Land reform is treason

2010-04-21 00:00

I JUST had three days of solid uniquely Seffrican joys. I was going to tell you in 1 000 words. But ...

I gagged over the Sunday Independent churning out Verse 12 288 (approximately) from the 15-year-old song G ive Us More Land Reform, the planet’s only known entity more tuneless than a vuvuzela.

This was by Shadrack Gutto, chairperson of the Centre for African Renaissance at Unisa, and I have to reply.

First of all let me say a lot of peaceable things.

Such as: nothing is more boring than the black-white ping pong that passes for debate in South Africa — “you darkies stuff up” versus “you honkies caused the ills”.

We’re about to get close to that terrain and it’s uncomfortable. I’m tired of seeing race-loaded aspersions flung from distances, and don’t want to do that stuff. Debate works when it’s person to person, you’re civilised to each other, and people apply reason, not grabbing their “own” side as if our brains were tied to our pigment.

I hereby propose a debate with Gutto, on “Land reform is treason”.

I’ll take along witnesses and evidence and stuff, and so can he, and I think we should add an element to spice things up. We should let ourselves be locked in, no food or water, until one of us signs a statement saying the other is right.

He might not take dramatically long, though. He’ll fold when he hears people who know these things talk of the degeneration of the soil, the takeover by the bush, the impoverishing of the beneficiaries, and the windfall for the former farmer. (In one case, I know, the state paid R36 million to give a farmer seven years of global holiday before he was called back to start restoration, as “employee” of the new owners.)

Anyway, there’s my offer: full, decent debate. I think Gutto should be host at his Centre for Renaissance, but I’ll pay half the coffee bill. He can also change the title as he wishes — “Africans wanting more land reform have to be suffering from death wish” or “Land reform: the Boere’s revenge”. Up to him.

Still being peaceable, I want him to know I hugely agree with his motives. I don’t want people living in squalor or children playing in rivers of piss, yecch. Nor do I want people owning vast hereditary chunks of the nation thanks to history. If Gutto shows me a way to make humble lives better by taking idle land from the rich, I’ll be right behind him in a red bandana.

But we part company when it comes to race statistics.

What Gutto wants is more land owned by black people. This is the same target as the previous 12 287, or whatever, articles on the same theme. They all ask the same two questions: (1) Why does the government only aim to redistribute 30% of land? And: (2) Why is actual redistribution way below target?

I have a “Why”, too. Why don’t Gutto and Co ask what happens to the land and the people? For 15 years it has been possible, although ever less plausible, for the land-reform gang to claim that good is being done. It’s not possible now, after Land Affairs itself stated to Parliament — unbelievably, spectacularly — that 90% of transformed land is lying fallow.

And yet here comes Gutto with business as usual: change the statistics. I can’t believe we just go pounding on, on, on, “transformation isn’t working, speed it up”. All the evidence says “transformation is a disaster, stop it”.

I pause to emphasise (peaceably) that I recognise humble people being helped to eke out a living on subsistence land. I know two such cases, one in its 11th year of a R10-million-a-year hand-out. This is what Land Affairs would count in the non-disastrous minority. Fine, okay, anti-economic, but people living decently.

If the success stories are anti- economic, though, the failures are mind-blowing.

Here’s a case I saw with my eyes, about land I trod with my feet. I emphasise that because I am aware of how anecdotes can grow. The 10th recycling of a land-claim horror story is 20 times worse than the truth. This one is my tale. I was shown around by the spokesperson of the new owners, a nice guy who I’ll call R.

R takes me to the farm. I see strips in the ground that used to be a building’s foundations. That, plus random litter and a few places where you see furrow shapes denoting a one-time protection against soil erosion, are the sole giveaways of a human presence.

R is abashed. He says sorry, our people didn’t know about farming.

I say I get that impression but, um, where are they? Where are their houses?

R says, no, no, nothing like that, nobody lives here.

I’m surprised. I thought the whole idea was for people to live here.

Hell no, says R, people whose grandparents were here are town people now.

Bit by bit out comes the low- down. Nominally there are 320 members of the clan that owns the place. Of these 320, some 140 are not precisely known to X, uh, exist exactly. R explains that there was scouring of memories: “Didn’t Uncle Leruo have another son, could it have been Molefi?” So now Molefi Leruo, address unknown, is a 1/320 owner of a 4 000-hectare former farm. Of the 180 members who R is fairly sure are or were real, about 130’s whereabouts are known “by someone”. Of those 130, about 80 have been traced and of these 80 at least 50 — R was strong on that at least — know that they are part owners of the farm. Of those 50, “about 10” have visited. These 10, I gather — R got mumbly here — form the committee.

Previous exposure to the land- claim business had left me doubtful of its excellence. R’s account left a hole in my soul.

We then passed a strange hole in the ground, an odd billowy shape, somehow familiar. Oh, said R, that was the swimming pool. It was stolen.

I think that’s an entry for the Guinness Book of Records — every human-made thing stolen, down to the swimming pool. I don’t think it’s a model of nation-building.

R was real and upright about this, in the limits of the way that people stuffed up by the lunacies of racist government can be. So, as we parted, I said I was sorry that things had worked out this way.

R brightened up, saying: “Oh no, don’t worry about us. We have another 11 land claims in the pipeline.”

Well, hooray.

To Gutto, I state a sincere proposition: this is how things are working. No one needs this. It’s not about whites and blacks — get past that now, it’s a brake. It’s about health, wealth and survival. I agree with Gutto, we’re a skewed country. He and I might find common ground on real ways to address that skewing, but surely none of those ways means turning breadbaskets into wastelands.

Nor can I see how it matters that Africa sees land as common heritage. Never has the person who tills the land failed to have more rights to it than the passing stranger.

I hope Gutto takes this up.

Meantime, I’m not forgetting my three days of joys. I was travelling, by car. I paid nought, nil, zero attention to news and the world. My universe was the music on my CD and the people I met. And I had not one non-pleasant experience.

Get that? I didn’t say “unpleasant”. Most days I have no unpleasant experiences. This was more, higher. There was not even a plain neutral experience. Every exchange I had was pleasant, with petrol jockeys, professors, waiters, passers-by, industrialists and cleaners, and, it particularly struck me, 14 toll-plaza cashiers.

Where in the world can you go through 14 successive toll plazas and in every one have a three-second exchange that makes your day? Weird ol’ South Africa, that’s where. The place where the people are as great as the politics is stuffed.



• Denis Beckett ran Frontline magazine in the eighties and the television documentary Beckett’s Trek in the nineties.

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