The current land debate is regarded by many as progress while on the other hand others, including me, believe it’s just a flat tyre. More worrying is its success in drawing, from the ashes, populist rhetoric and theatrics that only confuse the masses rather than provide clarity.

The land question has remained an unresolved issue since the democratic breakthrough of 1994 and as such has been used as a rallying point for a variety of populist and legitimate reasons. The extent to which indigenous people were robbed of their land by the illegitimate state in South Africa under colonial rule and apartheid has no parallels on the African continent.

Since the advent of democracy in 1994, issues at the heart of the land question in South Africa are how to reverse this phenomenon and how a large-scale redistribution of land can contribute to the transformation of the economy and the reduction of poverty, both rural and urban.

In February parliament debated the issue resulting in what is regarded as a progressive motion on land expropriation without compensation. In my view, at this stage land expropriation without compensation “remains a revolutionary sounding slogan.”

Today, there are about 2million black subsistence farmers growing crops and raising livestock primarily for their own use. Additionally, there are about 200,000 black small farmers selling their produce to the agricultural market. In total these 2.2million black farmers are responsible for only five per cent of all economic output in the agricultural sector. 

Compared to this, there are only about 35 000 commercial farmers owning the most fertile land. They are responsible for the remaining 95 per cent of agricultural production. Of these, just 1,300 farms receive more than 50 per cent of total agricultural income. These are the big capitalist farmers using the latest technology and farming methods to produce for the world market.

The current debate lacks details on what is the programme once land is expropriated. But most dangerously it has all the trappings of left-wing populism. During, and soon after, the parasitic state capture era we have seen an indifference to all forms of formal political efforts starting to form. There are very worrying trends including land invasions led by young people in many townships invariantly saying they doubt government to deliver for their land hunger.

What they shy to tell the masses is that today more than two-thirds of the population now lives in big, modern cities. Also, agriculture is not a major contributor – only 2.2 per cent – to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Tony Blair, former United Kingdom Prime Minister warned; “even where populism does not win, it influences and distorts debate”. Populism identifies an enemy as the answer to what are essentially the problems of fast-tracked change.

The proponents of expropriation without compensation tend to correctly invoke the past stating that our forefathers used to plough the land and feed their families. The danger with this narrative is that it is based on the negative which suggests that the only story of Africans is struggle and oppression. Inadvertently; it plays on the coloniser’s narrative that Africans have never and can’t manage land for their own good.

This is a revolution that is mainly economic, but also historical. Those who got used to thinking for Africans, or to guiding the thinking of Africans, also feel aggrieved by the masses of Africans rising to be thinkers and spokespersons of their own thoughts, by Africans rising to be leaders of thought. Major capitalist powers are driven by the urge to protect capitalist civilization.

A contributor to Forbes Magazine, Lorenzo Montanari, recently (March 2018) opined; “Property rights are in danger in South Africa. A mix of revenge and socialist ideology are behind the expropriation without compensation policy amendments that changed the South Africa Constitution”. 

The people’s struggle against apartheid galvanized the masses to the left because they felt that the colonialists didn’t satisfy their aspirations for national freedom and economic emancipation. That was a national question, of course; but it was primarily an economic one. 

Today’s land struggle is no different. The modus operandi of populists is not to reason but to roar. They have at times an anarchic feel. Yet it has also mobilized a powerful media behind it. Its supporters welcome the outrage their leaders provoke. This polarizes public discourse and enhances their sense of belonging, so that even when they’re in government, they act as if they were excluded from it.

We also need to state that the current land question or debate isn’t about “revenge” or narrow nationalism. We must assert that our commitment to land reform is fundamentally to affirm the people’s identity and because land is a symbol of citizenship. 

The center must hold! The immediate take is to galvanize the voiceless center ground so that it can recover the traction it has lost in recent years to a populist politics upsurge. The political center has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it represents. The left needs to recover its radicalism as we are seeing a convergence of the extreme left and far right.

Primarily, the debate needs a radical shift and be taken further by all progressive forces to give it completeness by succinctly detailing a programmatic approach to meaningful land expropriation (with or without compensation).Progressives must reach across the political divide, making a virtue of nonpartisanship. Those who feel dispossessed within existing party structures should make common cause, and do so unashamedly.

The politics of the progressive center has not died, but it needs reinventing and re-energizing. We must build a new coalition that is popular, not populist. The center needs to develop an agenda that shows people they will get support to help them through the change that’s happening around them. This political agenda should not (myopically) be about settling the homeless or building malls, but one that ensures full participation of the disposed masses in the productive sectors of the economy. 

Land poverty is neither trivial nor inevitable. It is a challenge that involves everyone, men and women at all levels, from households right up to decision-makers, for the survival of communities and countries.

The new agenda has to focus on opportunities for radical change in the way that agriculture and services like healthcare serve people. This must include how we educate, skill and equip our people for the future; how we reform tax and welfare systems to encourage more fair distribution of wealth; and how we replenish our infrastructures and invest in the communities most harmed by trade and technology.

In other words, unresolved issues like the land question should be closely linked to the class struggle and, importantly, the fight for total economic transformation. Thuma Mina!

Chris Maxon
KwaZulu Natal

Posted in Viewpoints.

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