The land issue is about restoring identity

2018-03-18 06:03
The City of Johannesburg is looking to expropriate abandoned or hijacked buildings in the CBD and in Hillbrow. PHOTO: khaya ngwenya

The City of Johannesburg is looking to expropriate abandoned or hijacked buildings in the CBD and in Hillbrow. PHOTO: khaya ngwenya

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“… those young women in the prime of early womanhood left to face life alone, burdened with the task of building a home and rearing a family, doomed to nurse alone their sick babies, weep alone over their dead babies, dress and bury alone their corpses.”

Phyllis Ntantala, The Widows of the Reserves, 1958

The silences in African history have bedevilled the South African land debate and distorted the ways in which we, Africans, understand our own histories. Congolese historian Jacques Depelchin writes about the distortions produced through silences and the multiple ways in which knowledge production entrenches these silences.

Following the conversations and shouting matches about the ANC’s decision on land and the subsequent parliamentary resolution, I found myself revisiting Depelchin’s Silences in African History: between the syndrome of discovery and abolition; Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence; bell hooks’ Remembered rapture and many other writers who have problematised “silences in history and speech”.

I was grappling with these works and their implications on our debate on land when I received an unexpected request to see my unpublished work on Phyllis Ntantala.

The essay was presented in 2016 and left unedited and therefore unpublished. Why? Ntantala’s work The Widows of the Reserves “peels off the layers of language to get to the meaning and human experience” (hooks).

The piece was put aside because it forced me to look at difficult and painful aspects of our family’s history and the issues we did not speak about. The losses we whispered about or left unsaid and, in so doing, distorted and erased our history.

My grandmother was pregnant when my grandfather died. She gave birth to a healthy girl child, who my then father named Ncebakazi. Before the baby was born, a male relative by clan name and not blood wanted to take my grandmother as his wife using the custom called ukungena (when a male relative takes a widow as his wife in place of the deceased husband).

This man was not a blood relative; my great-grandfather had one male issue, our grandfather Mthunzi. Niven Gasa, our great-grandfather, was the only male in his immediate family. His cousins in Ngcobo, Mthatha and other areas did not even consider practising ukungena. It was not part of our custom.

So, this was about property and dispossession. Naturally, grandmother rebelled and instead gave up what was rightfully hers. Thus, overnight she became a pregnant widow with no land, no property and no work.

Ntantala writes in her autobiography A Life’s Mosaic “I chose a life of uncertainty”. For my grandmother Sindiwe Virginia Gasa, that choice meant becoming a domestic worker and sole breadwinner. She sent her baby Ncebakazi to rural Eastern Cape and became a wet nurse for the woman who employed her.

The shame and the “unsayable” in our family is that the baby died of malnutrition. Her grave is unknown. Babies don’t have a grave of their own in our cultural milieu, they are slipped in an elders’ grave, bayaqhushekwa. The weight of this shame and pain has meant that none of us really knows where our aunt is buried. We assume it was in a grave of someone related to our grandmother.

This is not unique to our family. All over South Africa and many post-colonial societies, people have gone and still go through these losses.

In South Africa, approaches to land, rights and citizenship demonstrate the extent to which politicians and decision makers have failed to understand what land and landlessness means for women, especially poor women and widows. The very notion of widowhood means being invisible and erased. This itself is part of our colonial legacy.

Instead of anxiety about Parliament’s resolution to look into section 25 of the Constitution, we should welcome this as an opportunity to have serious conversations on the meanings of land in South Africa. How does land intersect with identity, productive agricultural economy and asset accumulation in a changing society?

We will find that many of these questions are already addressed in section 25. Failure to redistribute land in a just and equitable manner is covered in section 25(5). The Constitution provides for expropriation in the public interest. There are multiple ways in which this can be done. Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba has already suggested expropriation without compensation by taking over abandoned buildings or those which owe revenue to the city.

As with many South Africans, President Cyril Ramaphosa agrees with Mashaba. However, there is a fundamental, if seemingly imperceptible, difference. Ramaphosa’s emphasis is on section 25(5), which states: “The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis.” Mashaba’s emphasis on “affordable housing” will have to be subject to this clause. In other terms, section 25(5) protects citizens from displacement because of “gentrification” or selective cultural practices that discriminate against widows and other vulnerable people.

Land is not just about agriculture. It is about freedom, identity and complex intersections between belonging, dignity, property, wealth, security, culture and customary practices. This is an opportunity not only to look at expropriation with or without compensation, but to ask the fundamental question, what does land mean to us as a nation? There is no single answer to this question. For many people it means security of tenure and rights for labour tenants, for people who have worked and lived on “post-independence” Transkei farms, state land and abandoned farms.

Most importantly, this is an opportunity to ask questions about the colonial and apartheid legacy on spatial planning. Unless we have a brave approach which disrupts what Frantz Fanon called “the lines on which a decolonised society will be reorganised”, we will reproduce the same patterns which dispossess, marginalise and oppress the majority of this country.

Many scholars and writers argue that South Africa’s future is urban. In my view, and in the experience of my complex family, community of origin, communities I work with and the history of migration, this is simply not true. There are at least 20 million South Africans who call rural South Africa home. If this is true, we must include the complex questions of identity, spatial design and the institution of traditional leadership in this country.

Our conversation must look at the experiences of South Africans holistically. We must develop a universal law for all citizens, wherever they are located, be it in rural, peri-urban and urban areas and do away with the reproduction of different laws, which continue apartheid’s “bifurcated citizenship”.

For many of us justice is not about a farm, a piece of ground or money. There is no way in which we can quantify the meaning of human life. Reparation and restitution can take different forms and these must go hand in hand. The land claims commission must address, as a matter of urgency, the old claims in its files. For people in communities like Mawubuye uMhlaba Wethu in Mpumalanga, waiting 22 years for an uncontested land claim is a slap in the face.

For people like my family, there is no land or price for Ncebakazi. Some wounds will continue to ooze and, with time, the smell of puss will become less pronounced and healing will begin.

Whatever our personal and collective stories, we want an opportunity to acknowledge the suffering of people and, where possible, address it. I would like to see an unequivocal affirmation of the Constitution as a transformatory tool that centres on the lives of widows and their children in present-day South Africa.

- Gasa is adjunct professor of public law and a senior research associate at the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town. Gasa’s work focuses on land, politics, gender and cultural issues

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