Here is a parable about ownership, an illustration of how deeply arbitrary it has always been, how implicated in the world’s devastation. The story is known to almost every lawyer in America—to many, it is the foundation of modern property rights.
The year was 1805. A rider named Lodowick Post was chasing a fox down a beach in Southampton, New York. This creature must have been both wily and swift. It scampered and bolted. In the end, though, it was exhausted, at which point a man named Pierson stepped onto the scene. Pierson shot the fox and claimed it as his own.
Litigation followed. The judges had to choose between two competing intuitions about ownership, according to a retelling by the law professors Michael Heller and James Salzman. One of these intuitions was what Heller and Salzman call “first-in-time”— the idea that whoever finds a marble on the ground has the right to toss it in a bag.
Heller and Salzman name the second intuition “reap what you sow.” It’s the idea that whoever works hardest at something should draw its benefits. Had they followed the latter principle, the judges in Pierson v. Post might, in finding for the hard-working Post over the opportunistic Pierson, have laid the foundation in the world’s first constitutional democracy for an unbreakable legal link between labor and ownership.
Having grown up in South Africa, I have always been aware that our modern, capitalist-individualist land ownership norms are arbitrary.
Instead, the judges in Pierson made a first-in-time ruling, promulgating a simple standard that did not involve complicated, sometimes-vexing work comparisons. This standard, which became known as the rule of capture, decided that the first person to bring under control a natural resource would own it. “Use” was relative, of course. Native Americans had not, for example, “used” North America in any sense that would imply ownership for the court: they had not laid down hundreds of miles of fences, nor had they clear-cut the forests. But large-scale damming, paving, drilling, irrigating, emitting, trawl-fishing, and mining: in such matters, it would pay to get to the resource first and then deplete it as quickly as possible. In this way, Heller and Salzman argue, New York’s Supreme Court socially engineered what scientists have come to refer to as the Anthropocene—the era in which we have so overexploited the earth that our long-term survival is now an open question.
We’ve been governed by this bright-line model for so long that to us it seems natural and inevitable. But having grown up in South Africa, where large portions of the land are governed by profoundly different ownership norms, I have always been aware that our modern, capitalist-individualist land ownership norms are arbitrary. A recent trip I took to an experimental farm in Northwest Province in South Africa reinforced my long-standing intuition that traditional, communal land ownership arrangements do not just offer a viable alternative as we collectively navigate crises of economic inequality and environment degradation. They may even be as essential to our shared future as windmills, urban gardens, or universities.
in a world gravely marked by capitalism and colonialism, my home country of South Africa—the most unequal country on earth, where apartheid history has left the Black majority largely impoverished and landless—can be called ground zero for the Anthropocene. Our physical vulnerability to climate change was dramatized by the 2018 Cape Town water crisis, when a sophisticated, modern metropole almost saw its taps run dry due to a climate-aggravated mega-drought. Such susceptibility exacerbates the intensified divisions and injustices that threaten to scupper humanity’s cooperation in future crises, both aspects boiled down here to their essences.
My own surname, Retief, is one of the most loaded in South African colonial history. My distant relation, Piet Retief, was one of the leaders of the Great Trek, the movement into the interior initiated by Boer farmers who were frustrated by, according to Retief's 1837 manifesto, the British colonial government’s abolition of slavery and perceived lack of support in “preserv[ing] the proper relation between master and servant.” In January 1838, Piet Retief and his party arrived at uMgungundlovu, capital of the Zulu Empire. There he seems to have signed a treaty with the king, Dingane ka Senzangakhona, acquiring, at least in his mind, a large territory in exchange for his party’s earlier retrieval of seven hundred head of cattle from a rival chieftain. Shortly after the signing ceremony, Dingane ordered Retief and his party clubbed to death. The incident lives on the Afrikaner imagination as a despicable—and revealing—act of treachery.
Some of this conflict seems traceable to cultural misunderstanding. Dingane and his advisers apparently heard a report about another party of Voortrekkers throwing the neighboring Ndebele off their land, an unprecedented displacement—in precolonial African wars, the losers were more typically incorporated into the winning tribes. Dingane, aware of the vast technological and military power possessed by the Trekkers, and perceiving them as dangerous invaders, as a unique threat to his kingdom because of this tendency to want to exclusively control any land they regarded as their own, decided to launch a preemptive military strike. As he had already resolved to kill Retief and his men, his cross on Retief ’s treaty on that February afternoon—regarded by Retief as equivalent to a signature—was almost certainly drawn to lull the Boer leader into relaxing his guard. Perhaps more to the point, as with many such treaties, this agreement was in Zulu eyes self-evidently nonsensical and his signature therefore meaningless. No Zulu chief or king had the power to give away land. That land was existentially Zulu.
I learned recently of a different Boer tradition around land ownership, apparently common in the early days of settlement. In the 1860s, in what would become my home province of Mpumalanga, a group of Boer farmers found themselves stranded. A series of anti-colonial attacks had been launched by the Ndzundza Ndebele chief, Mabhogo, and they had been so militarily effective that the Boers had had to spend much of 1864 in defensive laager—a circle of outward-facing ox wagons—with no time to farm or garden. With the Boer militia occupied elsewhere, and hunger and illness stalking them, these Afrikaner pioneers were left with no option but to sue for peace.
Mabhogo made them an offer. For the price of forty head of oxen and a clarifying letter to the nearest white magistrate, the Boers were welcome to live as honorary Ndebele, loyal to Mabhogo and subject to the tribe’s laws. The farmers agreed, and while the historian Peter Delius suggests that there was some later confusion about whether the forty cattle were to be a one-off or a recurring tribute, for roughly a decade a group of Afrikaner pioneers did not just acknowledge and abide by the laws of customary African land tenure, they did so in apparent enthusiastic defiance of both the disapproval of the judge to whom they had sent the letter and a motion of censure adopted by their parliament.
in western academic circles, the word tribe has been extensively critiqued. As deployed in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century anthropology, for example, the term exaggerated political differences between Western and non-Western states, erroneously construing the latter as primitive and backward. Tribal also grouped together culturally diverse political organizations that had little in common; by the late twentieth century, anthropologists had largely abandoned the term. In South Africa, by contrast, tribe is still used to refer to distinctive local ownership and administrative arrangements, protected by the 1996 constitution, that share features like a village council to adjudicate disputes, land held according to “permission to occupy” rather than outright individual title, and extensive devolution of traditional leadership from monarchs to local chiefs, headmen, and head ladies. In addition, tribe is also used metaphorically here, as elsewhere, to signify any group loyalty that transcends narrow individual interests.
Such broader notions of tribalism—literal, metaphorical, post- modern—have long troubled me, even as they have intrigued me. My ambivalence has stemmed partly from being gay and queer and therefore instinctively mistrustful of organized community life, especially of the traditional, patriarchal sort. I continuously build metaphorical tribes for myself, then deconstruct them, joining groups and churches and then resigning from them, bonding with other people until I feel the need to retreat once again.
For a child growing up in rural, northeastern South Africa, there was little to invite a voluntary, extended stay in the visible oppression of what were then called the Bantustans, the tribal nations created by the apartheid state: overcrowded landscapes of mud-walled houses, straggling vegetable gardens, smelly out- houses, and deep soil-erosion ditches.
But I was attracted to these areas. Staring out of the car window at these dwellings with their cows, goats, and chickens, I wondered what it was like to grow up there. As a teenager, my white family defied apartheid laws to attend a Roman Catholic mission church in the tribal areas—the only Catholic congregation within easy driving distance. There I befriended Latios, a deacon in his twenties, and the two of us traded visits—me to his mud-house compound lit by kerosene lanterns, with cattle penned up in the backyard, buckets for drawing water from the river, and an out- door cooking fire.
I was seventeen, crossing boundaries in the middle of a race war. The other parents in our home village warned my folks I’d be kidnapped by revolutionaries and subjected to the notorious petrol-soaked tire “necklace,” but my parents accepted the reassurances of the priest and church leaders.
On these trips, as a counterbalance to the discomfort of the mosquitoes and cold mornings spent building fires, I encountered some of the most vibrant community life I’d ever witnessed: neighbors tilling the vegetable gardens of a local family who’d lost a grandfather, endless visitations, collective work parties, the socializing leavening the dullness of tasks like grinding maize or shell- ing peas. In church people sang and danced, and the mood was joyful. The word that Latios and his friends shared with me was ubuntu, the traditional African philosophy that holds that human beings are only themselves through others, that challenges are better met in groups, that happiness lies in valuing others’ well-being as highly as your own.
Early support—some from South African sources, some from abroad—dried up, too; the world’s attention had drifted to new crises.
I suspected myself, and for that matter ubuntu, of romanticizing poverty. If doing laundry in a group was so much fun, why didn’t middle-class adults give up their electric washers, which kept them sealed in their homes, for the pleasure of scrubbing shirts at communal sinks? Still, I could not deny that the idea also resonated, even more so when Latios visited me and was met mostly with polite distance by my own community. Perhaps comfort does morally coarsen.
When I left for university in Cape Town and joined the anti- apartheid struggle, I found that I lost much of my appreciation for traditional, communitarian Black cultures. In those years, tribalism was a dirty word, akin to racism, sexism, or ultra-leftism. So many traditional leaders had been bought off by the apartheid regime that, or so we told ourselves, any notion of a Black tribalism that had survived in resistance to colonialism must be bogus. Fanning tribal over national loyalties had been a key tactic of colonial rule. Then, too, talk of chiefs, loincloths, reed dances, and the like seemed to play to the most hackneyed Western stereotypes. Finally, as I came out as a gay man, I objected to men paying lobola for multiple spouses as though women were so many cooking pots, bristled at gender segregation, and above all fumed against LGBT people being hounded away from the tribal areas.
Rather than explain all of this to Latios, I stopped answering his letters, which were sent to me from what seemed the other side of the world. It was not that my attraction to Latios’s close-knit community had vanished. It had just been displaced by its mirror opposite: fear of social control, in this case of my sexuality.
This pattern of falling in and out of love with different organized groups, swinging between my inner individualist and inner communitarian, replayed itself dozens of times: with socialist-feminist groups, with urban gay ghettos, with liberal Quakers, even, in the end, with organized literary communities of self-proclaimed misfits. I’d be attracted to a vision of mutual caring, and then some human failing would upset me—a Religious Friend pressuring me to be on an unwanted committee, a progressive activist group equating consensual sex work to human trafficking. Frustrated and outraged, I’d cancel memberships and retreat to solitude.
In 2007, I became a university professor in central Pennsylvania and was asked to lead a study abroad trip focused on exposing students to cultural differences. What made me decide to focus this immersion on the South African tribal areas? Perhaps it was simply that traditional African communities represented the most dramatic cultural difference I could imagine for middle-class American students. Rights to occupy, rather than outright ownership, shared grazing, mud huts that disappeared back into the landscape when people stopped maintaining them, no police or prisons—tribal cultures now seemed to have a host of lessons for the rest of us.
on a sunny good friday afternoon, my husband and I drove up a sandy path into Tlholego Ecovillage, often viewed as South Africa’s most ambitious attempt to, as the Global Ecovillages Network articulates the general mission of ecovillages, “experiment with ways to regenerate social ties, human cultures, ecosystems, and economies.”
We stayed in a comfortable and tastefully decorated guest cottage with mud-brick walls. High corrugated iron roofs channeled the hot air. Woven green sackcloth eaves provided shade. There were solar showers, rainwater tanks, and permaculture ponds around the main visitors’ complex. The whole place had about it, on that quiet, hot day, the distinctive, living peacefulness of the African bushveld: thorn trees, cicadas, the odd fly buzzing around my husband as he took a nap under the thatched eave of our cabin.
Stephne Fain and Paul Cohen, Tlholego’s founders, are self-described “Joburg suburban Jews.” They became sweethearts and eventual spouses after meeting on a gravel road at the seaside. As with many South African Jews of their generation, they may have had a shared sense in the early 1980s of being both inside and outside the bubble of apartheid privilege. They were inside because they were white, but outside because the apartheid ideology of Christian Nationalism explicitly excluded them in culture and in faith.
Shortly after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990, Paul’s father was invited to a dinner party thrown by a member of his synagogue. A Black, rural, government primary school near Rustenburg was being threatened with closure because of a farm sale, and this friend was trying to save it.
“Isn’t that dreamer of a son of yours trying to start an eco-farm?” asked a colleague. “Why don’t we help him buy the place?”
The whole place had about it, on that quiet, hot day, the distinctive, living peacefulness of the African bushveld.
So, Paul created the Rural Education Development Corporation, aiming to “inspire greater human potential through sustainability learning, sharing…and practice” with a specific focus on traditional agriculture. This organization purchased the three hundred acres near Rustenberg—Paul hoped it would some day support an entire community. They called this experimental village Tlholego, from the Tswana word meaning, “something beautiful inspired by nature.” As with many ecovillages, Paul wanted to stitch together torn social fabric as much as he wanted to heal the “barren wasteland” that the farm had become due to monocropping and overgrazing.
“It was the 1990s,” Paul explained. “Mandela was talking about racial reconciliation, and I wanted to help.”
growth was slow. In its early years, Tlholego temporarily benefited from an influx of post-apartheid government housing grants, which paid for a mud-walled, thatched dwelling for Nene Ramatshoele, the first Tlholego member after Stephne and Paul.
Early support—some from South African sources, some from abroad—dried up, too; the world’s attention had drifted to new crises. As new members moved into Tloholego during the early 2000s, there were squabbles about how many cows could sustainably graze and who should own them. Herbal gardens prospered, drawing further members into the community to help with the cultivation, but the income they generated was erratic. German philanthropists bankrolled a scholarship program for villagers’ children, but new houses, boreholes, and drainage networks proved much harder to fund.
By 2020 or so, the project had attracted new partners, some—like the Credo Mutwa Foundation, a leading South African think tank dedicated to the preservation of indigenous knowledge—focused on what I’ve come to call “postmodern tribalism.” This reinterpretation of tribal values with a global lens focused on inter- national problems, draws on the best of communal, precapitalist cultural systems to adapt to life in the Anthropocene.
Whenever white or middle-class activists borrow from indigenous tribal cultures, the specter of cultural appropriation inevitably looms over the effort. This transgression was perhaps most cogently defined by Sherman Alexie—it appears, he wrote, when white people “blindly [pursue] Native solutions” but neglect “to provide European solutions to Native problems.” But Tlholego has never viewed its mission solely or even primarily in terms of solving white problems. Instead, it has partnered with local Black communities around issues like land justice, climate adaptation, and economic development.
Rutendo Ngara, chair of the Mutwa Foundation, told me that the project “is a prime example of respectful cultural borrowing.”
“Their leaders have listened to the land,” she added, “and those who have walked the land, and when you are there you can sense the resultant well-being.”
i asked paul why Tlholego is owned by a land trust of which he and Stephne have no direct control.
“Buying the farm outright would have just led to more of the same,” he replied, as though this were self-evident. I raised my eye- brows. “More division between people,” he added. “Now I’m an owner, and I’m telling you what to do instead of working things out in partnership with you. That creates a separation, doesn’t it?”
To an extent, I agreed. Hierarchies fragment. Still, egalitarian activist groups can also splinter into endless conflict, which sank many of the 1960s land communes. So was there another side? Did Paul and Stephne fear losing privilege, working so hard to rehabilitate a farm like this, but then forgoing, say, any potential resale profits? Did they perhaps also fear not losing their privilege, being stuck in an undesired role of founder-benefactors? In short, were there no tensions at Tlholego like those that might develop elsewhere?
“Our ownership model is in a process of becoming,” Paul said. “And the shared ownership doesn’t guarantee connection at all. But lots of conversations have happened that wouldn’t have if we’d just been making the decisions.”
Later, walking through Tlholego, Stephne went farther, conceding that some of the sustainability programs might have been implemented more quickly under hierarchical leadership.
“We would have just been able to kick out the litterbugs!” she exclaimed, laughing. “But this slow way, building consensus, talking it all out, you get the feeling of a shared mission.”
As much as I admired that mission, as we walked through the workers’ village, what seemed most on display was what Paul had called the “incompleteness” of shared ownership.
Tlholego lists fourteen members on its website. All are Black, except for Paul, Stephne, and their son, David. Still, three decades into Tlholego’s history, only Nene lives in a house showcasing Tlholego’s commitment to beautiful, natural building. The others continue to live in the old farmworkers’ houses, which look much like those found on any South African farm—simple and often tiny cinderblock and tin buildings, with laundry hanging on fences. The fundraising drive to secure a modern, attractive, egalitarian members’ village has struggled.
Paul, Stephne, and Nene all give generously of their time and money to the ecovillage. During our two-day visit, Stephne and Paul talked about a former African National Congress fighter whom they trained in permaculture and now teaches gardening in high schools across the country. On Sunday, a former Tlholego member stopped by with her daughters, whose education Stephne and Paul help pay for. The worth of these actions seemed clear; less clear to me was precisely where the line dividing this from a more familiar kind of middle-class, developing-world, liberal benevolence fell. Paying for the maid’s daughter’s school fees or a gardener’s engineering diploma, volunteering at a church soup kitchen for political refugees—these are the kinds of things I do, and that most of my friends and family do, too. Yet of course none of these challenges the disparities a little charity briefly ameliorates.
over dinner, Stephne spoke of pining for the day when her fellow ecovillagers could take charge of the herb gardens, including the all-important sales operation. But so far it is still Stephne, with her fluent English, self-confidence, and suburban contacts who sells to organic food markets in Johannesburg. She and Paul still seemed stuck, somewhat against their will, in de facto leadership roles.
