Giving Land (Back)? The Meaning of Land in the Indigenous Politics of the South Kalahari Bushmen Land Claim, South Africa

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In this article, we analyse the land claim of the South Kalahari Bushmen (≠Khomani) to reflect critically on the South African land restitution process in relation to their contemporary marginalised socio-economic situation. South Kalahari Bushmen were gradually displaced between the 1930s and 1970s and, after apartheid, they were reinstated as landowners in 1999. This does not mean, however, that the historical injustice of land dispossession is now solved. We argue that this can be explained by theoretically comparing a genealogical and a relational approach (based on so-called ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’ world views/ontologies, respectively) on land as different ways of looking at the claim. The genealogical model often used by advocates (non-governmental organisations [NGOs], governments, some anthropologists and donors) of ‘indigenous’ peoples’ rights generally overlooks a crucial element that becomes apparent when looking at the claim from a relational perspective, namely that the meaning of the regained land has changed; it is not the same as the environment that was taken away. Moreover, the people from whom the land was taken are not the same as those to whom it is returned. We conclude that the dominant focus on giving land ‘back’ to previously dispossessed peoples in South Africa needs to account for the ways in which different world views influence the nature of land claims and consequent developments on the land afterwards; this relates to ideal-types of world views that in practice always blend into more concrete, worldly politics, which, in this case, happens especially around ideas of ‘indigeneity’.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)357-374
JournalJournal of Southern African Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 29 May 2019


  • Bushmen
  • dwelling perspective
  • indigeneity
  • Kgalagadi
  • land claim
  • South Africa
  • ≠Khomani


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