“This land is mine but I’ll let you rule,
I let you navigate and demand,
Just as long as you know, this land is mine,
So find your home and settle in,
Oh, I’m ready to let you in,
Just as long as we know, this land is mine.”
– the above excerpt are lyrics taken from the song, ‘This Land is Mine’ by singer-songwriter, Dido.
The recent, unnerving bouts of xenophobia in our land (read: Snake Park, Soweto) got me thinking about who precisely this land, the Republic of South Africa, really belongs to.
I myself am a South African citizen, who was born and bred here – and so, to me, it is my land as much as it is anyone else’s and, if it’s at all relevant, I am also a white, English-speaking South African with British and Australian roots – and yet, despite all this, I believe I have as much claim to this country as the next person, irrespective of the colour of their skin, which one of the eleven official languages they speak or the true geographical origin of their ancestors.
Is that a fair assumption? No, probably not. I mean, sure, I am a South African and my family has probably easily resided in the country for well over a hundred years now, if we’re to look at it like that – but just because my ancestors either immigrated to South Africa or colonised it before (mainly) settling in two of its provinces, does not really mean that it is their homeland, now does it? It’s their adopted land, certainly… but their homeland? I’m not too confident on that score anymore.
I suppose that’s why there has been so much fighting in South Africa’s glamourous (not) history… and as such, for the past few decades, we have seemingly gone about creating and guest-starring in our very own fictional TV show, appropriately entitled, ‘Whose Land is it Anyway?’, taking turns at saying who belongs by “right of birth” and who simply cannot ever belong here, no matter what they do for our country or how long they dwell within its boundaries.
The point is, if we can’t accept that we are all citizens (and that, as such, we each deserve a slice of the pie) of the country by now, then perhaps we never will be able to.
Our history has been and continues to be scarred by ‘land-grab’ struggles and contentious land ownership debates and/or battles, which have raised more fruitless questions than any they have successfully answered.
Yet, rest assured, South Africa – despite what the rest of the world likes to tell themselves – is by no means alone in this respect. We’re not the only ones who were and are being caught ‘red-handed’ in acts of blatant racism and xenophobia. So before ‘they’ cast any more stones at us, let’s place them under a ‘microscope of conscience’, shall we?
In the last few centuries of global (and largely geographical) history, in places such as: America, Australia, New Zealand and many parts of Europe, the present inhabitants have, by and large, descended from former colonists or foreign immigrants of yesteryear. As such, the niggling question still remains: whose land is it anyway?
Honestly? In truth, these lands belong to the people who first inhabited them all those years ago before any ships rocked up with their ‘gatecrashing’ settlers. Unfortunately, those once-free people quickly became the oppressed minority – the ones who were (and often still are) stigmatised and prejudiced against.
If you look at the so-called ‘Land of Opportunity’, the United States of America, you discover an excellent case in point: the proud nation of plain-roaming Native American Indians, who once solely dwelt in North America have, in the not-too-distant past, been shot down (numerically- and physically-speaking… a few thousand here and there, that sort of thing), ‘forced’ to intermingle with the more superior ‘white man’, who settled in the land and eventually claimed it for his own, before finally, you find their descendants, the last surviving remnants of truly American Indians, living in carefully allotted ‘reserves/reservations’ in an attempt to preserve their ancient race and native lands but more accurately, to keep them away from ‘real’ Americans… America is the land of opportunists, indeed.
What precisely is the definition for ‘reservation’? Well, the Merriam Webster Dictionary gives the following definition for the word: “a tract of public land set aside (as for use by American Indians).”
Doesn’t seem that bad, right? Wrong! Animals, not so-called ‘indigenous people’, are kept in reserves and even for animals, reserves are considered wrong by many today… and a ‘reservation’ is surely just short of a reserve.
As if these reservations aren’t bad enough on their own – and irrespective of whether these people reside in these reservations by choice or not – the conditions within them are very often utterly deplorable and ridiculously far from satisfactory or acceptable for human beings and human habitation.
Gallup Independent (2004) article indicates that living conditions on the reservations were considered “comparable to (the) Third World.” Unemployment and poverty is rife, homes are overcrowded and in short supply and above all, there is an obvious shortage of ‘basic’ utilities (running water, electricity etc.) and adequate health care services and medical treatment facilities.
The following quote by Ian Frazier sheds more light on the matter and further adds a human element to this, in my opinion, rather contentious matter. Mr Frazier once said, “When I go to Indian reservations in the West, and especially to the Pine Ridge Reservation, I sometimes feel unsure where to put my foot when I open the car door. The very ground is different from where I usually stand. There are fewer curbs, fewer sidewalks, and almost no street signs, mailboxes or leashed dogs.”
