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Land activists unite against a ‘common enemy’

Land activists unite against a ‘common enemy’
A group of women in front of Parliament, Cape Town on 4 August 2020 protest against the eviction of farm workers. (Photo by Gallo Images / Jacques Stander)

Land activists say that the issue of land is a political struggle and it is important for activists to unite against a common enemy – the continued landlessness of poor South Africans.

On Thursday 3 September the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) hosted an online discussion on land activism in South Africa. The discussion was moderated by Boaventura Monjane, a postdoctoral researcher from PLAAS. He kicked off the discussion by acknowledging that the webinar was happening in a week where land activists in the Western Cape had secured an important victory in the Tafelberg ruling, which translated into a win for low-income housing. The discussants were Mercia Andrews from the Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE), Ayanda Kota from the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) and Themba Chauke from the Landless People’s Movement (LPM).

In referring to the importance of the Tafelberg ruling, Andrews said there has been no attempt by the Democratic Alliance in the Western Cape to overcome the apartheid spatial divides because it suited their agenda and that of the middle class countrywide.

Andrews established that land activism and struggles are varied. She said that there are those struggling against the evictions of farmworkers, those fighting evictions from municipal land, and defensive struggles where local elites are trying to grab land for mining purposes, threatening the subsistence and way of life of rural communities. She also pointed to the struggles of women specifically who do not have the protection of tenure on land.

Andrews said the struggles of farmworkers are particularly isolated, which makes building linkages with activists across SA difficult but all the more necessary. To this end, she said, there is a need to establish commonalities so that activists can unite against the common enemy, which is landlessness.

Andrews also pointed out the need for scholar-activists working on land issues to be part of movements so as to strengthen the political nature of the movements. There was a need to further politicise the struggle for land because the issue had been proven not to be central to the ruling party as is reflected in their policies.

“We can have good victories in court but the movement must be strong enough to defend those gains,” said Andrews.

The discussants agreed that there was a need to create a space to discuss thinking about access to land, control of land, its ownership and use in a different way. They said that while there were varied strategies that can be employed, including legal strategies, they needed to be able to protect the victories gained in the courts.

Kota said that “undemocratic chiefs and headmen are an albatross of unaccountability” in the rural areas and acted similarly to unscrupulous counsellors in urban areas, which is why many people have taken up the struggle for land.

He said that officials are corrupt and accountable only to their party and not people, and they have collapsed the lives of working-class people.

“The point of convergence of urban and rural struggles is counsellors and headmen,” said Kota.

He insisted that the issue of land needed to be understood and treated as a political question. He said farmworkers have told him that no one is talking about them in relation to land restitution and that they feel alienated from the land despite being the ones who work the land.

Kota said that the reason neo-apartheid spatial planning continues to exist in urban areas is that the ANC has not broken down the structures of colonialism.

Chauke said it was important to ask, “How do we keep the land that we have and make it productive in rural areas?” He said there is an ongoing process in Giyani, Limpopo, where the municipality is selling land at unaffordably high prices, and this was a way of deliberately excluding poor people who are residents in the area. He said the municipality uses the courts to interdict and subdue communities from marching against this problem. 

Chauke said he never thought there would be a land struggle in rural areas as it is communal land which people rely on for subsistence farming. His organisation has been engaging with traditional leaders to stop selling land for purposes other than farming. However, he said, the resources of LPM are limited and the organisation has been unable to mount legal proceedings.

Monjane asked the discussants why a cohesive land movement had thus far failed to organise into one national movement and was limited to organising according to provincial locations. The discussants agreed this was partly due to the apartheid legacy of tribalism, racism and class divides, and that they needed to overcome this. DM/MC

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