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Burial sites, informal rights and lost kingdoms: the contesting of land claims in Mpumalanga, South Africa

James, Deborah (2009) Burial sites, informal rights and lost kingdoms: the contesting of land claims in Mpumalanga, South Africa. Africa, 79 (2). pp. 228-251. ISSN 0001-9720

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Identification Number: 10.3366/E0001972009000709


In the new South Africa, the promise of land restitution raised millennial-style expectations amongst dispossessed and dispersed former landholders. Partly prompted by emerging policy discourses, iconic tropes of localised cultural experience such as grave sites, initiation lodges and cattle byres have acquired new significance: they became verifiable evidence of effective possession of – because proving what the Land Claims Commission calls ‘informal rights’ in – land. They thus became grounds on the basis of which to claim the restoration of such land. The meaning of land, the nature of ownership, and the legitimacy of its restoration, were all matters contested between claimants and policy makers/human rights lawyers. They were also contested by those at different levels in the hierarchical social order of the new South Africa. Members of the African nationalist political elite, in dialogue with lawyers, cherished one set of understandings while ordinary migrant/country-dwellers tended to hold to another. Both, however, were mediated through the new discourse on informal rights. It is neither purely through the activities of cosmopolitan elites with their ‘political demand for land’ nor through the unmediated localist experience of less sophisticated country-dwellers with more practical orientations that the significance of land becomes evident, but in the interaction between the two. Based on local understandings, transformed in the course of thirty years of ‘land back’ struggles, and finally negotiated over the course of the last ten years, a new diasporic consensus on what ‘the land’ signifies has been established.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2008 Cambridge University Press
Divisions: Anthropology
LSE Human Rights
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
D History General and Old World > DT Africa
JEL classification: Z - Other Special Topics > Z1 - Cultural Economics; Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology
Date Deposited: 23 Sep 2008 15:30
Last Modified: 13 Nov 2023 18:12

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