President Jacob Zuma takes part in a procession during an official opening ceremony at the National House of Traditional Leaders at the Old Assembly Chambers, Parliament in Cape Town. Picture: SIYABULELA DUDA/GCIS
President Jacob Zuma takes part in a procession during an official opening ceremony at the National House of Traditional Leaders at the Old Assembly Chambers, Parliament in Cape Town. Picture: SIYABULELA DUDA/GCIS

IT IS not often that a professor makes a prophecy that comes true. So let us give credit where credit is due. In 1996, Ugandan academic Mahmoud Mamdani issued a warning to South Africans, one that many of us thought too eccentric to take seriously. In his book, Citizens and Subjects, Mamdani argued that the most pernicious forms of power exercised under white minority rule did not require racial ideology and could thus survive apartheid. Yet we South Africans believed that defeating racism and destroying the legacy of apartheid were one and the same thing. And so the worst of apartheid might live on, and we would not see it for what it is, simply because it is no longer about black and white.

Mamdani was talking about the ways in which the countryside was governed. In his analysis, the apartheid state was bifurcated; it ruled its urban and rural domains in different forms. In the cities, there was a single legal order defined by the "civilised" laws of Europe. Black people in the cities had to conform to European laws, but were denied access to many European rights.

In the Bantustans, by contrast, people were ruled by a perverted form of customary law. Falsely disguised as a remnant of how Africans governed themselves in precolonial times, it was a despotic form of rule in which administrative, judicial and coercive power were rolled into one.

Here is the warning Mamdani issued in 1996: in their struggle to deracialise the civilised laws of Europe in the cities, South Africans will be blindsided to the continuation of despotic rule in the countryside. And the consequences will not be confined to out-of-sight rural ghettos but will come to shape SA’s collective fate.

This is precisely what is happening today. The government is twisting communal tenure into new forms, creating large blocs of ethnic power, giving rural aristocrats scandalous control over the distribution of land. This is a barely modified version of what Mamdani described, a degradation of the citizenship of rural people.

Mamdani worried South Africans would accept this fate because it was deracialised. But the irony goes deeper. The government is dressing an apartheid legacy as a claim to be erasing apartheid legacies. After all, the degradation of citizenship is happening under the aegis of land restitution. And so opponents of the government’s project are caught in a bind; the moment they voice their protest they are accused of being against people retrieving stolen land. They have to explain that they are in fact the ones in favour of restitution — the restitution of the rights of ordinary people.

Apartheid thinking had so deeply infected South African thinking, Mamdani worried, that we would not understand the implications of what was happening. Caught up in the quest to deracialise the cities, we would not understand the significance of the countryside. He was quite right. Urban politics in SA is suffused with anger. From the tumult at the universities to the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the call for apartheid legacies to go is deafening. And yet this urban movement is quite oblivious to what is happening in the countryside, an obliviousness it shares, ironically enough, with white people who live in cities.

Many in the chattering classes do not think that the countryside matters. Rural SA is slowly depopulating, after all; people are coming to the cities in their droves; that is where our fate will be decided. But the countryside’s fate has, in fact, been closely entwined with that of the cities throughout the postapartheid era. Until now, at any rate, rural SA has been African National Congress heartland, giving it five landslide election victories in a row. Indeed, this is precisely what the government’s new machinations in the countryside are about; an attempt to hold on to rural power for another generation.

If the renewed land restitution process goes as the government envisages, chieftaincy and communal land tenure will spill out of the homelands.

Large blocs of ethnic power will compete for prize mineral resources. Many ordinary people will be displaced and they will fight. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs will mobilise them and exploit them. Thinking that conflict in SA is only about race, urban South Africans may well be oblivious to the rise of poisonous ethnic conflict.

• Steinberg teaches African Studies at Oxford and is a visiting professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Reseach (Wiser)