Moringe ole Parkipuny addressed the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP) in 1989 and, for the first time, opened up discussion of the idea that certain groups of hunter-gathers and pastoralists in Africa merited the status of indigenous peoples. Local activists and international organizations took up the cause in the following decades. Several international conferences resulted in new forms of activism, the reformulation of local identities, and a growing body of scholarship addressing African indigeneity. As NGOs built solidarity among relatively scattered groups of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, often skeptical state governments initially resisted what they saw as demands for recognition of status and claims to “special rights.” Disagreements between state interests and newly organized indigenous groups were expressed at the United Nations during the process of adopting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP); but as the idea of indigeneity evolved through such discussions, African governments gradually came on board. International activism and work done by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights play significant roles in convincing African states to accept the concept of “indigenous peoples.” The issue of developing a definition of “indigenous peoples” appropriate for Africa remains unsettled and continues to present challenges. Mobilization among marginalized groups on the African continent itself, however, has presented NGOs, activists, states, and courts with the opportunity, through well-publicized struggles and several landmark legal cases, to refine the category to better fit with African contexts.
Since 1913, the “land question” in South Africa has revolved around the major inequalities in access to and rights over land between the black majority and the white minority of the population, and how these disparities should best be understood and overcome. The roots of this inequality are commonly traced back to the promulgation of the Natives Land Act in June 1913, which provided the legal framework for the subsequent division of the country into a relatively prosperous white heartland and a cluster of increasingly impoverished black reserves on the periphery. Historians have cautioned against according this legislation undue weight within the much longer history of colonization, capitalist penetration, and agrarian change that has shaped modern South Africa. The spatial divide of white core and black periphery has, however, been central to the political economy of 20th-century South Africa. Beginning in the 1950s, the apartheid government attempted to maintain white hegemony, drive an urban–industrial economy, and deflect political resistance by turning these reserves into the ethnic “homelands” of African people. This involved increasingly repressive policies of urban influx control, population relocation, and the tribalization of local administration in the reserves.
Since the transition to democracy in 1994, the post-apartheid state has struggled to develop an effective land reform program that can address the crosscutting demands for land redistribution, local development, and representative government that this history has bequeathed. For many analysts, these ongoing challenges mean that “the land question” remains unresolved; for others it means that the question is itself in need of reformulation. In order to review these developments, a three-part periodization is used to organize the discussion: (1) the segregation era (1910–1948), (2) the apartheid era (1948–1990), and (3) the transition to democracy and the post-apartheid era that began in 1990.
Increasingly, the study of law in colonial Africa has moved out of the domain of legal scholarship per se, where it had its origins in the 1940s, and into that of social and cultural history; it has also shifted from a rules-based approach, primarily concerned with legal codes and judicial institutions, to one that focuses on process and explores the complex relationship between law and culture. As the field has expanded, it has divided into sub-branches. Some remain within the scope of legal history, defined as the study of how legal codes and judicial procedures have developed and changed and of the issues of principle that arose; others are more concerned with the social impact of law, how the establishment of colonial legal regimes, including customary law and the courts where cases could be heard, presented new dilemmas and opportunities and altered the distribution of power in African communities. Beyond this, historians have also used legal records, especially court records, as social documents without being directly concerned with their particular legal and judicial contexts. Once their limitations and the difficulties of interpretation that they present have been understood, such records offer potentially rich insights into family and household affairs as well as into more obviously civil or criminal matters.