Gugile Nkwinti. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Gugile Nkwinti. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

IF THE past has nothing to say to the present, history may go on sleeping undisturbed in the closet where the system keeps its old disguises. — Eduardo Galeano.

Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti is scheduled to meet the National House of Traditional Leaders on Friday following a standoff about implementation of the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act.

House delegates protested that the act’s implementation earlier this month undermined their authority in communal areas by giving planning responsibility to municipalities.

Nkwinti reassured them they were the "de facto owners of the land"; they insisted he should put that in black and white by amending the act to state that traditional leaders are the owners of the land.

"Ivusa umnyele ke le’ (this brings old wounds and anger)," I thought.

All sides in this debate know that traditional leaders do not and have never owned land on behalf of their people. History, and precolonial history in particular, is replete with examples of complex landholding systems.

Many argue that the precolonial wars of expansion are an example of land ownership acquired through blood, sweat and conquest. This is a myth that is partly answered by Bertolt Brecht’s eloquent poem, "A worker reads history":

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?

The books are filled with names of kings.

Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?

And Babylon, so many times destroyed.

Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,

That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?

In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished

Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome

Is full of arcs of triumph. Byzantium lives in song.

Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend

The night seas rushed in,

The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.

He alone?

Caesar built the Gauls.

Was there not even a cook in his army?

Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet

was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?

Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.

Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory

At whose expense the victory ball?

Every ten years a great man,

Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.

So many questions.

Every king, war and civilisation cited by Brecht can be easily replaced with one of our own. The narrative that traditional leaders own the land perpetuates the dangerous and annihilating erasure of the courage and suffering of people — black people.

Ironically, this "official" representation of history perfects and keeps alive the colonial and apartheid project of distorting the role played since time immemorial by people without "title".

Most alarming is the entrenchment of a structural construction of African people as a people without voice, without creativity and, in essence, without history.

The president, ministers, traditional leaders and all those who continue to pass laws that betray our history and humaneness know that land ownership has always been complex and layered in many African countries. Handing communal land over to traditional leaders, as suggested in the National House of Traditional Leaders debate, and in policies such as the communal land tenure policy, dispossesses people of their historical and customary right to land — a right for which they fought against colonial powers and the apartheid government.

People fought side by side with traditional leaders and sometimes (yes, this must be said) against traditional leaders, who were on the side of the oppressors. There are South Africans who have lived through those battles against the Bantustans. There are many, too, whose traditional leaders were displaced because they dared to stand against the apartheid government.

Perhaps the standoff between traditional leaders and the government offers SA an opportunity to reflect on our history and present. To whom does the land belong? Who benefits from the repackaging of old laws that reproduce offensive apartheid boundaries, such as the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act? Who benefits from the notion that traditional leaders own the land and can enter into mining and other deals without consulting people? Who is robbed of their history, identity and belonging when mining companies bulldoze ancestral graves and heritage sites?

Whose freedom is betrayed by land policies and practices that move further and further away from the promise of the Constitution and the Freedom Charter? Why is the government entrenching the system so many lived and died trying to destroy?

As Nkwinti engages traditional leaders, I am reminded of the Xhosa saying: "Khaw’undiph’indlebe (lend me your ear)". This is used when someone wants to have a moment in which she is listened to, in which her voice and views are treated with respect. In this instance, everyone enters a space in which power is spread between those who want to voice something — be it a grievance, advice or caution — and the one who is invited to "lend an ear". To ask to be listened to is to enter a space where official status does not automatically mean power.

Nkwinti knows of many communities that have been requesting the ear of the government. As in SA of yesterday, their voices remain unheard; their suffering unseen. No one listens.

It is commendable that the government discusses issues with traditional leaders: they represent an important voice in SA. But the government knows that SA has more sectors than just commercial farmers and traditional leaders. "Selective listening" has resulted in many people taking to the streets and at times engaging in acts of violence. This breeds a belief that if you want to be heard, you must be violent, connected, or come from an influential sector.

The time has come for Nkwinti to remind the National House of Traditional Leaders of this simple truth: this land is neither yours nor ours. The trusteeship we hold over this land is nominal. As government, we have sworn to uphold the Constitution. That is the same Constitution, which you, as members of this house, swore to uphold.

It is not too late for the government to do what it is enjoined by the Constitution to do, which is to give the land back to its rightful owners. The time for a meaningful conversation about the place and role of traditional leaders is now. We all know our histories. We know that the institution of traditional leadership is important in our society. Equally, so is the dignity of all South Africans. That, after all, is one of the central meanings of freedom.

Sicel’indlebe, Minister. Together we can break this colonial and apartheid cycle and move into the future.

• Gasa is a senior research associate at the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town