Why land evokes such deep emotions in Africa

Land is viewed as having more than just a commercial value in Africa but is central to identity and spirituality. Aaron Ufumeli/EPA

Land is often discussed in economic terms. Debates on the need for land redistribution in Africa focus on whether intended beneficiaries will put the resource to maximum economic and productive use and, moreover, whether they are able to ensure the food security of the nation and realise a surplus for export.

This is mainly the case in Zimbabwe, which has faced food shortages, and is currently the debate in South Africa.

Nonetheless, land remains an emotive topic in both contexts and throughout the continent.

This prompts a fundamental question: why should land be discussed only in economic terms? The answers are to be found in how colonial modernity was ushered in, as a gamut of historical experience comprising murder, genocide, destruction of existing knowledge and large-scale dispossession of indigenous occupancy.

These facts about the colonial enterprise, of which land was the basis, defined and redefined African agency and reality through subjection and rejection of African personhood as Europeans strove to claim land and eliminate all that occupied it.

The colonial view: land as a commodity

Indeed, African personhood and “being” revolve around earth and all that walks on it, the heavens, the waters and all that live in it, the natural landscape, the atmosphere and livestock.

The colonisers brought with them a Eurocentric perception that land was a commodity to be purchased and sold. Of course the legal justification in the form of laws, particularly English common and Roman-Dutch laws, was used to legitimise the commoditisation of land.

Property is seen to be exclusive to the individual. This is the core of capitalist relations, which are embedded in colonial modernity. The history of property rights in European thought can be traced back to the 1215 Magna Carta, which served to protect privileges and rights of the nobility against state interference.

In Western Europe land was of great value and defined one’s wealth, status and social, economic and class position. It is little surprise that when colonialists arrived in the colonies and stumbled across vast swathes of land, they viewed this as a stroke of fortune. Land provided an opportunity for accumulation, wealth and prosperity for those who had emanated from deprived backgrounds in Europe.

The African view of land

There are other dimensions which are usually neglected when the land question is discussed. To begin with: what is the African view of land? It extends beyond the merely economic, although productive use of land is fundamental.

But contemporary debates on land redistribution in Africa always privilege the production aspect. This, regrettably, is due to a lack of understanding about what land means to Africans.

Of course the economic is part of the social, the political, the spiritual, the cosmological and the philosophical.

The departure point therefore is an African perspective that enables a broader definition and understanding of land as linked to being and identity.

The belief that land stands for production of agricultural commodities destined for the market is perverted. The primacy of the market and private property, which is the core of capitalist thought and logic, is contrary to the African worldview. Unlike Euro-American considerations, the African views life and what it is constituted of as a totality.

Land is neither a commodity nor an individual possession. It doesn’t belong to humans but is a gift from God.

Land is understood as embracing the ecological, cultural, cosmological, social and the spiritual. The juridical considerations which are ingrained in social systems result in values, norms and observances that protect natural resources, the environment and wildlife.

This is the reason for taboos and strict injunctions that forbid environmental destruction, wanton and indiscriminate cutting down of trees, defiling of sacred sites, pollution of sacred pools where water spirits give life in lieu of water, and transgressions that are said to offend the earth.

There is an interface between land, soil, earth and cosmology. These are inseparable.

Of course there is divergence between European jurisprudence and African land laws. The former views land as a private property, a commodity, which underlies the ambition to colonise nature where man rises above it and exploits it to sate his greedy impulses.

African land laws debunk the idea of ownership. Instead land is a natural endowment that can neither be bought nor sold. African land tenure is not based on ownership but on use and access. Since Africans have common rights to land, communal rights override individual rights, which are subsumed to the overall communal good.

Tenure rights are built through reciprocal obligations and mutuality. Land belongs to the living, the dead and the unborn, making it inalienable.

The dead are highly esteemed because they become ancestors. In African cosmology, communion with the dead facilitates meaningful prayers to God. It is the departed who guide and provide for the living.

In African cosmology there is mutuality between humans and the earth: the earth has the omnipotent power to punish transgressors. However, a particular punishment is not directed towards the offending party, it is collective and universal.

There is a need to transcend the flawed economic determinist view current in land debates that denies Africans the right to land on the premise that they would not be able to productively use the land. For Africans land is everything. Depriving one of land means robbing them of their personhood, being and identity - in other words their full humanity.