“Jedi,   they got away with it” – Prof. Bernadette Atuahene.

Prof. Bernadette Atuahene
Prof. Bernadette Atuahene

07-10-2013. Last year around this time, I had the pleasure of meeting Prof.  Bernadette Atuahene, I stumbled a little over her name because in-fact I was in awe of her. I simultaneously however felt a little ashamed because I could not quite get the pronunciation of her last name right. Atuahene?  Atuahene.  Pleasure to meet you.  There was a fleeting moment of embarrassment; I was scolding myself for not being able to pronounce African words – I was an African who couldn’t pronounce an African name. Atuahene is a Ghanaian name.  I wanted to ask her how she ended up with the name Atuahene, because many African-Americans seemed to have lost their African names over time – their history. I was fascinated by how her family managed to carry the name over generations of American life. But of course that was not why I was there to meet her, Prof. Bernnadette Atuahene.  “ Just give me a moment I will be with you now” she said as she turned to her computer answering  some pressing  emails, and finding documents for the interview I was about to have with her on  Land, and The Land re-distribution –Restitution program in South Africa.  I was nervous, and a little exhausted from the walk to her temporary office at Wits University, I hoped I was not sweating too much.  I was glad for the moment’s pause but soon started feeling anxious, nervous. This woman is organized, and I felt all over the place in her office.  I started thinking about my first question, what will it be?   It literally felt like the first time I was going to do an interview.  She turned to me, apologized, and got ready to be asked questions.  I blushed, and my mind went blank, what do I ask?

It became obvious that the question I was avoiding to ask was the one that would open up some kind of a conversation, the office was nice, and there were children’s drawings on the wall. “A generous colleague loaned me her office to use while I’m here” It was nice.

Okay so clearly I had to ask her something, soon. I smiled and it was  as if she knew just what I was going to ask her because she smiled back and immediately nodded when I said; “ How did you end up doing this research, how does an African- American, become so  passionate about  Land  Redistribution in South Africa?”

“When I first came to South Africa, I was a law intern for one of the constitutional court judges, at the constitutional court “She said taking me back to a brief moment in my career when I was a constitutional court reporter, I loved going to the constitutional court so I shared in her joy and the momentous positions of being an intern for one of the first constitutional judges in Post-Apartheid the weight of it, the pride it was overwhelming. The judges and the court had such presence, being inside was like being on holy ground, a sacred space.  “After that period, I came back in 2004 and realized when driving around Johannesburg…that” she paused reflectively “… that’s when the penny dropped. I suddenly realized “They got away with it!” I wanted to ask who but she helped me out of my fix “they got away it, white people got away with it!” She said incredulously. They managed to “negotiate” a settlement that maintained the status quo. In-fact not only do they still own 80 percent of all the land South Africa, they still control entire economy!” “That was a light-bulb moment for me and I have been working hard since on the project of Land Restitution and Redistribution in South Africa.

I had just been at a friend’s house which she rented from a white (skin colour reference used to indicate class) woman, I was visiting and sleeping on her couch because I had no “permanent “residence of my own in Johannesburg, having returned from whirlwind trip in Senegal, where I had to redefine my ideas of home and what that means actually means in practical terms, I have been moving since I arrived on this earth, but of course I couldn’t talk about myself.

She continued to show me her research which she has conducted for over ten years, detailing how the Land Redistribution program was not “working” for many claimants, and the financial compensation though welcomed by the beneficiaries was not adequate enough to add value to the long-term financial future and stability of beneficiaries.  “Claimants who got financial compensation, which is the main focus of my research, used the money to renovate their homes; adding one extra room for example, or little doing little home improvements here and there. The rest of the money was used to immediate daily needs” She said.  In the early 2000s government made a big show of redistributing land to the people, across the country. Land Restitution was the buzz word.

I remember  one assignment  – in fact  my last assignment as an intern or more poignantly the first time I lost my job  – having to drive for hundreds of kilometers  from the South African Broadcasting Corporations Offices (SABC) in Durban KwaZulu Natal, to Kokstad  where government was to hand-over land to the people.  Then president Thabo Mbeki made a was the key-note speaker,  made a presidential entrance, arriving in a helicopter which raised the brown earth, dusting it on the large white marquee tent, where a crowd of people had been waiting for him in the sweltering winter sun.  It was supposed to be a celebration, yet the occasion it felt very somber. I had never been in such close proximity to the President.  His spokesperson at the time – a well-dressed and slick – Bheki, caught me unawares and asked me who I was and who I was working for.  I told him, he looked blank, “never heard of you” he said and reluctantly handed me a copy of the president’s speech. He smiled. I had mixed feelings about our encounter – not sure whether to be happy that a presidential spokesperson spoke to me or feel completely inadequate, insecure, inferior. During our journey back with a fellow TV journalist I was thinking of how I would tell the story, which angle I would take. We arrived to an almost empty office, but the assignment editor was around and met us as if had been waiting for us to arrive. He looked straight at me. “I got call from HR, and they said you can’t continue to work here, you have to go now, and your internship is over.”  He said I focused on his crisp white shirt; it was well ironed, and clean. What about the story? I asked? I have a deadline? Can’t I at least write and finish it? No he said its fine; we’ll take care of it.  He gave me an SABC pen, to thank me for my service. I had to leave. I had been working there as an unpaid intern for nearly a year, and I had to go.

“So what I am proposing” She added her voice rich with passion and waking me from the past “Is that financial compensation for land claimants should be increased, and perhaps re-structured into different programs such as Educational Trust etc., released over time etc.”

“I’m not talking about land re-distribution here. That is something else, my worked focused largely on claimants living in urban areas, which is where I think the majority of tensions and problems are.”

The research was challenging, Atuahene discovered through a documentary she was producing – that sometimes there are double claims. “ you find sometimes that person a buys a house  – received all the relevant documentations etc., only to find that person B is claiming the land from person A who bought the house legitimately – and has a bond.  Person A feels entitled to the land in the same way that person B feels entitled to the land”  The Land issue is a complex one, and one which needs multiple approaches – which are multiple approaches, and though financial compensation has worked well in some cases, it has not produced long term economic stability for claimants.

The South African government instituted the “Willing buyer- willing seller” policy to redistribute farm land to claimants who were forcibly removed under the Native Land Act of 1913.   They readily admitted that the policy has not worked as well as they’d hoped and had many unintended consequences which resulted in some farm land which was distributed to African claimants being left in states of desperate disrepair, and were by and large unproductive. Which made financial compensation for land claims the easier option.

She asked me – where I was from? a question which always seems to make me stammer before I can answer it even though I know for sure where I’m from.  “As far as I know, I’m a third generation Sowetan – and I am frankly not sure how far my history goes” I replied finding it difficult to accept my own words. “But” I continued dismissing a question she never asked but which I anticipated “I don’t think our family have “claim” to any land, in this context” I told her.

I read her name Prof. Bernadette Atuahene, again and I suddenly find the key to open the door. That’s where home is.  In her name:  which tells her history,   a story of our common history, of a people forcibly removed from their land, enslaved and shipped across the world. Her  name she can tell the story of her people,  of the hills, the valleys, the majestic rivers, of lions, and the hares, the elephants, of Ubuntu, of community, of love and solidarity – which  continues to thrive and lives in all of us. That is why an American can passionate about land reform in South Africa. We all share the same story.

“You know I have been so busy… working, speaking about the research, promoting the book, I long for a  nice long holiday” she said laughing “I’d like to go to Senegal and dance for two months, and just dance and dance, and dance” She smiled echoing my thoughts. “Yeah that would be nice” I said as we parted.

I am an African.


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