My post last week about South African land confiscation and the history that underlies it aroused a lot of interest. It was linked all over the place, and is still attracting more traffic than usual for a single post. I’m glad it may have helped contribute to the discussion.
In its wake, some readers have asked me why black Africa is so focused on land, and its confiscation by colonial powers, and its post-colonial recovery. To the first-world mind, such attitudes are almost incomprehensible. “Why are they so focused on something that happened generations ago? Why can’t they get over it and move on?” I realized I hadn’t explained that in my first post, so I’d better do so here.
British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in his “Primitive Culture” (1871) defined animism “as a general belief in spiritual beings and considered it ‘a minimum definition of religion.'” He stated all religions from the simplest to the most complex shared some sort of animistic belief. According to him primitive peoples, defined as those without a written tradition, believed the spirits or souls caused life in human beings. They pictured these souls as vapors or shadows going from one body to another. The souls not only passed between human beings but into, plants, animals and inanimate objects as well.
That’s not a bad definition of what I frequently encountered in Africa among tribal shamans, sangomas and witch-doctors. It’s also found in many Native American traditions. Briefly, every place, and everything within a place, had its own spirit or spirits. Some of these were natural beings: the “spirit of the tree”, etc. Others were human spirits, the “ancestors”, who had taken up residence in natural features in order to keep an eye on their descendants, both individual (family ancestors) and the tribe as a whole (the spirits of great tribal leaders). There were also negative human spirits, failed leaders or criminals or generally bad people, who tried to lead their descendants astray. Sacrifices were (and in many places still are) offered to the spirits of a place, and to the ancestors, in order to propitiate them. (For example, at a river crossing, I’ve found food, cans of soda, etc. being tossed into the river to propitiate the spirit or “goddess” of the river, translated as “Mama Water”, so that she would not come down in flood and damage the tribe’s crops.) I’ve written before about some aspects of such beliefs in Africa, including witchcraft.
These spirits, particularly ancestral spirits, occupy a very important place in traditional African tribal belief and customs. Their influence was (and is) so strong that even Christianity has been “warped” to accommodate them. For example, in South Africa there are millions of adherents to so-called “African initiated churches”, the largest of which (at least, when I lived there) was/is the Zion Christian Church. I’ve seen literally hundreds of thousands of its members on their annual pilgrimage to its headquarters at Zion City Moria – an amazing sight, with hundreds of minibus taxis driving in impromptu convoys for hundreds of miles, filled with singing, chanting believers in their uniforms. It, and “churches” like it, practice syncretism, the fusion of Christian and traditional tribal beliefs, including the role of ancestral spirits. Indeed, the spirit of the founder of the church, Engenas Lekganyane, is considered almost as great a mediator between God and humans as is Jesus Christ, and is frequently invoked in prayer. He used traditional beliefs in ancestral spirits to help establish his new church:
Lekganyane instigated a kind of potlatch system to encourage donations. His members were told to make cash donations to their ancestors, with whom Lekganyane was the sole intercessor. Those who gave most generously were to be granted the greatest favors by their ancestors, while those who gave little were more likely to curry disfavor with them and hence encounter more misfortune. Lekganyane promised to burn all these intercessory offerings, but they seem to have instead made their way to his bank account.
If that reminds you of some modern Christian televangelists, I’d say you’re not far wrong!
Be that as it may, ancestral spirits in particular are tied to the locations where they lived and died. I’ve had some African friends point out to me the tree, or hill, or rock, or stream where the spirits of their family ancestors reside. They’d put out offerings to them on a regular basis, to propitiate them and make sure they were sending them good luck. To ignore an ancestor was to anger him or her, and ensure that they’d send bad luck instead. If their descendants moved away from that place, the ancestors would no longer be able to help them, and might even turn against them, because such offerings could no longer be left for them.
That’s why the tribes in much of Africa found it so traumatic to be dispossessed of their land during the colonial era. They weren’t just being cut off from the tribal economy; they were being separated from their ancestors. It was a spiritual bereavement as much as a physical loss.
In the cities of Africa, animist beliefs are not as universal as they were (and still are) in more traditional tribal areas; but they’re still there. As I wrote before:
Until recently, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange was situated on Diagonal Street in that South African city. Every morning, one could watch black stockbrokers on their way to work. Almost all had Bachelors degrees, and many had post-graduate qualifications. They’d stop at the stalls of street sangomas (shamans, witch-doctors) and solemnly buy a little packet of dried herbs and parts of animals’ bodies, called muti (“medicine”), to bring them luck for the day. Sometimes they’d pay a little more for some extra-strong muti, guaranteed to bring bad luck to their rivals. No matter how educated and worldly-wise they had become, the hold exercised over their minds by animist beliefs and tribal culture could not be gainsaid.
There are still large open-air muti markets in many African cities. Here’s one in Johannesburg that’s become something of a tourist attraction. Hey, if some Westerners are fool enough to believe in astrology, why not take advantage of their credulity?
The demand for the confiscation of white-owned farmland and its restoration to its original tribal owners stems from this reality. The animist view is that the ancestral spirits of the tribe are still present on that land. They have not been honored or propitiated properly for generations, due to the confiscation of the land; and until they are, the misfortunes that beset tribes during and after the colonial period will not cease. That, in essence, is at the heart of demands to take back the land from its white owners, whose own ancestors seized it from the tribes during the colonial period.
I don’t think many modern African politicians still believe this (or, at least, not very strongly): but they know full well that many of their electorate do. They therefore pander to those who have the votes, by enacting measures such as land confiscation. The voters may believe that the land will then be restored to the tribes, but in practice, we all know it’ll go to those favored by the powers that be (as happened in Zimbabwe). Nevertheless, by whipping up popular emotion about the land on the basis of animist traditions, such politicians know they will garner additional support, and will also derive personal economic benefit from it. For them, there are no downsides.
So, you see that land “reform” in Africa isn’t always what it appears to be on the surface. There are far deeper currents involved.