Tara Mondesi Weinberg

Award Information

2018 IDRF Program

HistoryUniversity of Michigan

Property of the People: Land Claims, Law and Power in 20th Century South Africa

Land is a powder keg in South African society. Under colonialism and apartheid, the government removed millions of black people from their land to ethnically designated reserves. In addition to the material costs of displacement, the state's failure to recognize local forms of land tenure did violence to the plural ways in which black South Africans conceptualized property. Redressing the injustices wrought by centuries of land dispossession has been a central aim of South Africa's post-1994 government. The African National Congress government's Land Restitution Program promised to democratize land tenure by enabling black South Africans to reclaim their land. Yet, many claimants argue that Land Restitution has benefited a few elites and like government actions before it, pays insufficient attention to local forms of knowledge and legitimacy regarding property. My dissertation examines the problem at the heart of South Africa's land reform impasse: the issue of property. Focusing on the 20th century, it investigates how the legacies of previous land struggles impact contemporary land claims; what kind of land tenure arrangements black South Africans have developed on the ground; and who defined and now defines property law. My study builds on histories of political thought in Africa to suggest that black South Africans' strategies for claiming land offers insight into changing conceptions of property, law and value. It also intervenes in debates on the role of law in society, investigating how law shaped the subjectivities of black South Africans, and how they shaped the law back. By focusing on a history of claim-making, land tenure forms and the role of the law in shaping claimants' subjectivities, my dissertation will not only historicize South Africa's land reform impasse, but also contribute to broader scholarly debates about how marginalized people grapple with issues of property, authority, law and identity under conditions of extreme oppression.