Struggles to assert self-definition against ascribed tribal identities

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One of the earliest lessons I learned as a student of history is that there is no singular history. Instead, multiple histories are produced and exist alongside and intersect with each other, representing different perspectives and accounts of events. Similarly, there is no one version of identity, knowledge or culture – there are knowledges, cultures and identities. Each reflects different relationships to, and expressions of, power.

These tensions around singular and plural versions of identity are made visible in current and proposed legislation on customary law, both in the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act (TLGFA) of 2003 and the Traditional Courts Bill (TCB), currently before parliament. The TLGFA asserts the exact boundaries used to make up the Bantustans under the 1951 Black Authorities Act. The TCB, if adopted, would centralise power in traditional leaders, allowing them to be the sole interpreters of customary law and denying people within the TLGFA boundaries the right of opting out of traditional courts to use state courts.The boundaries related to these two pieces of legislation have drawn wide criticism, especially from people who would live within them. This is because these boundaries limit localised, diverse expressions of identity and community to impose standardised structures that are often inconsistent with groups’ histories and current forms of self-identification.

To understand the significance that these boundaries have for people’s ability to express different identities, it is important to understand the role that they played under colonialism and apartheid. The Bafokeng Land Buyers’ Association (BLBA) explains, “(s)ome of the recognised traditional communities comprise of heterogeneous traditional systems with different traditional origins. Historically when chiefs were imposed by the colonial and apartheid regimes to preside over other (smaller) communities, the ‘illegitimate’ chiefs would force and entrench their traditional systems over the said weaker communities”.

BLBA communities have lodged claims for the restitution of their separate pieces of land of which the boundaries and traditions, they argue, were historically independent of the overarching Bafokeng “tribal” identity that was foisted on them during colonialism and apartheid. They argue that some of the platinum-rich farms that are now controlled by the Bafokeng rightly belong to smaller clans and syndicates with separate and independent identities.

The story of the BLBA illustrates how, historically, the colonial and apartheid states used their power to mask the actual diversity of identities in the region by supporting specific groups. They enabled these groups to dominate and to forcefully subsume others.

These communities, and others throughout the country, continue to struggle for recognition of difference from dominant identities. These struggles highlight the ways that, on the ground, multiplicity has survived violent state interventions and continuing official denial.

The Driefontein case is another example of the importance of historical contextualisation and the error of assuming common identity among people in the former Bantustans. The Driefontein Ad Hoc Committee explains, “We are a group of land owners who have owned land since 1912. Our land was bought by Pixley Isaka Ka Seme in order to realise the dream of African self-reliance… We are therefore all independent landowners who are not under any tribal authority… The imposition of this Bill [the TCB] will in effect reverse the gains achieved during our struggle over forced removals under the apartheid regime, and land restitution in the post apartheid regime… our biggest concern is the fact that the Bill will in effect make us second class citizens, governed by separate institutions, by separate laws and by a separate doctrine which is not the constitution…”

The facts of the Driefontein case resonate in different parts of the country. Time and again, the descendants of landowners were denied the right to retain their land because of crude colonial and apartheid narratives of race and ethnicity that constructed all black people as “tribal” subjects, detached from the changes shaping “white” parts of the country and existing in ahistorical tribal contexts.

These narratives ignored black people’s intimate connection to all parts of the country’s development and how they shaped and were shaped by major moments in “white history”, whether directly or indirectly. To maintain illusions of Africans as intrinsically separate from “white South Africa”, the state enacted legislation limiting black people’s citizenship rights. This was done through the denial of land ownership, forced removals, the construction of the migrant labour system and the tribalisation of black people – thereby rendering them subjects rather than citizens.

The narrative of “neat” ethnic boxes fitting into specific geographic areas is one that has been intentionally and systematically constructed at great cost to millions of South Africans. The fixing of these engineered identities to geographic boundaries was meant to cement the exclusion of millions of African people from participation in the core political and economic life of South Africa. It reduced human beings to “surplus labour”. The pretence to homogeneity within state-drawn tribal boundaries and of willing consent to these identities is a farce.

It is in the context of this history that there has been an outpouring of public outrage at the TLGFA and TCB’s imposition of boundaries that force people living within the former homelands to conform to externally defined identities, with no options for challenging, rejecting or redefining these boundaries or the identities attached to them. In conjunction, these pieces of legislation give unelected, state- recognised traditional leaders the power to discipline identities they understand as deviant because of their power to interpret custom and institute punishment.

By drawing links between historical struggles against enforced identities and current struggles against these same constructions, voices across the country have drawn attention to the ways that the TLGFA reproduces many colonial and apartheid distortions of identity. The TLGFA harks back to the violence of the colonial and apartheid imagination.

The public submissions to Parliament on the TCB from those affected by the TLGFA boundaries strongly communicate that identity impressed upon people from above cannot meaningfully speak to the realities of their lives and experiences. Identity is made from below, from people who occupy these positions, especially with regard to vernacular forms of governance.

Importantly, public submissions about the TLGFA boundaries reveal that identities are plural because they are shaped by so many different factors and are constantly in motion. Denying this multiplicity is to deny the realities of many people’s lives and histories and to substantively undermine the citizenship guaranteed to all South Africans in the Constitution.

opinion-grey Thuto Thipe is a researcher with the Rural Women’s Action Research Programme at the Centre for Law and Society, University of Cape Town
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