REVIEW — The Land is Ours

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This is an excruciating book of loss of crucial black talent that describes how all-encompassing the colonial and apartheid systems were in destroying all manner of black lives. A historical journey through the history of the country's first black lawyers and the founding of what would become the ANC, the book is also testimony to the resilience of the black spirit. Mphuthumi Ntabeni reviews The Land is Ours by Tembeka Ngcukaitobi.

The Land is Ours, by Tembeka Ngcukaitobi: Penguin Random House South Africa, 2018, ISBN 9781776092857

This well researched book traces the foundations of black legal resistance against loss of land in South Africa. It is also a historical search for the first black lawyers of South Africa; the origins of global Pan Africanism; and the establishment of the South African Nation Native Congress (SANNC), later known as the African National Congress (ANC).

It begins with a competent compendium of how the Xhosa loss of land, during the Frontier Wars, marked the beginnings of real land dispossession by the black people. This first part has a few historical inaccuracies that are not fatal to the thesis of the book. I suspect this would be that most challenging part for those without the historical background on the material. I pray they don’t give up in the start because the book will reward their endurance.

The second part is a compressed narration of biographies of the first black lawyers, their lives and educational backgrounds, and an excellent interrogation of their work and legal practice, mostly how they dealt with the then major challenge of the Native Land Act of 1913. The second part, Lawyers, starts with the life of Henry Sylvester. Though born in the Caribbean, he ended up being the first black person to be admitted in the Cape Law Society. The books discusses how Sylvester with the likes of D.D.T Jabavu was paramount in organising the first Pan Africanist Congress, held in Westminster Town Hall, London (UK) from 23-25 July in 1900. This congress was attended by prominent educated black thinkers like W.E. Du Bois, the first African American to graduate with a PhD from Harvard University. Du Bois, who wrote the seminal book, The Souls Of Black Folks, taught Charlotte Maxeke at Wilberforce University in Cleveland, Ohio, who in turn influenced Mangena to study law in the UK.

The narrative moves smoothly and inter-connectedly to Alfred Mangena, himself the first black attorney to be admitted to practice in the Transvaal who married Anna Mcobela, the first registered black nurse in Transvaal. We then learn of Richard Msimang, educated and admitted to practice as a solicitor of England and Wales before moving back to South Africa to become one of the founders of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC); he also helped draft the ANC’s first constitution. And so book continues with the likes of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, educated at Columbia University and Jesus College in Oxford.

By the time you reach George Dick Monotsioa and Ngcubu Poswayo, themselves prominent black pathfinding lawyers, a narrative is established: black lawyers, educated abroad, come back home, and are treated horribly by a racist system. Examples, we learn, include South African Law societies to the extent that the lawyers were refused to enter the so-called white courts. Furthermore, most of the clients they did get to represent had no means to pay them, so their practices go bellyup. Thirdly, frustrated and discriminated against, the talented lawyers are mostly lost to alcoholism, divorced and even abandoned by their own families sometimes. This makes one understand why the SANNC was initially established to improve the socio-economic means and conditions of the black middle class rather than a political vehicle that later took off due to the Native Land Act of 1913.

This is an excruciating book of loss of crucial black talent, of how all-encompassing the colonial and apartheid systems were in destroying all manner of black lives. But it is also testimony to the resilience of the black spirit. We must remember that Seme went into legal partnership with Anton Lembede, the effective founder of the ANC Youth League, which inspired other black legal partnerships, like those of N.R. Mandela and O.R. Tambo. The rest, at they say, is history.

I was surprised the book didn’t feel the need to include Tiyo Soga’s son, Allan Kirkland Soga (1861-1938), who studied law and humanities at Glasgow University and on his return to South Africa was an assistant resident magistrate in the Transkei and later a newspaper editor. There seems to be an unnecessary prejudice towards rural lawyers, since Soga and others worked more on the former Transkian ground in assisting black people with their land grievances. It is also possible that Kirkland and company are excluded for being part of those who fell off the group that effectively became ANC founders when they, with Jabavu, disagreed on ideological bases.

Be that as it may, this is pertinent book for our times. My only major criticism of it is that it is written in a thesis style that lacks passion for anecdote, which is crucial to such story telling. This omission might make it unattractive to others because it requires above average intellectual stamina to follow through and sustain interest. My advice to the discouraged would be to take the book in bite size chunks to assist the digestion.

The book also lacks psychological insight into the biological and historical treatment of the lives it interrogates. At every juncture you feel that the author is a legal historian – his interest is less for human relationships, morals and personal characteristics. This is such a pity because these human traits would have greatly benefited the book. Then again, the wealth of research, with its references, will greatly benefit whoever may want to write more measured comprehensive biographies of these great man of our history.


© Spotlight.Africa 2018

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REVIEW — The Land is Ours