The last snag, some will speculate, that was ultimately the undoing of state capture was the inability of its engineers to successfully field a permanent, servile yes-man to Treasury.
Though they came achingly close to that objective, a few good men in government balked, the markets tanked and civil society said enough was enough.
Although the conservative estimates of the pillage hovers at about R500 billion, it’s safe to say that it’s a pittance compared with what it could have been.
That matter now lies before a commission, but South Africa is far from being out of the woods. Not with the lurking scallywags who didn’t think twice about plundering while people were dying on faeces-stained hospital floors due to Covid-19. And certainly not with millions of hectares of arable land waiting for imminent government expropriation.
It’s here that the next bottomless troughs will call loudly to the hyenas. Though the notion of land ownership may be ensconced in nationalist sentimentality and cultural totems, it would be foolhardy to assume the average government hack attaches any credence to that.
On the face of it, land restitution represents a noble mandate – restoring dignity to people who, for generations, were denied it. It signifies an opportunity for the black poor to participate in the economy not as mere labourers, but as a new African squirearchy.
For the first time in centuries, black workers won’t be heeding a baas’ beckoning finger, nor making do with brown-envelope wage packets, nor doing back-breaking labour to enrich not themselves, but some khaki-clad, modern-day aristocrat.
Most noteworthy is that land restitution aims to recast the country to fit the mould of its demographics. After all, in China, it’s the Chinese who stand knee-deep tilling the rice paddies. It’s the Scots who distil the godliest of single malts in the highlands and lowlands of their country – not black Africans.
Yet we’ve seen enough of South Africa to understand that, on paper – from the Constitution right down to policies of redress – our lawmakers are keen on aesthetics. If only the implementation thereof wasn’t such a sub-standard betrayal of the nice words. You’ll remember that, once upon a time, BEE was a credible treatise, until the unscrupulous annotated footnotes like “fronting” on to it.
Affirmative action promised to serve marginalised black people before it was revamped into a brothel of nepotism and a “thanks, ma’am” gesture to girlfriends. The tendersphere was poised to be the breeding ground for throngs of black businesspeople until the politically connected showed up with bags full of money and effectively sealed the fate of the little guy’s chances.
Why, then, would anybody be naive enough to think the land issue will be an exception to the rule? When greed has trumped all in its path, including the very sanctity of life (think Covid-19), who would be foolish enough to imagine that “imigodlo” won’t be lining the desks of those in the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development as soon as the expropriation bill is legislated? Just as chinks are exploited in the tender processes, so will lacunas in land legislation be prised open and drained.
In dribs and drabs, stories of black farmers being evicted from their farms – not by whites, but by connected individuals – are coming to the fore. We may not know the legal technicalities, but we’re all too aware that, where there’s smoke, there’s fire – especially when there’s a politician lurking in the background.
This is problematic on many fronts. Firstly, it drives home the obvious – this is a capitalist society and the poor can only get poorer. Secondly, it feeds into the narrative that black people can’t farm unless they have white men pointing to where they should dig. Arguably the most famous example of this is that of National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise. When the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals discovered dead and starving livestock on her farm in Potchefstroom in 2014, there was an outcry from animal rights groups – but even louder were the smug comments: “You see? They want the farms, but look at what they do!”
However, it’s common knowledge that farming is a hands-on vocation, requiring passion and commitment. Who has the time to pursue it, if not the unemployed rural poor, many of whom already possess a working knowledge of the basics? If there was ever an inherently Africanist ideology to fulfil, it lies rooted in the land; the ability of the black man to own his own and make a success of it; to produce his own food and feed an entire nation. Besides minibus taxis, there’s no other black-dominated industry worth mentioning. No spazas. No mines. No major restaurants.
It may sound paternalistic and contrary to laissez faire liberalism, but this writer contends that the land redistribution process (or, at least, its roll-out) must be free from political elements. An administrator can be hired, if necessary, but I doubt anybody will be relying on the current crop of politicians in all spheres of government to successfully facilitate these transfers. They simply can’t be trusted to oversee an undertaking with so much riding on it, especially now that so many have shown just how sticky their fingers can be.
One need only look at the number of redistributed farms that now lie fallow and bankrupt for a taste of things to come.
What’s often overlooked is that expropriation is the easy part. Far more difficult – given the investments, incentives and skills training that the apartheid regime pumped into this sector, effectively making farming a complex science – is how the state will support these emerging farmers. It’s no longer just a matter of planting seeds and breeding livestock, there are advanced mechanisms involved in making a farming enterprise successful.
Mayaba is a graduate and freelance writer