cavanagh on the language of dispossession in south africa


Edward Cavanagh, Review of The promise of land: undoing a century of dispossession in South Africa, in Social Dynamics (Published online: 07 Jul 2014).

As it does in the wider scholarship on land reform, along with policy documents and variously coloured ANC “papers” on land reform, talk of “colonialism” and “dispossession” (etc.) emerges so oddly and inconsistently in this book as to fail in conveying to the reader any analytical or historical specificity. A more serious shortfall, this inconsistency will render the collection less valuable to social scientists who take seriously the historical specificity of social structures and regime change. A few examples will suffice to illustrate my point: we are told to remember and redress “colonial land dispossession,” although that is never defined, and in the complete absence of discussion of any elements of pre-nineteenth-century history, we might assume that the editors mean “dispossession of land during British crown administration”; we see “colonialism and apartheid” coupled often, and even “colonial and apartheid strategies,” and “colonial and apartheid legacy,” which are coupled, one can only assume, to imply that the latter superseded the former, though neither are explicitly defined; we are told to hope for “an effective decolonisation of land,” albeit even in a “postcolonial” African state; we are told that “colonialists,” even “colonialists and the architects of apartheid” fluttered across nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who, we are left to wonder, were either settlers, London officials, local administrators or some terrifying hybrid born in late-colonial Natal (seriously); we are told about “the settler–colonial state” and its specific land reform dilemmas, albeit not to incorporate Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America into the framework (states which are all entirely absent from the “global” approach), but to distinguish between certain sub-Zambezi African states from the rest of the continent; and one author (whom I do not name out of politeness) even demands we make the contrast between how things were “in the colonial days” with how they are amid “a new kind of colonialism” today because of “global imperialism,” neither temporally nor geographically distinguishing between what it is these terms convey beyond some kind a disjuncture taking place sometime between the nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century!

If I seem overly perplexed here, it is because the last two decades have witnessed an increasing scholarly concern with our analytical frameworks on these phenomena, highlighting, in particular, how important it is to distinguish between colonialism and settler colonialism. This school of thought, which transcends hemispheres, implicates, among other things, a more robust comparative methodology. Readers coming from a perspective which recognises the global nature of settler colonialism may consider it bizarre to pigeonhole South Africa within the southern African region, or the “South,” given that similar dispossessions have inspired similar statutory- and litigation-based mechanisms for redress in both hemispheres. In fairness, direct engagement with these debates is hardly necessary for a collection of this type, but the clarification of terminology and justification of grand categorisations, partially achievable by sending the contributors a universal glossary beforehand, is surely more so.

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