There will be no nation-building without confronting the land question

Land reform. Picture: iStock
Land reform. Picture: iStock

A few months ago, a photo of President Cyril Ramaphosa kneeling before Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini caused an uproar among our compatriots, who saw it as a form of submission and not humility.

“Why would Ramaphosa kneel before the king when former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma did not?” read some newspaper headlines.

Why would the king of the Zulu people not be seen as a source of national pride? Why is he seen as a symbol of domination?

The answer lies in part in 2005, when, according to former ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa, the governing party abandoned nation-building in favour of succession contests, to the detriment of the country’s economic development.

Later, Mbeki decried the resurgence of tribalism and how it influenced the appointment of state officials. To his credit, Mbeki was committed to uniting the African people beyond ideological lines, as evidenced by his appointment of Black Consciousness and Pan-African stalwarts to key government posts.

Today we see lots of tribal bragging and suspicion on social media – take the recent stirring against former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni for speaking in English during an interview on a Xitsonga radio station programme; or the #FeesMustFall student protesters, who presented identity as a strong motivator.

Organisations such as AfriForum have thrived in these circumstances. Sadly, in most cases, identity and heritage are not used as positive forces for nation-building but as negative tools for exclusion, division and consolidating personal power.

The politics of identity based on race, pigmentation or ethnicity are too dangerous for the development of a nation.

We need a strong centre to effect nation-building, incorporating education, culture, religion and a firm resolution of the land question as building blocks. If the majority of our people were educated about our history, they would know that there is so much that unites us – and that there is a common ancestry among our clans.

There will be no nation-building without confronting the land question. That this issue was thrust on to the national agenda by actors other than the ANC is instructive. Land reform has not only failed, but has largely benefited white farmers.

The ANC does not have to dig deep to see where it went wrong. Statements of leaders such as Pixley ka Isaka Seme and John Dube, along with documents such as African claims to the land and the youth league’s stance in the 1940s and the late 1980s are instructive on the relationship between nation-building, land and identity.

Ramaphosa has said that if not addressed, the land question will leave the country divided. It will be worse if the response to this matter of conquest and dispossession is only a kneejerk reaction. This matter affects our identity, economic wellbeing, governance and culture, as well as the law. We dare not fail our country.

Khosa is a secretary of the Rixaka Forum, which advocates the use of identity for constructive, not exclusionary, purposes

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