Africa: land, tribes, and animist traditions

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.

Most of black Africa, prior to the arrival of Christian or Islamic missionaries, was a hotbed of animism.  One of the more approachable definitions I’ve found is this:

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.



  1. Mr. Grant, thank you for your explanation and your thoughts. If you have the right of it, I'd say things are gonna get one hell of a lot worse in that part of the world. It's gotta hurt to see that happening.

  2. It's coming on harvest season now. It won't happen this year.

    Considering the pace of the confiscation, it probably won't happen next year, either.

    Let's 2020, with most of the people that know something about modern farming either dead or exiled, we will see the first famines.

    This will be promptly followed by televised appeals to the world for food aid.

    Here's exactly what's going to happen:

  3. Interesting explanation and summary.

    The people may regret it in a couple of years when the food runs out. But the politicians who cause famine never accept any blame.

  4. These posts have helped me realize what will happen in South Africa as a result of demographics, history, and culture. The important question now is how to mitigate the harm and allow the best possible outcome. Besides making it easier for those who want to leave to immigrate, what can the rest of the west do? (I am mindful that the right answer may be nothing…ultimately it is up to the white and black communities in South Africa, and foreigners with the best intentions may cause more harm than good).

  5. I'm always amused by Americans and most Europeans who think that everyone on the planet is just like them. They are always surprised when forced to confront the facts that other cultures, other people are nothing like us at all. In so far as I can tell only one culture on earth has ever changed down to its roots and it took two atomic bombs to do it.

  6. I ran into this in Brazil, where Candomble, a syncretic African religion, survives today among the descendents of slaves.
    It's upsetting to walk into a Catholic church and see wax molds of the candomble deities hanging from the rafters, but it shows that 200 years is nowhere near enough time to blunt the strength of native religions.

  7. I had a client who had dated a man from a West African country. He was from a rich and powerful family, whose leaders had been "chiefs" and "witch doctors" for many generations before they became "politicians" and "generals."

    When she broke their relationship off, he put a curse on her. (OK, this happened in California, but still…)

  8. Great explanation. But would not the "ancestors" of all the current farmers inhabit the land as well? Do the people that want to reclaim the land have a special ceremony to expel the foreign spirits?

    Bill in Central Texas

  9. I wonder if it would be possible to give a right of "access" to privately owned farmland for native religious ceremonies, while permitting the farms remain with their current owners. Do you think that compromise would work?

  10. "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."

    Peeeeeeeyooooohhhhh!!!! Holy mackaral! Does it ever STINK in here! Ya might wanna check yer shorts, Pastor.

    Yeah sure, Pete. Pull my other finger? Who did the original black owners of that land steal steal it from…?

    I suppose if some white virtue signalling scold wants to make excuses for these feral baboons as they run themselves into the dirt – there is no harm in it, it's no skin off my nose. If any of that were true, the blacks will hand this property over to the rightful owners and descendants, right?

    How much money ya wanna bet that won't happen, Pete? Let us dispense with the sanctimonious bullchit: the white genocide and ethnic cleansing is about to go into high gear as Whitey's run off his land. Then the black one will begin in earnest. They are going to fight over the spoils of what's left, and after the killing is done they will run it into the ground. When they're starving again – they'll blame Whitey for that too. And that's when the other white virtue-signalling idiots will be on the Tube AGAIN, showing us pictures of negro children with distended bellies starving to death and trying to guilt trip us into more handouts. Just to head that one off at the pass – I'm tapped. I think it was Kim du Toit (another white African) that said "We've dumped billions into Africa to feed people that are homeless and starving – and all we have to show for it are more Africans that need to be housed and fed."

    I myself am fed up with black guilt trips, and their white eneablers. By their line of reasoning, we should load up America's blacks and ship them back to Africa so they can claim their rightful inheritance too? How many African-Americans would sign up for that?

    I used to believe it myself when people said that more blood, violence, death and misery was dealt out by religion than any other means. It was only recently that I was mature enough to understand that it wasn't the religion causing the carnage – it was the greedy, soulless morons that used religion as a tool to push their own greed.

    THAT is what's driving this land grab, and God (or Darwin, if you prefer) – will deal with the perps accordingly. It won't end well for them, nor should it.

  11. A question occurs:
    Considering that various tribes migrated in various times and places and pushed other tribes out of the land that they'd been on, was there the same kind of upset and hate toward the invading tribe that there later was toward whites?

  12. @Firehand: That's complicated, because wars can be fought between a tribe's ancestors as well as its living members, in at least some animist traditions.

    If a tribe is defeated in battle, it may be exterminated; its survivors may be absorbed into the conquering tribe; or they may flee. In the first case, its ancestors will no longer be remembered or honored by anyone, so they will die too – at least in memory. In the second case, they will become part of the conquering tribe, just as their descendants have done, so that's not an issue. In the third case, it's very much an issue, because the tribe has to leave them behind. It's bereft of its heritage, and will be treated as such by other tribes. What's worse, its left-behind ancestors will be displaced from their natural "homes" by the ancestors of the victors, who will move in and take over all such natural landmarks.

    It's a strange system. I could say a lot more, but it would take far too long and occupy far too much space for a blog article.

  13. I've been thinking about this since I read the previous posting on this issue. The blacks of South Africa feel they are correcting historical injustices when that land was taken from them during the British Empire days, which sounds like a correct assessment to me. At the same time, its clear that South Africa is going the same way as Zimbabwe.

    What I've been thinking is this: The average age of a Mid West farmer in the U.S. is early to mid 60's. These guys are going to retire soon. It is my understanding that these Afrikaner farmers are, indeed, excellent farmers. What if the U.S. government offered to buy out these farmers, pay the proceeds split between the Afrikaners and the South African government, then relocated the Afrikaner farmers that have just been bought out to the U.S. so that they can replace the retiring mid-west farmers?

    The big issue is the cost. How much would it cost to buy out these Afrikaners? $10 billion? $50 billion? We dropped $5 Trillion into the Muslim Middle-east over the past 15 years with absolutely nothing in return. It seems to me that this buy-out concept is peanuts in comparison, and we get a whole new generation of farmers in out Mid-west.

    Such a buy-out option strikes me as the appropriate positive-sum solution to the issue. The black South Africans get the money, along with the land, that they would not otherwise get. The Afrikaners get some value for their land (which they are not about to get under the current plan). Lastly, the Afrikaners get residency (and ultimately citizenship) in the U.S. The U.S. gets the benefit of another gneration of decent farmers to replace the guys who are retiring.

    It seems to me that only issue is how to get this scheme past the PC police here in the U.S.

  14. "In the third case, it's very much an issue, because the tribe has to leave them behind. It's bereft of its heritage, and will be treated as such by other tribes. What's worse, its left-behind ancestors will be displaced from their natural "homes" by the ancestors of the victors, who will move in and take over all such natural landmarks."

    Which is pretty much what happened, isn't it? And now the white former victors will themselves have to flee.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *