Sins of the soil

2013-07-19 00:00

A STRUGGLE for land has been central to the history of South Africa, complicated by the fact that to the protagonists it represented very different world views.

The recent centenary of the Natives’ Land Act was a reminder that land was a cornerstone of white domination, a reason why Fred Hendricks argues in The Promise of Land that its reform is a “barrier to a unitary imagination of the South Africa nation”.

Instead, a revolution is required to complete the process of decolonisation and creation of a national identity. Twenty years after liberation, democracy, social justice and the symbolism of restitution should have made the country look very different, he suggests.

His target is white-owned commercial farms in particular where labour law still has a limited reach.

A point consistently made in this book is that the land issue is not simply a rural matter, but integral also to the urban condition. The reason is historical: capital accumulation by dispossession without provision of long-term alternative means of survival.

The South African labour system created a mining and industrial proletariat while resisting urbanisation, the consequence of which was both landlessness and a lack of adequate housing. The burgeoning informal settlements that surround our major cities today contain an “industrial reserve army”, for most members of the modern economy has, and will have, no useful role.

Hendricks, Lungisile Ntsebeza and Kirk Helliker argue that rural areas must hold the key. Their argument is radical regarding both the psychological and practical importance of land, although they acknowledge there is limited knowledge about the desirability of land-based livelihoods and the prospects of establishing a modern peasantry with strong urban links.

Bill Martin agrees, seeing rural development as a positive response to the global economic crisis (which he regards as structural, not cyclical) as well as a challenge to the commodification of land, the last great enclosure in history.

Helliker points out that commercial farms have for decades been places of work and home, production and reproduction, for all who work on them.

In spite of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act, which recognised historical residential rights, between 1994 and 2004 there were one million evictions.

Farmers have often arranged for workers to live off their property, thus breaking their long-term residence rights, and have reduced reliance on labour by moving away from field crops to livestock and horticulture.

The wage component in agriculture has declined and the proportion of casual labour increased to the extent that in the Western Cape it now predominates.

Helliker dismisses warnings about food security as a reason for caution about change by posing a higher argument about long-term investment in people. And he points out that many white farmers have opted for game farming that has forced up the price of land, led to evictions and left the “power of agricultural capital intact”. Interestingly, he mentions favourably the share-cropping that was deliberately destroyed by the 1913 land legislation.

This book’s overall recommendations are surprisingly modest.

Rejecting government attempts at land reform as “inappropriate and inadequate” (only restitution has achieved some success), its authors argue for expropriation of un- and underemployed land to relieve the acute pressure on the former bantustans.

Here, freehold title on communal land, as described by Tendi Murisa in Malawi, and the establishment of well-supported producer co-operatives are advocated. There remains the problem of the non-agricultural population, although there is employment potential in ancillary rural services. For commercial farms, the Zimbabwe A1/A2 model is favoured: farm workers become small-scale farmers in co-operative ventures with worker control of larger farms.

This is a far cry from the current, stuttering government efforts at land reform, described by Hendricks, Ntsebeza and Helliker as inert. They believe that South Africa is at a turning point after the Marikana strike and massacre, and the rural unrest in the Western Cape. The state has turned to killing in order to maintain the established order, which in turn is challenged by growing numbers of those who imagine “a vastly different country”. This vision has, however, yet to grow into a coherent movement.

Sam Moyo, writing about the Zimbabwe experience, points out that its rural upheaval began 20 years after liberation in a context of imposed neo-conservative economic policy, massive unemployment and the failure of market-based land reform. This, he argues, is where South Africa finds itself today. However, by denying the blatantly political factors underlying the Zimbabwe land grab, and the abrogation of the rule of law and the human rights violations involved, he seriously devalues his comparison.

Hendricks, Ntsebeza and Helliker surprisingly underplay government mismanagement as a reason for the slow progress of land reform and instead blame South Africa’s subordination to a globalised economy.

There is no effective substitute for the willing-buyer, willing-seller model yet, although a system of compulsory purchase based on a fair price is said to be in the pipeline.

Hendricks grasps the thorny issue of the property clause in the Constitution and puts forward the debatable view that it entrenches inequality. Short shrift is given to non-government organisations which are seen as prone to statist, technocratic influences.

These are fairly predictable criticisms from the political left, but more interestingly, blame for lack of progress is also placed squarely on traditional authorities.

Correctly they are identified closely with the colonial and apartheid past when they were co-opted by an illegitimate government and used as a means of enforcement.

Ntsebeza describes chiefs as “junior partners” in apartheid in which control of land was a decisive factor and incited the 1960 Mpondo revolt. Denialism of this past and a move under the Zuma administration towards entrenching traditional authority and its courts will make an imaginative and forward-looking rural policy and democracy in the ex-bantustans impossible. Ntsebeza labels the Communal Land Rights Act unconstitutional.

The authors of The Promise of Land have little faith in government and point out that the ANC has historically been an urban-focused party.

Evoking the rural struggles of the last century, they put their faith in a grassroots movement they believe to be emerging. Their only evidence is the protest that started at De Doorns and spread to 25 Western Cape towns; while the post-liberation history of the rural movement and the lack of sustained organisation spelled out by Ntsebeza provide little room for optimism. The latest alliance, Tshintsha Amakhaya (transforming households), is committed to an alternative rural economic model.

This book presents an unashamedly left-wing view of the land question and rural development. But the right-wing Free Market Foundation is currently promoting equally radical solutions. It argues that present policy effectively nationalises land while black South Africans should be given the deeds to freehold title to provide incentive and collateral for sustainable livelihoods. The Truth Commission recommended a land fund based on one percent of revenue from companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The odd man out in the debate, generally devoid of imagination and action, is our government.

● The Promise of Land: Undoing a Century of Dispossession in South Africa, edited by Fred Hendricks, Lungisile Ntsebeza and Kirk Helliker, is published by Jacana.

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