Land needs a relationist approach

2018-03-18 06:03

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The land reform process has gained traction following the recent vote in Parliament to amend section 25 of the Constitution to achieve expropriation without compensation. This is to speed up a process that has been snail slow since 1994 and to achieve more equal political and economic justice.

The overarching questions have been what and why?

While they are important, South Africa’s new land reform is less focused on the deeper values that shape people’s relationship with land. So, how can relationism inform the debate and decisions on land reform?

We are familiar with capitalism, individualism, socialism and Marxism, but beneath relationism lies four presuppositions about the nature of human beings:

That all human life has intrinsic value and dignity.

That good interpersonal relationships are of primary importance to both individual and societal wellbeing.

Good relationships depend on the presence of both obligation and choice in the social structure.

Lastly, that a good relationship is to be understood primarily from a moral point of view.

Why should land be returned to its rightful owners? The answer by politicians is that land was taken by force and must be returned by whatever means possible.

But land has greater significance. For example, good relationships are regarded as essential for individuals and communities to flourish. Land is the physical space on which individuals and communities build and establish their lives and identities. It is with families, friends, neighbours and colleagues that life is shared. Land is a place where people have encounters with others. It is also a social place where we form histories, values and common purpose which may lead to building momentum and resilience in relationships as we align with others.

We have knowledge of others, and the more we know them the more we can anticipate and respond appropriately to them. When we understand the power dynamics among people living together, we should also realise how land can be used to create fairness, respect and participation. Through shared land space, we can have good and healthy interactions with others. We can also find dignity, security, rootedness, community, permanence and belonging, and share a sense of responsibility and commitment with others.

The effect of apartheid’s dispossession of land on the breakdown of relationships and its effect on the value and dignity of black South Africans is colossal. The consequences are still with us and will linger for at least another generation. If we view dispossession from this relational basis, we must carefully consider land reform policies not only as economically or politically viable, but as a fundamental rebuilding of a relationist society which was dismantled in the process of forceful removal.

The restoration of land means restoring good human relationships and putting together shattered households and family arrangements. In this case, land reform becomes that which strengthens the deep sense of value and dignity of human beings and the importance of the environment in which we interact and relate to others.

Therefore, I suggest that if we view land from a relational point of view, it adds more weight to why the land reform process should be done faster than in the past two decades. We should see land not simply as a way of organising society – which sounds “nice”, but as a major change in the approach in which we have viewed land purely as a political problem.

If the breakdown of good relationships and fragmentation of families and households has far-reaching implications on societies, economies and politics, it seems to me that we need to solve societal challenges at their root issue – restoring relationships.

- Holtzhausen is a doctoral candidate, focusing on building a relational economy and society, at the University of Pretoria

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