Guest Column

Time to take the land debate back from the populists

2018-06-03 06:01

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Chris Maxon

The current land debate is regarded by many as progress, but others, including me, believe it’s just a flat tyre. More worrying is its success in drawing from the ashes populist rhetoric and theatrics that confuse the masses instead of providing clarity.

The land question has remained an unresolved issue since the democratic breakthrough of 1994 and, as such, has been used as a rallying point for a variety of populist and legitimate reasons. The extent to which indigenous people were robbed of their land by the illegitimate state under colonial rule and apartheid has no parallels in Africa.

Since 1994, issues at the heart of the land question are how to reverse this phenomenon, and how the large-scale redistribution of land can contribute to the transformation of the economy and the reduction of rural and urban poverty.

In February, Parliament debated the issue, resulting in what is regarded as a progressive motion on land expropriation without compensation. In my view, land “expropriation without compensation” remains a revolutionary sounding slogan at this stage.

Today, there are about 2 million black subsistence farmers growing crops and raising livestock primarily for their own use. Additionally, there are about 200 000 small-scale black farmers selling their produce to the agricultural market. These 2.2 million black farmers are responsible for only 5% of all economic output in the agricultural sector.

Compared with this, only about 35 000 commercial farmers own the most fertile land in the country, and they are responsible for the remaining 95% of agricultural production. Of these, just 1 300 farms receive more than 50% of total agricultural income. These are the big capitalist farmers using the latest technology and farming methods to produce for the world market.

The current debate lacks details on a plan once land has been expropriated. Most dangerously, it has all the trappings of left-wing populism. During and soon after the parasitic state capture era, we have seen an indifference starting to form towards all forms of formal political efforts. There are very worrying trends, including land invasions led by young people in many townships, and they are invariably saying they doubt government will assuage their hunger for land.

What government doesn’t tell the masses is that, today, more than two-thirds of the population lives in big, modern cities. Also, agriculture is not a major contributor to the country’s gross domestic product – only 2.2%.

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair once warned: “Even where populism does not win, it influences and distorts debate.” Populism identifies an enemy as the answer to what is essentially the problem of fast-tracked change.

The proponents of expropriation without compensation tend to correctly invoke the past by stating that our forefathers used to plough the land and feed their families. The danger with this narrative is that it is based on the negative, which suggests that the only story of Africans is struggle and oppression. Inadvertently, it plays on the coloniser’s narrative that Africans could not and will not be able to manage land for their own good.

This is a revolution that is mainly economic, but also historical. Those who got used to thinking for Africans, or to guiding the thinking of Africans, also feel aggrieved by the masses of Africans rising to be thinkers and spokespeople of their own thoughts. Major capitalist powers are driven by the urge to protect capitalist civilisation.

A contributor to Forbes magazine, Lorenzo Montanari, in March opined: “Property rights are in danger in South Africa. A mix of revenge and socialist ideology are behind the expropriation without compensation policy amendments that changed the South African Constitution.”

The people’s struggle against apartheid galvanised the masses to the left because they felt that the colonialists didn’t satisfy their aspirations for national freedom and economic emancipation. That was a national question, of course, but it was primarily an economic one.

Today’s land struggle is no different. The modus operandi of populists is not to reason, but to roar. The populist force has, at times, an anarchic feel, yet it has also mobilised a powerful media behind it. Its supporters welcome the outrage their leaders provoke. This polarises public discourse and enhances their sense of belonging, so that even when they’re in government, they act as if they were excluded from it.

We also need to assert that the current land question or debate isn’t about “revenge” or narrow nationalism. We need to assert that the commitment to land reform is also to assert the people’s identity and because it is a symbol of citizenship.

The immediate take is to galvanise the voiceless centre ground so that it can recover the traction it has lost in recent years to a populist politics upsurge. The political centre has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it represents. The left needs to recover its radicalism as we are seeing a convergence of the far left and far right.

The debate needs a radical shift and must be taken further by progressive forces to give it completeness by succinctly detailing a programmatic approach to meaningful land expropriation. Progressives must reach across the political divide, making a virtue of nonpartisanship. Those who feel dispossessed within existing party structures should make common cause, and do so unashamedly.

The politics of the progressive centre has not died, but it needs reinventing and re-energising. We must build a new coalition that is popular, not populist. The centre needs to develop an agenda that shows people they will get support to help them through the change that’s happening around them. This political agenda should not (myopically) be about settling the homeless or building malls, but one that ensures full participation of the disposed masses in the productive sectors of the economy.

Land poverty is neither trivial nor inevitable – it is a challenge that involves everyone at all levels, from households right up to decision makers.

The new agenda has to focus on opportunities for radical change in the way that agriculture and services like healthcare serve people. This must include how we educate, skill and equip our people for the future; how we reform tax and welfare systems to encourage a fairer distribution of wealth; and how we replenish our infrastructures and invest in the communities most harmed by trade and technology.

In other words, unresolved issues like the land question should be closely linked to the class struggle and, importantly, the fight for total economic transformation.

- Maxon is a public servant in the KwaZulu-Natal department of health.

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Read more on:    land expropriation  |  land reform
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