Progress and Making the Native Disappear in South Africa

Richard Raber I Indigenous Rights I Commentary I June 29th, 2017

In the name of modernity and capital expansion, indigenous peoples across the globe have been slaughtered, dispossessed and made to be invisible. Through the writing out of history or blotting out of popular culture, indigenous people are often relegated to a state of pre-modernity or tradition; this continues to underpin policy.

We have seen this narrative countless times as manifest destiny, the empty-land myth and the like; gross human rights violations justified as the price of Progress. In this way, Progress is considered through the lens of the inevitability of capital. Some proponents of this notion of Progress may claim to lament the cultural, familial and economic attack on local communities. If taken at face value, such sentiments speak less to personal immorality but rather point to a crisis of imagination. Progress is bestowed with inevitability, simply pitted against Tradition, leaving little room for intellectual alternatives. Lacking options, proponents remedy Progress by painting it as ethical advancement while distancing it from its colonial origins. Extraction industry apologetics demonstrate this trend through buzzwords such as energy independence or exaggerated claims of job creation.

In an act of colonial continuity, the government of South Africa is incessantly trying to put forward the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill. Amongst other issues, the Bill would increase the authority of Traditional Leadership in the nation's former Bantustans including the ability to unilaterally enter their communities into agreements with third parties. This would sanction an existing reality in many communities wherein Traditional Leadership personally benefits from extorting or at least preventing community resistance against the arrival of extraction or tourism industries. As I have covered before, Traditional Leadership has sold land that is not theirs to sell, while others have acquiesced to the intimidation of their community members. In this way, the Bill would further institutionalize Traditional Leadership and rural patronage as a fulcrum for capitalist exploitation.

The proposed legislation is the next descendent in a long line of rural patronage used to manage and exploit the nation's black majority. The Bill would directly affect roughly 18 million people . While it would be unfair to paint every Traditional Leader with the same brush, we must question their histories and relationship to the title. Many contemporary Traditional Leaders do not fit into the great lineage of anti-colonial resistance embodied by Chief Albert Luthuli or King Langalibelele but rather fall into a line of collaboration. For instance, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini legitimized Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), armed by the regime, the IFP engaged in a ravenous civil war with the African National Congress across today's KwaZulu-Natal and the townships of Gauteng. It should be noted that Zwelithini also faces accusations of stoking the xenophobic violence plaguing the nation.

During the transition process, the IFP harnessed its ability to withhold peace by threatening to boycott the 1994 election. In exchange for their participation, the IFP was awarded a major concession and pre-cursor to the TKLB, the Ingonyama Trust Act. Passed days before the historic election, the Act stipulates that much of the land belonging to the former KwaZulu homeland is to be administered by the Zulu King. As I have argued before, the nature of the relationship between the national state and citizens on this land has remained largely unchanged since the colonial era. The Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Bill would further reify these borders and this relationship.

Considering the magnitude in terms of those directly affected by the Bill, there has been relatively little coverage of it. This falls into a long pattern of externalizing the experiences as well as plight of rural communities. Further, as I have noted before, much of the popular discourse surrounding rural people taking place outside of rural areas often frames these folks and by extension their communities within two stereotypes. The first label is stupid or lazy while the second is rural people as the proverbial gate-keepers of tradition, seemingly left-behind by modernity. A consultation process mired in inadequacies speaks to the first perception as rural people are to be spoken to, never heard, to be led rather than to lead. The relative silence in major English language media speaks to the perceived irrelevance of rural matters.

Much like its colonial forbearers, the Traditional Khoisan Leadership Bill is a tool to overlook the experiences, ambitions, opinions and indeed, dignity, of rural black South Africans. If enacted, this Bill will further empower corrupted Traditional Leadership while capital freely exploits the local soil. Progress is often understood as innovation, the easing of life. For capital this Bill effectively solves the problem or removes the barrier of rural people and their ability to politically participate, resist exploitation and direct their own destiny.

Raised in Canada, Richard Raber is a writer and researcher presently based in Luxembourg. His current research centres around social memory in contemporary South Africa. His writing has previously been featured by Open Democracy, Daily Maverick, New Politics and Thought Leader as well as other platforms. He can be found on Twitter at @RaberRichard.