PhD research: Claiming land and history. A meta-historical analysis of Khoisan land claims and indigenous rights activism in South Africa

November 2016 to November 2020
land claims
indigenous rights
University of the Western Cape (South Africa)
Research fields
Cultural Sciences
History and Archaeology

South African officials are currently considering adding land claims predating apartheid (1948-1998) to the land reform program. This has spurred the growth of the ‘Khoisan revival’: the phenomenon of people claiming land and indigenous rights on the basis of a distinct identity as Khoisan — South Africa’s unrecognized and marginalized indigenous population who lost their land in the two centuries following the country’s colonization in the 17th century.

My project investigates how the past is used and contested to strengthen their claims. I also analyse the motivations and historical consciousness which drives their struggle for land with the help of insights from meta-historical theory. The methodological strategy of my research then combines a strong theoretical framework with an analysis of documentary sources and empirical data grounded in ethnographic fieldwork in the Western- and Northern Cape provinces. This innovative interdisciplinary approach explores the obvious yet poorly examined role of history in land claims and indigenous rights activism, addresses the absence of perspectives from below in political debates, and remedies the lack of empirical material in meta-historical research. By viewing land as more than a physical space, I also contribute to emerging land reform scholarship which focuses on related non-material aspects such as identity and memory. Frustrations regarding land reform are part of the reason for the country’s current turbulent state; a greater understanding of these grievances is then of crucial importance if South Africa is to formulate policies which are more inclusive of minorities.