By the next morning I was half-ready to pronounce Tlholego a familiar kind of one-step-forward, two-steps-back, success and failure. We humans start out with the best of intentions—to restore the social and the ecological fabric, to live with others in the kind of egalitarian relationships that we sense make us happy. Then habitual power relations find their way back into our exper- iments. We are all raised in cultures that nourish inequality. At a certain point does it become all but impossible to transcend both our own upbringings and larger structural forces?
Just before I left, I finally had my chance to speak at length, and in private, with two Black members of the Tlholego community.
Tshidi, who declined to share his last name, is by trade and training a coffin maker. Before becoming a member of Tlholego in 2013, he built caskets for a nearby farm. That cool Easter morning, he apologized to me for being somewhat hung over. His wrinkle-lined, sun-darkened face, his wide smiles, and his smell of alcohol and tobacco suggested a life of hard work and hard play. His answers also had a shrewd humor: when I asked him how workers on other farms perceived Tlholego, he joked that it was viewed as a second Liliesleaf, a reference to Mandela’s rural hideout in the 1960s.
Though Tshidi praised the scholarship model that allowed his child to attend a local private school and mourned the struggle to fund the upgraded ecovillage, I initially saw little that separated his life from one without Tlholego’s unusual ownership model. Did that model, I asked, signify any actual difference to him?
At first, Tshidi frowned, as if he were struggling to understand my question. Then, much as Paul had done, he seemed incredulous that I would need to ask at all. He clicked his tongue and shook his head. Then he leaned forward with an unmistakable urgency. “Listen,” he said. “Please write this down. I want you to understand it. “Where I worked on the coffin farm before, I was just a thing. Do you understand? I was like a machine for the farmer to use.
“Yes, I got my salary for my work, but the only way the farmer saw me was as a way to make money. When I went to ask him for something, he would give me a tin mug, so he would not have to drink out of the same cup as me.”
I asked, “In 2013?” Assigning separate utensils for Black workers was a common practice among conservative white families during my apartheid childhood, but I had imagined the tradition had withered away with the advent of democracy.
Tshidi nodded. “Then I come here,” he said. “Not only do Paul, Stephne, and Nene talk to me like a person, we are working together, side by side. We have the same purpose. Can you comprehend that? Being on a team, it can make a person feel human.” Here Tshidi swept his arm to show the farm, the guest cottages, the communal dining area, and the herb greenhouses. We are ourselves through others.
Nene would later echo this sentiment, standing at her gateway, with cows feeding next to us as we talked and children playing behind her, the quintessential image of a traditional Tswana grandmother with her colorful tukwi headcloth and dress.
“None of this is perfect,” she said. “We fight about how much firewood to harvest, and whose turn it is to clean the guest showers. We don’t share as deeply as we could.
“But you must understand the alternative. Me, for example. Before my parents moved to Tlholego, a farmer was insisting that as a teenage girl I work there for nothing during my school holidays, as a condition for my parents’ residence on the farm. My father said no! He said, that is modern slavery.
“When we found Tlholego, he and my mother predicted they would never move away, and they were right. They knew that they belonged here in a community that at least tries to build justice.
“So, you may criticize our experiment, here,” she continued. “But don’t, for a moment, think that an ownership structure like this is in any way trivial. That shows only privilege—that a person is comfortable with the current system.”
She had taken my measure. Juxtaposed against her and Tshidi’s losses of liberty, my hypothetical concerns about lost freedom now seemed flimsy. I thanked Nene and walked back to my car, my suitcases, and the road back to my life of research sabbaticals and academic exchange and what now seemed unimaginable luxury: scuba dives past hallucinogenic corals, modern hotels with hot water and air conditioning. Did anti-communal skepticism always, in the end, amount to the tantrum of a privileged ego? There my husband and I were, hugging Stephne and Paul good-bye and then honking the car horn as we drove back to our lives, so similar to the ones we had been trained to lead. Yet like those nineteenth-century Boers who once received Chief Mabhogo’s offers of peace—forty head of cattle, and peaceful cooperation can be yours—a gate also seemed to have opened up for us: a new possibility waving, beckoning.
Glen Retief is the author of The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, which won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award. He writes fiction, memoir, literary journalism, and personal essays, teaches creative non-fiction at Susquehanna University, and is currently spending a year in South Africa as a Fulbright Scholar.
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