I personally find it terribly ironic and pretty damn insulting to think that American tourists come here to our country to go on ‘Township Tours’ and are so shocked by the squalor that many people here in S.A. are forced to exist in, yet, in their own country, their own people are living in similar, if not worse, conditions. The old adage: “Out of sight, out of mind,” certainly rings true in this instance.
Of course, America is not alone in their erroneous ways and thinking. If you look at the Southern Hemisphere, for example, you encounter this type of thing there too. The original inhabitants of Australia and New Zealand, the Aboriginals and Maoris, have greatly suffered over the years and still face blatant racism and daily prejudice in 2015.
The Aboriginals had their native land of Australia invaded by the British in the 18th century and ever since then, the land that was previously theirs, so to speak, was either taken from them or destroyed.
As indicated by a piece, entitled Aboriginals found on www.survivalinternational.org, the following is true: “Until 1992, when it was finally overturned, the legal principle governing British and then Australian law regarding Aboriginal land was that of ‘terra nullius’ – that the land was empty before the British arrived, belonged to no-one, and could legitimately be taken over. Most has still to be returned today, and the loss of their land has had a devastating social and physical impact on Aboriginal peoples.”
All right, that was a few good years ago now, I’ll admit. Yeah, maybe it was but if you think about how our country was almost internationally ostracised for racial discrimination against people of colour during the Apartheid Era, you might begin to ask yourself what’s so different between what went on in Australia and what happened here in S.A.? If you haven’t yet, then maybe it’s time you started to because this issue has still not been resolved in dear ol’ AUS.
In fact, according to statistics used by Jens Korff in his article entitled, Racism in Aboriginal Australia, the percentage of Aboriginal people who experience racism ‘often’ is at a staggering 97%.
Stephen Hagan, an Aboriginal author and film-maker, once said, “I’m on public record as saying Australians are the most racist people in the developed world for their treatment of the First Australians and I make this claim comfortable in the knowledge that I am sufficiently supported by incontestable statistical data.”
Granted, measures are being taken to change the way so-called ‘normal’ Australians view their more native Australian counterparts, starting from the schools up, and there are more mixed race marriages/relationships and children than ever before but the racism and prejudices against Aboriginals today is still very much alive and the derogatory terms of ‘Coon’ and ‘Abo’ are still being used in everyday language.
As for New Zealand, David Mayeda and Patti Sobieski’s (2013) opinion piece indicates the following regarding the native Maori people: “As covered recently in Al Jazeera, New Zealand holds a harsh colonial history that has resulted in stark social disparities falling along racialised lines. As in other neocolonial states, it is New Zealand’s indigenous Maori population that suffers the brunt of social inequality.”
They also face great unemployment, health and educational concerns, much like the Native Americans.
So, what’s really the key principle here? It is possibly that, as long as you’re not being racist towards indigenous people within Africa, as opposed to the rest of the supposed ‘civilised world’, well then, it’s probably ‘okay’.
In Britain, Romany-, Welsh- and Scottish Gypsies, as well as Irish Travellers and Mixed Race Irish, face great discrimination and unfair treatment too.
Yes, it happened here in South Africa too with the Khoi-San and other ‘native’ inhabitants. After all, they were brutalised by colonists who were hell-bent on wiping them from the face of the earth and who ruthlessly took their homelands from them by force.
Today the issue is as far from over as ever and that’s the whole point… racism towards and unfair treatment/discrimination of indigenous people has happened on every continent, in virtually every country at one time or another – and I’m not sure it’s ever really stopped anywhere in the world. These people have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of their country’s colonists/homeland invaders.
Maybe they always will because maybe it will never truly stop… but maybe it’s time we as South Africans and people in general started to give greater thought to our history, our roots and where we truly hail from before we start laying claim to any specific region or country, no matter how long ago our forefathers may have settled in said place(s).
Should we not think of all these things before we start mistreating, evicting and even killing people who are not originally from ‘our’ land? How many people permanently reside in the country of their birth nowadays anyway? Many of us, throughout the course of our lives, will move and travel to countries all over the world – but when certain people come into our country and try to exist in ‘our world’, so to speak, well then, suddenly our defences go up and the alarm bells start ringing, as we harshly label them ‘foreigners’, ‘refugees’ or ‘land invaders’.
Yes, I concede that, for so many of us here in South Africa, this is our homeland now… but it wasn’t always – not really.
[Date Written: 22/02/15]