Land Rights and Cultural Preservation – Indigenous Communities’ Struggles and Triumphs in SA

For San people, land reclamation can be about rituals, connections to ancestors and traditional knowledge. It can also be about a fight for environmental justice.

International law obliges governments to respect the special relationship of indigenous communities with their ancestral lands. This must include ensuring that indigenous communities’ free, prior and informed consent is obtained before any government action on their land.

The Struggle

In South Africa, Indigenous Peoples comprise 1% of the population. They are often the first to lose access to land, resources and services, and the last to receive government investments in infrastructure and development. This legacy of marginalization makes them especially vulnerable during natural disasters and disease outbreaks such as the current pandemic, and it contributes to their inability to effectively manage their own lives.

Many of the communities profiled in the report, particularly those with a long history of fighting for their land rights and cultural preservation, have been at the forefront of the fight to address this imbalance. But despite these victories, their struggle continues.

As the report notes, “The hesitancy of governments to address internal differences fully may be due to a need to promote national cohesion and/or fear that giving a community special protection might be perceived as political favouritism.”

The slow progress on land reform has caused frustration among the majority poor black population. As a result, protests by Black South Africans have increased, highlighting the need to accelerate the pace of transfer of white-owned land to blacks. Moreover, the reluctance of the current government to uphold international law and implement UNDRIP has further raised tensions.

In many cases, land claims are driven by the need to secure a livelihood and protect culture and tradition. Some are linked to the encroachment of farming into their lands, while others are threatened by conservation policies that forbid local communities from hunting or gathering. Others are battling to retain their right to use sacred sites for religious and spiritual purposes.

One example is the Xolobeni community near Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape. Their land is essential to their survival, providing them with water, grazing for livestock, firewood, medicinal plants and income through tourism. It is also home to the final resting places of their ancestors. The community’s legal battle to reclaim the site, which is presently state-owned property, is ongoing.

The pending land claim of the Khoi and San community at Hangberg, just outside of Cape Town, is another such struggle. The community, classified as the ‘Cape Coloured’ under apartheid, has been subjected to repeated evictions from their ancestral home for decades.

The Triumph

The struggle of indigenous communities in South Africa echoes around the globe, where governments still face resistance to respecting their people’s rights. In recent years, however, some of these nations have made significant advances in this area. Cameroon, for example, now recognizes the pygmies of its northern highlands as indigenous; Morocco lifted a ban on teaching the Amazigh language; and Namibia has passed laws to protect and preserve indigenous culture.

South Africa remains a long way from fully honoring its obligations to indigenous peoples, particularly when it comes to land. Despite the fact that it has voted for UNDRIP, it continues to violate the rights of the Khoi and San Peoples by denying them access to their sacred sites. For example, the government continues to prohibit their ceremonies at Table Mountain, which is a part of the country’s national park.

In addition, many indigenous communities have been negatively impacted by conservation policies that restrict hunting and gathering activities and force them to move from their traditional territories. In such cases, communities must rely on outside sources of food and income. Some have also been pushed off their land by mining companies seeking mineral deposits. The hesitancy of governments to address this issue full force may be due to the desire to promote national cohesion or to fear that giving a community special protection might be seen as political favoritism.

Even as these challenges persist, South African activists remain committed to making change happen. This book, written by Kevin Cook (Cookie), who worked with many of these activists during this period, invites readers into a series of frank and vivid conversations he had with forty-five of them.

These conversations reveal the strength, the determination and the persistence of the people who fight for their rights. They are the people of this land whose wealth built South Africa. It is their voices that must be heard. They speak of a past that was brutal, but they are determined to shape the future. The book is a testament to their courage and conviction, but it is only a glimpse of the vast struggles yet to come.

The Future

Many of the challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples in Southern Africa remain. Their lives, survival, development opportunities, culture and languages are threatened by environmental degradation (including mining, agricultural and other land-use changes), poverty traps, poor education systems, lack of economic opportunity, climate change, gender-based violence and a range of socioeconomic factors.

Moreover, many still face discrimination and exclusion on the basis of their identity or ethnicity. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated these inequalities and has created new barriers to accessing health and social services, which have already had significant impacts on their health and livelihoods.

In addition, the restitution of their ancestral lands remains a contentious issue. While the government has largely pursued a “willing buyer, willing seller” approach to land reform, only four percent of white-owned land has shifted hands since the country’s 1994 constitutional transition. The slow progress has fueled frustrations amongst the majority poor black population, which are calling for a more aggressive and transparent approach to land restitution.

Likewise, the fight for the right of Indigenous Peoples to visit and conduct ceremonies on sacred sites continues to rage. For example, in October 2020, representatives of the Khoi and San Peoples occupied Table Mountain, which is presently state-owned property, to call attention to their efforts to reclaim it.

Governments should also commit to addressing the long-term injustices perpetrated against Indigenous Peoples by developing reparative strategies and mechanisms within government institutions, including accessible restitution procedures and expropriation legislation. They should also officially recognize the Khoi and San Peoples as First Nations and allocate resources for grassroots language revitalization movements. Finally, they should ensure that the option to identify as an Indigenous Persons in censuses is not confined to those who choose one of the current options—White, Black or Coloured.

In addition, if the aims of the African Union are to be realized, the continent’s governments, the regional bloc, the donor community and civil society organizations should develop collective strategies and policies that promote an understanding and respect for indigenous cultures and their rich traditions in schools, the media, the arts and other cultural institutions. This will contribute to strengthening the capacity of communities and individuals to protect and defend their rights.

The Challenge

For Indigenous Peoples, the battle for land and cultural preservation is not just about survival. It is about identity and connection to ancestors, and the importance of preserving their way of life in the face of a changing climate and an increasingly globalized world.

Many are struggling with the encroachment of agriculture into their traditional areas. Others are affected by conservation policies that forbid hunting and gathering, and even the use of their own names for animals and plants. And others are facing an uphill battle to get governments to recognize that their knowledge is essential to broader development efforts.

In a sign of the heightened awareness and growing attention to these issues, some governments are starting to do just that. In the past few years, several countries have moved to include a reference to Indigenous knowledge in their Sustainable Development Goals, recognizing that this knowledge can help achieve those goals. But this is not enough.

A more important step is to ensure that the voices of Indigenous Peoples are included in broader intergovernmental processes and policy discussions. This can help to ensure that governments are fully aware of the challenges facing Indigenous communities and are working toward solutions.

For example, last Sunday, thousands of South Africans, including the Indigenous Xhosa community, gathered on South Africa’s eastern coast to protest the offshore seismic surveys being conducted by Shell. This work threatens marine life and could pollute coastal ecosystems, which are vital to Xhosa livelihoods and culture. It also violates their right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent as enshrined in the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights.

Despite these and other challenges, San communities continue to make great strides in their battle for land and rights. In the upcoming issue of our Cultural Survival Quarterly, we will profile some of their successes. We will highlight where serious injustices persist, but also celebrate the ways in which these communities are finding small victories and gaining the support of non-Natives. Their fight is one that we must all join. It is about what makes us human: our shared history, language, faith and place on the planet.