Shaping our present and determining our future

The land, which forms part of the Loliondo division of Ngorongoro district, is crucial to Maasai pastoralists who have nurtured the land for countless generations. Picture: Monika/Pixabay

The land, which forms part of the Loliondo division of Ngorongoro district, is crucial to Maasai pastoralists who have nurtured the land for countless generations. Picture: Monika/Pixabay

Published Mar 24, 2024


By Tswelopele Makoe

THIS coming month of April marks a year and a half since the ruling that culminated in the ruthless forced removal of Tanzania’s Maasai communities from their ancestral land.

The ruling, enacted by the East African Court of Justice (EACJ), was made in favour of the Tanzanian state. This was following a five-year long legal battle, calling for the use of the Maasai ancestral land to be leased and developed into game lodges and trophy-hunting sites for the tourism industry.

The ruling has since had an extensive and devastating impact on over 80 000 residents (about 15 villages) who call the indigenous land under threat “home”.

The land, which forms part of the Loliondo division of Ngorongoro district, is crucial to Maasai pastoralists who have nurtured the land for countless generations.

This has particularly allowed Maasai communities to harmoniously coexist with the domesticated livestock of the area, as well as the local ecology, despite the scarcity of resources.

The Oakland institute reported that the forced displacement of the Maasai communities, particularly the pastoralists who are dependent on the grazing area for their livestock, would only amplify the high rates of poverty.

Although Maasai leaders have contended that the repeated attempts to seize their land blatantly violates an injunction that barred the state from evicting these communities, in August of 2017, they were still violently removed, had their homes burned to the ground, were arbitrarily arrested, their livestock confiscated, and were unlawfully imprisoned.

This ruling has shone a stark light on the intentional obstruction of the plight of the indigenous, environmental, and human rights organisations who, to this day, continue to advocate for the return of the evicted Maasai to their land.

Nearer to home, in the Western Cape, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment (DFFE) dumped its role in the management of a Khoisan settlement named Knoflokskraal.

The reasoning for this was cited as lack of funds available to provide basic services like water and ablution facilities to the residents of the area.

Just over a year ago, the Observatory Civic Association (OCA), together with Tauriq Jenkins, a council member and representative of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoi, were bested after fighting over the future of the River Club Heritage Site in Observatory, Cape Town.

The Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust has successfully launched a R4.6 billion project that will become the African headquarters of online retail giant Amazon. This, however, came after an arduous battle, where the OCA, Jenkins and various other activists legally contended that the land should be declared a World Heritage Site, as this was where the first known battle between South Africans and European colonialists took place in 1510.

Notable amongst Khoi tribes as the place of the First Encounter, a Khoikhoi army had thrillingly defeated the invading Portuguese, who had slaughtered masses of their women and children.

The feud for this sacred land had been widely contested, not only in our nation’s society, but particularly within Khoisan communities. This debate unearthed fractures in the ideas of land use by modern-day tribes.

In this case, other Khoi members, such as the Khoisan Chief Zenzile Khoisan, have heralded the erection of the new development, and applauded the developers for incorporating Khoisan heritage into the multi-billion-rand development.

Ultimately, the contestations between land-use, development, and cultural inseparability are an ongoing issue in our contemporary society.

Land is being fought for all over the world, and millions of people are being displaced as a result of this. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the displacement situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the most complex, long-standing humanitarian crisis in Africa, and the fourth largest internally displaced persons (IDP) crisis in the world.

By late 2023, the UN Migration Agency had reported that approximately 7 million people had been displaced in the DRC. This is wholly due to the decades-long conflict over mineral resources that are abundant in the region.

Similarly to the DRC, the war in Gaza is also centred upon land. In particular, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the status of Jerusalem have caused forced displacement.

Both Israel and the Palestinian state lay claim to Jerusalem as their rightful capital city. Israel’s 16-year long blockade of the Gaza Strip, which falls on Palestinian territory, is especially symbolic as Gaza is a major religious centre both in Christianity and in Islam.

As of the beginning of March this year, over 30 000 people have been killed, over 70 000 wounded, more than 250 kidnapped, and a great many more unaccounted for. This prolonged war has been riddled with violent imagery of women carrying bloodied corpses of babies, and schoolchildren buried under heaps of rubble.

The challenges of land and displacement are not unique to Tanzania, or Africa, they are everywhere, and their horrors are equally chilling. We tend to undermine the value of land in our contemporary society.

However, it is still an integral aspect of our identities as people. In our nation alone, the discourses around land are highly prevalent, and highly contentious. “Give back the land” has been a popular slogan in the activism for land reform in South Africa.

Land distribution and access to land has always been one of the key objectives of the national political agenda. Colonisation, apartheid, and persistent dispossession have been a strong feature of the country’s history. This was especially intensified during the apartheid era, when land ownership became solely for the white minority.

Deplorably, 30 years after our democracy, this remains largely unchanged. A 2017 report by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform shows that whites owned the majority of land at 72%, followed by coloured people at 15%, Indians at 5% and Africans at 4%.

Many a times, there has been an argument that one who does not possess the skills to monetise land should not own it. This is completely misleading and seeks to discourage people from the opportunity to advance through land ownership.

In our contemporary society, development is a consistent feature. Developments come in various shapes and forms, and a key requirement is land. Ultimately, land can be kept in any condition preferable to the owner and requires virtually no maintenance.

Land has flexible usage, and unending potential. It can be used to generate passive income, and over time, it appreciates in value. Land is an asset that one will likely never have to worry about and can pass down in order to create generational wealth.

The potential of land is endless, and we need to be cognisant of this fact. Yes, some land has inherent meaning, but other land can have meaning ingrained into it.

Land is especially a source of empowerment for indigenous people, who have had their land stripped from them throughout our arduous history.

The displacement of indigenous people from their land was an intentional act of disempowerment. Land is not merely a space which is monetarily valued, it is a space that embodies one’s history, cultures, traditions and heritage.

It tells a story. It embodies a particular disposition that is irremovable from the owner.

We now live in a modern-day society, where scores of people are still living in (a state of) landlessness and impoverishment.

Absolutely nothing is impairing our current leaders from effectively enacting land reform, land-use bills, land-protection legislations, and environmental protections that ensure that land is valued and preserved in the ways that it ought to be.

All over the world, there is a human settlement problem happening. A government’s control over the operations and procedures of its lands is critical, now more than ever.

For black people, land has always been at the centre of the struggle for liberation. Pan-African struggle icons such as Robert Sobukwe argued that the revolution was always about the return of the land to its rightful owners.

This is echoed all over the world, with land-based forms of reparations for African-Americans who are descendants of enslaved people, Native Americans who have called for cultural and land-based reparations, forcibly displaced Aboriginal people who have demanded reparations, and so many more indigenous communities and leaders from all over the globe who are calling for the rightful return of all that was stripped from them.

Contentions around the ownership of land are admittedly a prevalent theme in our global society. It is pertinent that we engrave the importance of land in our social, cultural, institutional, and political sectors in order to address it effectually and fairly.

As Sobukwe so eloquently argued: “The fight for the land is a noble one, because it is not a fight that is only rooted in history but is one that affects the present and has the potential to determine what the future looks like.”

* Tswelopele Makoe is a Gender Activist, published weekly in the Sunday Independent & IOL, Global South Media Network and Eswatini Times. She is also an Andrew W. Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.