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  • Land and the Politics of Belonging in Africa
  • Joseph Mujere (bio)
Deborah James, Gaining Ground? ‘Rights’ and ‘property’ in South African land reform. New York NY: Routledge-Cavendish (pb $57.95 – 978 0 415 42031 0). 2007, 304 pp.
Peter Geschiere, Perils of Belonging: autochthony, citizenship, and exclusion in Africa and Europe. Chicago IL and London: University of Chicago Press (hb $60 – 978 0 226 28964 9; pb $22 – 978 0 226 28965 6). 2009, 304 pp.
Laura Mitchell, Belongings: property, family and identity in colonial South Africa (an exploration of frontiers, 1725 – c. 1830). New York NY: Columbia University Press (hb $60 – 978 0 231 14252 6). 2009, 252 pp.

There has been a recent upsurge in writings about migration, belonging, land and attachment in Africa. These authors have largely focused on autochthony and the insider-outsider nexus. They have also revealed the salience of land, graves, old homes and other landscape features in the construction and negotiation of belonging by communities. As scholars are beginning to realize the inadequacies of ethnic identity as a category of analysis, there has been a move towards the idea of belonging. Identity presumes that someone’s ‘category’ is relatively fixed in spite of the possibilities of change. Belonging, however, is much more fluid and allows people to use all sorts of languages and practices to articulate their claims. These three books, using different but related approaches, explore the various ways in which different African communities have articulated their belonging through space and time; they also consider how belonging is contested and negotiated in different contexts. The major themes are migration, frontier politics, land restitution and belonging itself.

In Perils of Belonging, Peter Geschiere analyses the concept of autochthony and how its fluidity and complexity impact on the negotiation of belonging in Africa and Europe. Geschiere traces the historical origins of autochthony, or being ‘born from the soil’, and how it has been used in different contexts, especially by politicians in [End Page 497] a bid to exclude those labelled outsiders or allogènes. As he argues, each time the question of belonging is raised, it leads to exclusion. Hence belonging in Africa often invokes exclusionary discourses which define who is an insider and who is an outsider. The study analyses the re-emerging concept of autochthony and its interface with belonging. Geschiere is more concerned with the centrality and fluidity of the concept of autochthony, whose interface with belonging has created complex but fertile grounds for inclusion and exclusion within a nation state: so-called autochthons versus allogènes, or first-comers versus late-comers. Such tensions are often a result of migration into towns and the resultant competition for resources and power between the autochthons and those labelled outsiders. These contestations of belonging, which often turn violent, are what Geschiere refers to as the ‘perils of belonging’.

In a very succinct way, Geschiere’s study critiques the concept of globalization and its assumption that the world is increasingly becoming a global village. Citing cases from Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire as well as Europe, he exposes the globalization myth: whilst people are preaching globalization, the very same world is characterized by increasingly entrenched forms of communalism that are celebrating differences and exclusion. This has resulted in the creation of a world dominated by a ‘global conjecture of belonging’ in which religion and other variables are playing a crucial role as symbols. This, in essence, has led to the increased importance of autochthony and what Geschiere calls the ‘glocalization’ of the world. Though he acknowledges the existence of other forms of belonging, he is quick to point out that autochthony remains the most important form in Africa due to its links to land, graves and the idea of being a first-comer. Land has remained at the centre of contestations over autochthony as people fight over land rights and the privileges that come with being an original. The epilogue of the book is thus aptly titled, ‘Can the land lie?’ which refers to the appeal to the soil and to being its first-comer in contestations over belonging (Geschiere 2009: 12). The salience of autochthony in Geschiere’s study needs to...


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pp. 497-502
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