OP-ED

Divided in our diversity – the Vereeniging land expropriation hearings

By David Dickinson 6 August 2018

South Africa Mpumalanga, 2008: Cultivated farmlands as seen from the air. Photograph by Graeme Williams

When you ask somebody for their opinion, it is proper to wait for them to finish speaking. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s overtaking of the hearings of Parliament’s Joint Constitutional Review Committee on Section 25 of the constitution reflects a prioritisation of party over people. Ramaphosa justified this infraction of dialogic norms with the sentiments expressed at the then still ongoing hearings.

Whether the hearings were ever meant to be more than theatre is questionable. But to reduce what was said across the country to the conclusion that “It has become patently clear that our people want the constitution be more explicit about expropriation of land without compensation…” misses much. Coverage of the hearings has focused heavily on South Africa’s “master narrative” of racial oppression and dispossession. This must be the starting point, but more has been revealed by this performance, as was evident at the Vereeniging hearings on the 27 July 2018, two days before Ramaphosa dropped the stage curtain.

Three-minute democracy

Public hearings are part of South Africa’s participatory democracy: an opportunity for the people’s voice to be heard. No easy undertaking, particularly when it comes to land expropriation and Vincent Smith MP, co-chairperson of the review committee, is to be commended on his firm but fair chairing of the crowded Vereeniging hearing. Speakers had three minutes each, while the committee’s politicians on the stage were switched to silent mode; some listened, others caught up with their emails. By my count, we clocked up 104 speakers in the five-hour, non-stop session.

When the hearing got under way the hall was packed, as many standing in the wooden-panelled hall as seated on plastic chairs. Seats came with a bottle of water, standers got nothing. This was a no-frills hearing. Most of those who spoke told us where they hailed from; the majority came from the Vaal Triangle, but numbers were swelled by the EFF which bused in members from the East Rand. As in other hearings, whites were present but the vast majority in the hall were Africans, though “black” was the most common term used, and the term I use here. Most spoke in English. A few white speakers started in Afrikaans but then switched to English. The use of the common African languages of the area: Sesotho and isiZulu noticeably increased as the afternoon wore on and speakers’ contributions became more direct and more impassioned.

Chairman Smith added further instructions to the non-negotiable, three-minute limit. We had to start with whether Section 25 should be amended or not, after that we could elaborate on our reasons. Everybody must be allowed to speak, even if we didn’t like what they said; if anybody was shouted down the hearing could be declared “unconstitutional” and everybody’s voice that day would be lost. And, finally, we were to address the chair, we were to speak to Parliament, not to other speakers.

Speaking to the chair and not to each other was probably necessary to keep the hearing as well behaved as it was. Indeed, Chairman Smith congratulated us halfway through proceedings saying we were “the best hearing so far: robust but respectful”. And, for the most part, we were. Some speakers even provided dashes of dark humour: Speaker 44 introduced himself as a “landless landlord” on account of uninvited guests from abroad. Yet, necessary as this regimented process was, it meant that dialogue was one way: the people to parliament. South Africans should, of course, be speaking to each other. The constitution’s preamble says that: “We the people of South Africa… believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”. But, on a matter as important as who owns what, direct dialogue is difficult.

Crowded townships and quadbikes

The reality of landlessness was described in different ways by blacks queuing at the microphones: aspiring farmers without fields; traditional healers seeking herbs from the veld; business women needing collateral for loans. One woman pleaded for land to produce bio-diesel crops. For some, land equated to economic freedom. Others wanted land for housing.

Speaker 92, a woman who like many others proclaimed, by way of introduction, her membership of the EFF, brought home the extent of the division between black and white South Africa with a description of her township street. Small businesses run from people’s front rooms, garages and yards. A mechanic without premises fixing cars in the street. Home-based businesses without closing times; they must open when a customer knocks.

For whites it was different: they ran businesses from separate premises. They had the liberty of knocking off at closing time. Another speaker grappling to express the difference between the lives of the black majority and the comfort of whites ended up explaining that whites had properties so large that they rode around on quadbikes.

If the townships teem with people living and working on top of one another, yet the suburbs are spacious with businesses premises apart; hantle hantle, does the land belong to all who live in it?

White voices

The contribution of white speakers ranged widely: from straight-talking farmers, an eccentric history lesson climaxing with the cannibalism of the Mfecane, frustrated reformers, an angry AfriForum denouncement, warnings of unintended consequences, and hopeful conciliators. Often whites’ three minutes were paternalistic. Speaker 45 did the maths for us. If the land was expropriated there would be just four hectares for each black man [sic]. Not enough, he explained, to make a living. Not enough for a house, or a car, not even for petrol. Those nice things that [black] people wanted, he warned, wouldn’t come with the land.

