Land: Why So Afraid Of A Debate?

If there ever was any doubt that different South Africans mean completely different things when they speak about the land, the debate sparked in parliament on Tuesday by the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) draft resolution on the expropriation of land without compensation surely proved exactly that. The land question can be avoided no longer – it is of crucial economic, social and legal importance. So why are critics of expropriation balking at the prospect of debating it in parliament?

In the midst of the draft resolution debate on Tuesday, the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) parliamentary leader Petrus Groenewald stood up and praised the African National Congress (ANC) member of parliament and new minister of water and sanitation Gugile Nkwinti for a comment he’d made earlier during the proceedings, where he said that it was not correct to say that the land had been ‘stolen’ from black people in the past.

Groenewald’s intention of course, was to reinforce his own point, that the current situation where the majority of privately-owned land (that is, not owned by the government) is in the hands of the white minority population came about by fair means, in spite of this country’s history of colonialism and apartheid’s forced removals.

Except this is not what Nkwinti meant at all. What he actually said was: “There is a narrative that land was stolen. Nobody was asleep when land was taken, it was taken through brutal wars of colonialism, so let us do away with that narrative.”

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This misunderstanding – deliberate or otherwise – perfectly encapsulates the state of the land debate in South Africa today. People mean different things when they say ‘the land’, land reform, expropriation, restitution, justice, and so on.

To some people, best represented in parliament by the EFF, the ends are all that matters. Restitution means that the black majority must own most of the land if apartheid is to be finally done away with, and it matters less how we get there. To others, perhaps more concerned about monies owed overseas, it is crucial that the investor not be upset in any way, and that in spite of the historical facts of colonialism and apartheid, black people must nevertheless buy their way to restorative justice. These are the extremes of the viewpoints, with many shades in-between. The debate in parliament on Tuesday was a good facsimile of the broader public’s viewpoints on the land question.

Two things were made immediately obvious by the debate: firstly, the apartheid denialists are in the tiny minority. There is broad agreement that black people in general and Africans in particular were unfairly dispossessed of their lands in the past, and this is a wrong that needs to be righted. Secondly, there is almost no broad agreement whatsoever on how to achieve this constitutionally-mandated goal of restorative justice.

If there is no agreement on the very terms of the debate, there is little hope that there can ever be an agreement on the way forward. It’s a mess alright.

But one thing baffles me. Several members of parliament, especially those from the right-wing in the Democratic Alliance, reacted to the passing of the EFF’s draft resolution – heavily amended by the ANC, of course – as if the constitution has now been changed and expropriation of land without compensation is set to go ahead. It isn’t. All we have at the moment is a commitment from parliament that the debate will go ahead, and will include public participation. What’s wrong with that?

I’m not impressed by the argument that the debate on land ownership reform (broadly speaking) should begin by taking certain options off the table, because of “foreign investors”, or whoever else is so taken up by our national conversations. As much as those people invest in China or Vietnam knowing very well that the social conditions in those countries allow for the exploitation of the working class, (it is interesting how the übercapitalists and liberals of the West find the political control exerted by the authoritarians of Asia ever so convenient for the profitable production of consumer goods) they know that the context in South Africa is different. We happen to be a democratic country of basic human rights. If that is not acceptable to them, well, we are not going to cripple our constitutional framework for the sake of their bottom lines…

If the EFF, ANC and other political parties that together pushed through this draft resolution want to argue that expropriation of land without compensation is the answer, let them do so. Let us hear their reasons why.

In fact, let the ANC explain to us what it means when it says that expropriation of land without compensation should nevertheless be compatible with increased agricultural production and food security.

If the DA wants to argue, as it already has begun in the wake of Tuesday, that expropriation is altogether the wrong remedy, then let it do so. It says that its own programmes in the Western Cape prove that its methods work best. Fine. Show us the evidence. If the ANC is wrong, prove it with facts and evidence.

If the FF+ (and, very sadly for a supposed product of the Black Consciousness Movement, Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota) want to argue that historical black dispossession is a figment of our collective imaginations, I invite them to try and convince the South African body politic of this notion.

Let the agricultural economists, farmers (of all hues), bankers, farmworkers, academics, suburban landowners, and lay members of the public make their representations. Let those who were forced off their land in District Six and Sophiatown and other places have their say. Let the offspring of the apartheid beneficiaries have their say. Let the township dweller, the rural dweller, and the custodians of communal land be heard. Hell, let the King of the Zulu nation, the custodian of the Ingonyama Trust, have his say.

Let the government explain to us exactly how much land it owns, and why that land (vast tracts of it, apparently) has not formed a part of this debate. Let the ministers of land reform, past and present, explain why the pace of land reform has been so achingly slow.

Let the judges and constitutional experts explain to us why they say the law of the land does not actually prevent expropriation in the public interest.

But what cannot be acceptable to any of us is that this debate is somehow inherently unconstitutional, or should not happen. This is a democracy, and debate is how we have a meeting of minds. Let it happen.

Let us not shy away from debate. Let us not let fear conquer our faculties of reason. We need this debate. The EFF’s draft resolution is exactly such an opportunity for the country. Isn’t this what a constitutional democracy is supposed to be about?

Featured Image via Flickr