The liberation struggle was about land.

Joza Township, Grahamstown South Africa

Joza Township, Grahamstown South Africa

Take a look at all the biggest conflicts in the world today, what are they about? Underlying the wars about oil; where borders should end or begin; and which tribe should live where, is a struggle over one thing, and it is usually land. It seems almost ridiculous to me that people would kill each other over some dirt, that even after so much violence and death, peace talks and ceasefires, Israel and Palestine continue to fight over the same issue: which people have the right to own a certain strip of land.,

“The liberation struggle was about land.”

This was a comment made by my uncle who fought in Zimbabwe’s war of independence. Every so often, the land issue in Africa comes up in popular debate. Recently, Julius Malema made a comment about how South Africa should adopt Zimbabwe’s land policy and everyone had their two cents to add. Strangely, no one mentioned the shallow graves, secret meetings, arrests, detentions, countless nights spent in the bush, exiles to Russia, beatings, torture, bombings and kidnappings – all of these endured for what exactly? Ask that question in the context of your nation’s struggle for freedom, what is it that people died for? According to my uncle, for him and his peers, it was all about land.

The meaning of land.

To me, that was a revolutionary thought. See what I did there? And it got me thinking about what land means to people. If you have watched the news at all this week you must have seen reports of the floods happening around the world. One of the interesting (and really sad) reports that I came across was about people in rural Zimbabwe who were warned of the coming flood but refused to move because they were determined to remain where their ancestors are buried. They lost everything. But having weighed things up, they considered the risk worth it, because to them they were not just leaving one piece of land for another, they were abandoning something that bears meaning and significance to them.

Truth be told, I do not understand this. Neither do I completely understand why arguably the most prominent African in the continent’s history would want to be buried in a tiny village that he left as a young man for the big city. This is not just sentimentality, it was something deeper. He could have been laid to rest anywhere in the world, even in a gold plaited tomb at the top of Mount Everest if he chose, but he wanted to be laid to rest in the place where his ancestors were buried. What did that land mean to him?

In South Africa, the land reform issue comes up periodically. The arguments against land reform tend to go along the lines of: “Implementation of a land reform policy today in country X can only have negative economic consequences. Sure, they will have land but what will they do with it? Look at Zimbabwe, it was the bread basket of Africa and now it is a basket case.” And then people will bring up valid issues like compensation to current owners, food security and the need to preserve political stability. Valid, yes, but they completely ignore the history of the majority of people living in Africa. For many people, land is not just economic or political, it is highly personal:

Their land and their identity cannot be separated.

And it is something they were willing to die for. A generation bred in four cornered houses and buttered on the heels of urban migration cannot understand this. We cannot understand why the parents insist on visiting that place and those relatives every year: the roads are bad and the living conditions are worse (I mean, who does not have running water in this day and age?). We are told of place names that meant something at one time but mean little to us, in a language that we could never wrap our tongues around.

Their struggle is our struggle.

In our boardrooms, lecture venues and Facebook/ Twitter ivory towers we debate crime rates, unemployment, monetary policy, terrorism and fire pools. We write papers and articles and blog posts, we want to make the world a better place. We want solutions. For our directionless youth, fatherless children and corrupt leaders. For our alcoholics, murderers, rapists and hijackers. But how do we find a solution when we do not understand the problem?

We continue to struggle to rebuild but we fail to understand that those who lost their land, lost more than their livelihood, they lost their inheritance. They lost a sense of belonging and were removed from permanence and security. The ground removed from underneath them.

What is done is done and, yes, we have come very far. But we would do well to look back. Because it is there that we will see where the seed of brokenness was planted, generations ago. Maybe then we would see that we are reaping that fruit today. And as we enter into commercial contracts, halls of governance, and courts of justice, may our ignorance  education not blind us to fact that their struggle is our struggle.

A struggle for identity.

Thanks for reading.


If your ever need to contact Shula, please email You can also follow her @ooeygooey. 


2 thoughts on “The liberation struggle was about land.

  1. Hey Shula! Great read 🙂

    This made me think of a podcast I once listened to. One of the callers said that in his native language (one I can’t quite remember), the word for land is directly translated as “the place God has given us”. This is huge if you consider the fact that our first ancestors; Adam and Eve, were evicted off of the place that they were given (granted that the rest of the world was also at their disposal upon their leave), but leaving a place to a certain extent as you point out is leaving behind your identity. In Eden, Adam and Eve were friends of God, that’s where they walked with Him. Out in the wilderness, they had to start everything from scratch.

    Maybe subconsciously, we fear that leaving our place means leaving our identity and the place God gave us (although the latter can be debated).

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

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