eastwards and southward. These pastoralists, called Khoikhoi or ‘Hottentot’ resembled the San.

The Khoikhoi used a word while dancing that sounded like ‘Hottentots’ and therefore settlers referred to the Khoikhoi by this name.

Unlike the San, who were hunter/gatherers, the Khoikhoi possessed large herds of domesticated animals.

Modern writers, assuming that the San and Khoikhoi have a similar culture and language, which is in fact not the case, have come to collectively refer to the two groups as the KhoiSan. I will follow their lead.

Black migration

The history books tell us that at about the same time as the Khoi were nosing around southern Africa the first Black tribes, the BaNtu (Bantu) speaking peoples were moving southward bringing with them cattle, the concept of planting crops and settled village life.

What does appear to be accurate is that the lands the Bantu-speaking tribes moved into were not uninhabited and there is an assumption that the then landlords were the KhoiSan.

In line with human nature, I have to assume that the occupants were either booted off their land or were assimilated – it seems to have been a bit of both.

What happened next?

As with most neighbours, the honeymoon period of meeting new folks and exchanging Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram addresses quickly went by the way and everyone started scrapping with everyone else.

The San started nicking the Khoikhoi livestock which was taking up the land that the San had traditionally hunted on and the Bantu and Khoikhoi started haggling over grazing rights and just being annoying neighbours.

Unfortunately for the KhoiSan, they were a bit outgunned by the Bantu in terms of numbers and weaponry and so began to be pushed further west.

Enter the colonists

And then things really got tough for the poor KhoiSan.

Although a Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz had done the odd pit stop along the southern and eastern coastline of South Africa around 1487, it wasn’t until 1652 that a colonial establishment first appeared in the western Cape.

Jan van Riebeeck, a representative of the Dutch East India trading company arrived at what today is known as Cape Town and set up shop as a half way B&B for vessels travelling to the Far East, and just to show off, he built a fort.

It was not long before skirmishes broke out between the locals and the settlers. Stock theft by the KhoiSan provided the Dutch with a perceived reason to carry out mass slaughter of KhoiSan groups and with a bit of the old pox thrown in, the local inhabitant numbers decreased dramatically.

Despite all this squabbling between the settlers and the locals, they did take the odd bit of leisure time for some convenient inter-breeding.

Many KhoiSan moved north while others became enslaved on the Dutch-owned farms.

The Dutch farming communities continued to expand eastwards which led to encounters with the Black tribes that were moving westward.

With the arrival of the protestant French Huguenots after 1685, who had upset the Catholic King of France and had to do a quick “Brexit” before they lost their heads over the whole disagreement, added to the ongoing land grab scenario. But I have to say in all fairness they did bring some really good wines to South Africa.

Next came the Brits in 1814, and after languishing at the Cape for a while decided there was a need to protect those farmers who had moved eastwards from the hordes of locals who were trying to demonstrate their unhappiness with the whole encroachment idea.

And on it went, with the UN being no help at all!

Meantime way off to the east of the country the Zulu king, Shaka, had decided to do some property development of his own and had used his well-trained army to persuade other chiefs in the area to sign up to his one-time offer of “give me your land or be liquidated”. Some chose to oppose him and were exterminated.

And so inevitably, it all had to come to one big showdown, and it did.

The Brits, after initially taking a bit of a pounding from the Zulus, eventually conquered Zululand and then spent 20 years parleying and arguing with the Dutch, who had by now morphed into the Afrikaner nation, over diamonds, gold and the infringed political rights of British citizens living in the Afrikaner States.

It all culminated in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 and South Africa, along with Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, became British red.

And that’s the way it stayed until the White South Africans got an independent country in 1961 and just as the Black folks thought things couldn’t get much worse, apartheid arrived with a vengeance and proved them wrong.

Assuming I have all my historical facts correct (please feel free to correct me if I haven’t) and we could wave a magic wand and return the land to the rightful owner, who would that be?

Seeing as there was no Customs and Immigration Departments at the time the Whites and the Blacks would probably be viewed, certainly distastefully by Donald, as immigrants, and illegal at that.

If original occupation is the yardstick for the decision then the vote as to go to the KhoiSan, but considering there are only around 100 000 of them left in the country they would have some difficulty in occupying it all.

San family with laptop

San family with laptop

Maybe they should be allowed to choose a part of the country that best suits their needs and be left in peace for the next couple of centuries

If the adage “possession is 9/10th’s of the law” is the measurement criteria, then the descendants of the colonials win hands down.

However, what cannot be ignored is that the Black South Africans, although migrants to South Africa, are true Africans by virtue of their ancestors, and so surely there must be some legitimate claim to ownership of land in the continent of their origination?

But let’s play devil’s advocate on this thorny issue.

Assume, quite unrealistically of course, that the KhoiSan appealed to some higher power for the return of all their land and their request was granted.

Where would the rest of South Africa go?

Do the Whites all go back to the numerous countries their ancestors came from, as is so often touted?

And the Black people? Where do they go, back from whence they came?

Daily we hear of the horrific loss of life in the Mediterranean and elsewhere as refugees and illegal immigrants from western and northern Africa try desperately to get into Britain and Europe.

So asking almost 50 million folks to head north just doesn’t make sense. The thought of all those prospective emigrants from Africa possibly wanting to go to the US would seriously give Donald the runs.

Realistically most South Africans, irrespective of their colour are here to stay, and I feel confident in saying, are happy to do so.

So what do we do?

Let’s consider the alternatives.

Either, we can go back to the old shove and push and see who wins which will most definitely end up in violence, and we all know that is not an option, or, we can leave it to the politicians – heaven forbid!

Therefore, compromise may be the only possible recourse.

The problem is that, despite what you may have heard, compromise can sometimes mean that one side gets a wee bit more out of the agreement than the other side does.

It often is not a “win/win” but a “win/almost win” outcome.

And who, should it come to this form of compromise, will be the win/win group?

Can South Africans peacefully accommodate a possible outcome where one racial group may accrue more, or be perceived to accrue more, than the other?

Hopefully, because seriously, I am not sure that there is another alternative that will not ultimately destroy the country for our children.

But maybe I am being naive, so if you have any suggestions as to how this extremely sensitive issue can be amicably resolved, please share.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr: San people rock art by Erik Brits

San family photo courtesy of Flickr by: gdv pictures


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