New research has shown that the only successful aboriginal land claim in Southern Africa has failed to deliver on the dreams and hopes of a better life for the Khomani San and Mier land claimants.
The land restitution claim, lodged soon after democracy was ushered into South Africa, saw an area of 65,000 hectares (160,618.5 acres) given back to the San as well as extensive land use rights in the Kgalagadi Transfontier Park – located in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa and neighboring Botswana.
The Khomani San who have a strong geographical attachment to the land found themselves evicted in 1931 from the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park as it was known then. The aboriginal community then found themselves widely dispersed across the southern kalahari area throughout South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.
According to the website of the indigenous rights advocacy NGO Cultural Survival; at the time of the land claim, lead by the revered Khomani San leader Dawid Kruiper who died in 2012, the Khomani San were no longer a functioning or definite community. Similar to other displaced Indigenous Peoples, they had to a large degree become assimilated in or dominated by the local pastoralist groups, and their ancient cultural practices were sporadically maintained in isolated groups.
Some of the provisions of the successful land restitution claim was that the indigenous community would be allowed to carry out cultural practices such as hunting, collecting bush foods and conducting ecotourism ventures. However, they would not have permanent residence inside the park.
University of Cape Town researcher Dr. Johane Dikgang, explored the Kgalagadi land claim in terms of how conservation, beneficiaries’ rights to land as well as natural resources were balanced. The research came against the backdrop of last year’s centenary of the 1913 Natives Land Act that saw black people dispossessed of land in South Africa.
Dikgang’s research concluded that land restitution does not necessarily reduce poverty. However, the Khomani San can be trusted to be good environmental stewards, and there is indeed scope to generate revenue that they could share between them and South Africa’s national parks.
Dikgang said that as data was collected for the study “it suggested that there was no improvement in the beneficiaries welfare” and that there was a lack of post land restitution support.
“They were given land but no skills to use the land to it’s full potential. Post restitution support is the biggest problem. There is no initiative to ensure the land is used productively,” Dikgang explained.
Part of Dikgang’s research included understanding what the local indigenous community’s attitudes were to modern conservation.
“Their economic situation forced them to use the land unsustainably. The San have a positive attitude toward conservation.
“Given that the fundamental problem is that they’re poor, how can national parks assist their economic challenges. … The San are co-owners of the park. What benefits do they receive? We couldn’t find substantial benefits for them. We looked at entry fees at parks and found there was no evidence of sharing. They (the San) didn’t see themselves as co-owners of the park,” Dikgang said.
Dikgang added that South African National Parks have attempted to remedy the problem of local communities feeling financially excluded from national parks and so introduced a revenue sharing mechanism that involves charging a 1 percent levy on accommodation and activity bookings at all parks that then gets funneled back to local communities living around the park.
“Perhaps our study has demonstrated that conservation pays. They need to actively seek to generate tangible benefits so that you have the buy in of local communities otherwise its just a burden to them.”
Dirk Pienaar of the Khomani San welcomed Dikgang’s research as long overdue in highlighting the plight of the Khomani San since their successful restitution land claim.
“Conservation is an integral part of our culture. If the Khomani San can find a balance between formal conservation and traditional conservation it can be a win-win situation for everybody.”
Pienaar said that the Khomani San are restricted by the rules and regulations of the Kgalagadi park and cannot hunt in the traditional way given – restricted to a demarcated area. As a result, stalking animals is not realistic for traditional Khomani San hunters.
Pienaar agreed with Dikgangs main finding that land restitution for the Khomani San did not deliver on the promise that their lives would change for the better.
“We got the land back but no tangible benefits. There is still no progress, even basic services (is lacking),” Pienaar said. He shared how the Khomani San youth are already showing no interest in the traditional ways of living off the land stating, “They can see that the land is not benefiting them.”
Cecil le Fleur, trustee of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) and the chair of the national Khoi San council agreed with Dikgang’s findings saying “government gave them the land but did not teach them how to manage the land.”
However, le Fleur pointed out that the specifics of the land claim, in terms of much of the land being within a national park, may have been problematic from the start.
le Fleur said: “The government should not restitute land to Khoi San communities in parks because there are too many restrictions the Khoi San must obey. The Khoi San people really know how to conserve the land…but they must really own the land, which they don’t.”