Several white speakers talked about the need to work together. If the land was to be successfully transferred then the new owners had to be trained by the old. Speaker 88 provided a variation on the “teaching a man to fish” proverb: black people needed to be taught how to use fishing rods, not given fish.

We are poor because of what was done to us

Sage as this approach may be, it missed an important point: dignity. This was repeated again and again from the floor by black speakers. Blacks were living without land in the land of their forefathers. When the “Van Riebeecks” arrived in 1652 there were no parliamentary hearings. The Van Riebeecks stole the land. Why should what had been stolen be paid for? It had to be returned. One speaker put the matter pithily: Blacks didn’t want a fish. They didn’t want a fishing rod. They wanted the whole dam.

Anger was articulated as speakers spat out the jobs that blacks held in the new South Africa: domestic workers, garden “boys”, tea “girls”, shop assistants and petrol pump attendants. In other words, they were the servants of whites.

Who washes your clothes and cleans your houses?” asked one speaker, pointing at the two white DA male politicians then on the platform. This was breaking chairman Smith’s rules, but likely fair comment; both men wore crisp white shirts which I doubt they ironed themselves.

Class lines over land

From the floor the dominant call, from black speakers, was for amendment of Section 25: expropriation without compensation. It was EFF members that led this, but similar sentiments came from ANC members. Like most EFF speakers the ANC speakers typically gave as their credentials the ward numbers of the townships in which they live. These were voices from below. Some thanked the EFF for pushing the ANC over the land question. An ANC member for 28 years praised the EFF for their efforts over land: ke a leboha EFF!

Yet, powerful as this grassroots message was, there was another perspective present among the black participants at the hearings. In Vereeniging, the DA presented as not one, but two parties: the white DA of the stage and the black DA of the plastic chairs. The issue of land expropriation, as a couple of speakers noted, divides black people. DA members were outnumbered by their EFF/ANC counterparts on the plastic chairs and certainly less vocal, but they were present in numbers and with their own views on expropriation.

The black DA that queued for the mikes had no truck with the historic theft of the land, but they feared that amending Section 25 would not give them economic freedom. Rather, it threatened what they were struggling to achieve. The black DA, and fellow travellers, expressed fears over expropriation: one black speaker, from a local pop-up NGO, pointed out that a change to the constitution was forever. Put another way, what goes around can come around. If the government can expropriate the white’s land without compensation today, then they can expropriate your land, without compensation, tomorrow. What was needed was for land to be transferred to the people, not for state control.

This perspective, albeit a minority one, illustrates a process of class formation and differentiation among black citizens. While the marginalised talked about others’ land and property that should be expropriated, the black DA’s concerns is their own property, whether already possessed, or what they believe they can accumulate without state assistance. One black DA speaker opposing the amendment said that he didn’t want to be a tenant on state land; he wanted to leave his land to his children.

This division within black speakers did not go unnoticed by EFF and ANC speakers. While interaction was curtailed by chairman Smith’s rules, some for expropriation without compensation nevertheless called out those clacks against. At its crudest, this was the accusation that whites had intimidated their “boys” and “girls” to speak against the amendment. At its most cutting, it was an accusation that some blacks were satisfied with crumbs from the tables of whites. At its most analytical, it accused those Blacks who thought they had already “made it” from protecting their privilege. The black DA was not provoked, or at least kept their feelings confined to stage whispers within the hall. But what is not said openly should never be lightly dismissed.

Promises and politics

These hearings are not to be conflated with the task of land reform in South Africa. They have, however, shone a light on important social issues. The unfulfilled promise of South Africa’s transition is one that has been underlined. But, class differentiation within the black population, indeed within the townships, is another.

Although the EFF can take credit for triggering these hearings, they have served the ANC. The EFF busing in the voice of the marginalised majority has given the ANC an opportunity to shore up its electoral support. It needs something new to promise, and land expropriation provides ground for plenty of promises. This was not lost on speakers at the Vereeniging hearing. One speaker noted how township parks were being spruced up; as sure a sign of an approaching election as the dust of August heralds the end of winter.

Whether expropriation will benefit those who spoke with so much passion at the hearings remains to be seen. But one possibility is that the transfer of land with title deeds, as the ANC’s latest add-on to Ramaphosa’s statement indicates, will in the long run, and to the extent that it is more than a promise, benefit neither ANC nor EFF but, through bolstering property ownership, the DA, or at least the black DA of the plastic seats. DM

David Dickinson is professor of Sociology at Wits University.

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