There is no choice
“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they kept only one; they promised to take our land, and they did… “The Great Spirit raised both the white man and the Indian. I think he raised the Indian first. He raised me in this land, it belongs to me.
“The white man was raised over the great waters, and his land is over there. Since they crossed the sea, I have given them room. “There are now white people all about me. I have but a small spot of land left. The Great Spirit told me to keep it.”
These words were attributed to Chief Red Cloud, an indigenous American leader who gave invading European colonialists more than they had bargained for. In December 1866, the colonialists sent Captain William Fetterman and 81 other men to deal with Chief Red Cloud and his resistance to occupation.
They were ambushed by some 2 000 indigenous Americans. Only 14 indigenous casualties were suffered, while the entire invading party was wiped out. The US “peace commission” subsequently cobbled together agreements to establish “reservations” where the indigenous Americans would stay.
The claim was that this was to give them a homeland of their own where the colonialists would not interfere with them. The absurdity of the arrangement is what prompted Chief Red Cloud, in his last years (around 1909), to remark that “they kept only one (promise); they promised to take our land, and they did”.
Now how exactly do you give the owners of the land a “homeland” on their own territory? In Southern Africa, this is something that we are familiar with. Think of “reservations”, “Bantustans” and “keeps”.
There is another interesting parallel between the Chief Red Cloud story and something we experienced here in Southern Africa. It is to do with the Shangani Patrol of 34 soldiers led by Major Allan Wilson and which was ambushed and wiped out by 3 000 Ndebele soldiers in the First Matebele War of December 1893, almost exactly 27 years after the Fetterman rout in North America.
As with the indigenous Americans, what followed was creation of “reservations” and a physical and cultural genocide whose effects are still apparent despite us celebrating the trappings of “independence” such as flags, anthems and constitutions.
And as with the indigenous Americans, the central gripe was about the land. Chief Red Cloud said the only promise kept by the oppressors was that they would take the land.
Charles Mungoshi, the great Zimbabwean novelist, says through one of his characters in “Waiting for the Rain”, that when the colonialists came “the land is the Earth's, there is enough for everyone. But their greed reduced them to something less than men. We couldn't understand this desire of theirs to call everything mine mine mine…”
Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta put it somewhat differently but just as incisively when he said, “When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”
At the end of the day, it has always been and still is about the land. Land represents more than just a mode of production, an economic tool. It also denotes dignity and mastery, and connotes a body of memory tying our past, present and future in a continuum that gives us our identity and humanity.
Which is why Thabo Mbeki’s statement that “I am an African” is so powerful in its simplicity. (Never mind President Jacob Zuma’s ill-thought and poorly-executed “joke” on why we should “stop thinking like Africans”.)
Zimbabwe appreciated the centrality of land to our African-ness more than a decade ago. Today Namibia is saying it wants to rethink its resettlement policies, which have delivered land to less than 5 000 indigenous citizens since 1990.
And across the border in South Africa, dark clouds are gathering as the landless put their government to the sword in pursuance of their battle to regain their identity and their dignity through once again establishing sovereignty over their territory in the year that marks a century since the promulgation of the Natives Land Act.
Namibia and South Africa do not have to take the route that Zimbabwe took. In fact, it is unlikely they will; as the history of the past 13 years will show them that it is a thorny path riddled with sanctions and a level of pressure that can make many a man bend his knees. How they decide to do it is their own choice. The only thing in which they do not have a choice is in delivering land to the landless. On that one, there can be no compromise.