By Kole Omotoso
What is the basis of a just society? Where will human beings find the final arbiter? This is because there will always be differences between men and especially between strong men and weak men, rich men and poor men. And women also, women and women.
When in 1913 white men drove black men from the land of their fathers, from land they had considered their own, land in which they had buried their dead, where was the arbiter to cry foul and unjust? Every where was quiet as those black men went into the winter of bitterness and hunger. Those who died of hunger perished on the roads. Those who were strong among them made new beginnings. They found men weaker than them supplanted them in turn, taking over their land. And so history rolls on.
Imagine there was nobody to record what happened? What took place would stay there quiet as what happened. But there were oral historians, people with memory of fantastic expanse, capable of remembering details of what took place a week ago, a year ago, when one thing happened and another was allowed to happen next to it, so as to work as the one who would remind the other the mnemonic. That was why nothing stands alone.
There are, first of all, those who remember, who perform from time to time when hands were light and the harvest has been gathered. It is that such men came out, voices thin and long, memories fresh like freshly fallen dew. They reminded us ordinary folks where the rain began to beat us. It was a narrative of hints and suggestions, narrative with something to take home and ponder. In pondering the narrative the question arises: what must be done? These men were young and ready to engage with the society into the future.
But we are talking of those who record. Those who remind others not just what happened. We want to know why it happened in case it is something that should never happen again. They narrate and those who listened heard the tales of their ancestors.
There followed the lettered brethren, the ones the missionaries trained to turn their brethren against themselves. These are the ones who began to write down the history of what happened in the dim past.
Sometimes they ask those who wrote from memory reminding them of some details here and there, reminding them of those juicy details that make the details such joy to read. Thus, the records were compiled and the writings were done. Raw material is what is stored here. Narrative after narrative is what is written here.
There are those who would take both oral and written and from both compose powerful documents that cannot be contradicted.
Which brings us to the lawyers and their own narratives. Tebbeka Ngcukaitobi is the author of The Land is Ours: South Africa’s First Black Lawyers and the Birth of Constitutionalism.
It is important to state that by the time the narrative got to the point where the lawyers must add their penny worth, the narrative had reached the stage of an argument. Remember how we have progressed? First there were the tellers of our tales, those who made sure we remember our story. Then there were those who wrote down. Then there were those who took the oral and the written and composed a powerful document that could not be contradicted. And then the lawyers could make their cases.
Like a lawyers’ brief, it is well-laid out. It is divided into three parts: part 1 is titled Land “How the land was lost.” This, for me, is unsatisfactory as an explanation of how the land was lost. Looks like the mythologizing of the lost of land. What happened in 1913 when black people were driven from their land? This is really a poor basis to lay the claim of equality with white men and argue for the human rights of black intellectuals.
From here onwards, we are onto a completely different terrain. These South African lawyers writing the story of land lost in South Africa turn to the Pan-Africanists of the North America and the Caribbean to improve their argument. It does not work. These are two different stories. The encounters are different. Slavery is the occasion for the encounters in North African and the Caribbean. Whatever the case that was being made collapses before it is made.
The ownership of African land cannot be disputed and it is not disputed at all. Nobody has disputed the process by which Africans lost the land. The complicated issue of how to get it back was going to be of interest to us all.
In spite of claiming the ownership of the land, the lawyers failed to make a case for themselves with the discussion of the putting together of the state of South Africa. They were not united. They were seen as members of different tribes, different ethnicities. All they got from the constitutionalism evolving were ‘crumbs of justice.’
The book is the documentation of one’s failure. Nothing could be more futile.
There is still no solution to the land issue other than that it belongs to the natives. In spite of that assertion, no case was made for the owners of the land, on the basis of which they assert their citizenship of the state. It was a glaring failure of the black people to argue their case.
We began with where justice is going to be found for black people. We have only dealt with the land issue. Supposing we include the issue of slavery and the matter of compensation the matter would become more complicated. For instance, Africans were slave traders. Must they be compensated too in the way and manner the white slave owners were compensated for loss of property?
That issue is likely to destroy the case for equality in the calculation for the compensation when it comes to compensation. Within the state, the issue will keep being post-phoned.
In the meantime, the land issue will take priority since it seems to be easier to call. But it does not lend itself to little inclusiveness. For too long, African issues have had to do with too little too late. Crumbs of justice is no justice at all!!!