Land restitution and the moral modernity of the new South African state

This project investigates the ongoing South African land restitution process, in which the new state compensates victims of former land dispossessions that were based on laws discriminating “race”. This restitution process has recently been the focus of a critical literature, exploring the phenomenon in its interconnected political, legal, economic and moral dimensions. Building on this research, the project addresses a central research gap by focusing on the renegotiations of modern statehood that are at the core of South African land restitution, given that the new state simultaneously functions as the main driving force, the judicial arbiter and the core reference point (as claims are lodged against the state). The research thereby operates from within a framework of “multiple modernities” (Eisenstadt). It thereby acknowledges that the negotiations about the appropriate ways of righting land-related wrongs of the past in order to make for desirable futures through state-orchestrated human agency take place under conditions, as the involved actors notice themselves, of existential contingency. Given that restitution’s explicit mandate is to unmake the historical injustices of the old state, this process is also crucially concerned with fusing the highly perfected “formal rationality” of the former apartheid state with a different and broadly acceptable “substantive rationality” (Max Weber) into a new, if contested, “morally modern” polity. This project thus studies the current land restitution process as an exemplary site, at which the moral modernity of the new South African state is contested, renegotiated and made.

In order to do so, the project conducts a total of 14 months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in South Africa, in the course of which four concrete land claim cases as well as their entanglements with the two relevant state agencies – the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights & the Land Claims Court – are being investigated. The selection of these four exemplary cases is motivated by the desire to find as divergent cases as possible in order to maximise diversity, while simultaneously keeping the cases together through a common denominator. This has led to a sample of cases, all of which share the commonality of being intimately linked to the creation and contested history of the former KwaNdebele homeland near Pretoria/Johannesburg. In accordance with the principles of multi-sited fieldwork, the project thereby follows clusters of actors, who are all connected by a single land claim, to their respective places, including the actually disputed farms. These clusters typically consist of (various subgroups of) the claimants, their legal representatives, land NGOs, the current landowners, their attorneys and advocates, agricultural unions, officials at the commission in the regional and national offices, staff of the Land Claims Court (judges, registrars, researchers etc.), research specialists, including anthropologists, who work as consultants in land claims and figure as expert witnesses and the like.

Using participant observation, various interview techniques as well as a source-critical analysis of court files and archival material, the project thus contributes to the current anthropology of multiple (moral) modernities and the postcolonial state through providing an in-depth empirical study of the ongoing land restitution process in South Africa. In addressing, within the South African context, the crucial issues of cultural diversity and difference, the global trend towards juridification and the changing role of the modern state in increasingly transnationalised contexts, the project thereby makes a contribution to crucial debates within and beyond anthropology that will become even more important in the years to come. At the same time, the project will also generate knowledge, solidly grounded in empirical research, that can be used to improve the actual practices of the ongoing restitution process in South Africa.

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