South Africa

South Africa

Land reform: Still caught up in politics

Koos Mthimkhulu inspects his herd of cattle at his farm in Senekal, about 287km in the Eastern Free State, in this February 29, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

On Tuesday the National Assembly passed the Land Reform Bill, which re-opens the door for people to lodge claims for land lost because of Apartheid. The bill returns to the main political agenda our past and restitution for the inhumanity that was forced on the majority of our people. But it also raises questions that have much more to do with the present day politics. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Land is a strange political issue in South Africa. On the one side, probably almost everyone accepts that land was taken from black people by white people (unless you’re Pieter Mulder, and believe what you were taught in history class by a white teacher back in the days before 1994), and that there should be some sort of restitution. On the other hand, there is disagreement on how it should be done. And then there is the process itself, which seems fraught with complexity.

Pointing to history and the concept of economic Apartheid will probably answer many questions, particularly around who works in Sandton, and who works for those who work in Sandton. After the discussion about a man called Nelson Mandela and the outbreak of peace we all value so much, a question is bound to be asked about land.

There is something about our land issue I’ve never really understood. On one level, it’s really important. For some people, it has almost a mythical status. Land was taken from us, it must be given back. That I get, as far as my own identity allows me to. But why, then, is it really hardly ever spoken about? If land is so important, why does it not dominate our political discussions?

The answer probably lies in the idea that it has different meanings for different people. For some, perhaps, it’s the idea of actually living on the land, owning once again what was yours and taken from you, producing food that you eat and sell and use to give your family a future. For others it might just be a symbol. It’s not so much about living on the land but about receiving the restitution, the justice This can be more than just benefiting from that restitution, but just making sure that some sort of atonement has been made.

Then, of course, there’s the political administration of all of this. For those who have to manage this issue, it leads to a series of complex political equations. On the one hand, it is obviously important to a certain constituency that there is a restitution process. If you don’t act, you will leave yourself vulnerable to your competitors. And once Julius Malema spots that gap, he’s absolutely going to take it.

And then there’s what you could call the real world. Proving who “owned” land pre-1913 could be tough. The Constitution and its property clause could play merry hell with any plans to have a speedy restitution process. Especially when you consider that by their very nature, landowners tend to have access to resources, which means legal challenge after legal challenge could slow down the process for years.

And that’s before we even start with the fact that for many political managers, facing a series of demands on the available cash, issues like health and education may be better investments for the long-term health of the population in general, than settling land claims. Also, as a political manager, one would surely be aware that you do not stuff around with the price of food. Many revolutions, beginning with the one that introduced the guillotine as a political symbol, have their roots in rapid inflation in the price of basic foodstuffs. And if you had to radically redistribute land, never mind the knock you would get from foreign investors and the Rand falling through the floor, in the end, it would be you yourself who would lose power. Your revolution would enter the stage of Robespierre.

But all of this still doesn’t really make sense of the dual nature of the land debate in South Africa. There are moments when it seems to be the most important issue in our country and yet these moments are few and far between. The centenary of the Land Act came and went with hardly a mention. Gugile Nkwinti has been one of the quietest ministers of the last five years, despite handling such a potentially incendiary portfolio. In his budget on Wednesday, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan hardly mentioned land.

When it comes to real hard politics, you can usually tell someone’s ambitions and priorities by what they actually spend money on. It’s one thing to talk about something; it’s another to pump money into doing it. If you look back on the amount of money that is budgeted for education and health, it’s easy to see that that is a priority. But very little has been spent on land reform, considering the size of the task.

There are some, particularly the SA Institute of Race Relations, who believe that we may be on the tip of some  HYPERLINK “”real radical change, that government, or the ANC, are about to really take land from white land-owners. Implicit is a question about the ANC’s real motives for re-opening the land claims window. But that would be a very radical departure from their past policies.

It doesn’t seem, at this stage, as if the ANC is under huge threat of losing its political dominance. Despite the best efforts of those who launched manifestos this last weekend, the ANC still occupies the middle ground of our politics to a great extent. And if it did face a sudden threat, it doesn’t seem that suddenly speeding up land reform would really save it.

In the final analysis, it would seem that the land issue is really caught up in our national question. It’s about race. So, those who have an interest in keeping their land have no interest in stirring this debate. Those who deserve restitution would want to kick up the debate. But they also have far less resources, and may be almost too preoccupied with keeping body and soul together to focus on this issue. That said, when it is useful for political manager to ignite the debate, they will do so. Even if it means they have to manage it carefully themselves. However, if you are confident you will win an election, you will then be able to manage it, which gives you the space to ignite it to increase your majority in the polls. DM

Grootes is the senior political reporter for eyewitness news, and the host of the Midday Report. His book SA Politics Unspun is still on the shelves.

Photo: Koos Mthimkhulu inspects his herd of cattle at his farm in Senekal, about 2,87km (178 miles) in the Eastern Free State. (REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)


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