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The land question: the struggle for meaning

Aubrey Masango was born in Mamelodi, east of Pretoria. Educated at St Johns College in Johannesburg and later went to the University of Pretoria to study to be a teacher. He was bored. He decided to get out of the corporate rat-race in 2009 because he did not like the person he was becoming in the BEE scene, seeing it as pretentious and unsustainable. These days, Aubrey is a talk show host on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape talk. His regular show “Talk with Aubrey” is on a Sunday evening at 23h00 to Monday morning at 01h00.

The question of land redistribution can invite heated responses from the most committed moderates. But why all the heat? Because it’s not just about the land itself, or the economic position that goes with it – but restoring a sense of self, dignity and stability to a dispossessed people. 

Amidst the magnanimity and “goodwill” that characterised the week of the celebration of Madiba’s 94th birthday, another set of narratives seemed to be gaining prominence in the general discourse. “Mandela sold us out! There must be land redistribution without compensation! The founding principles of non-racialism have been abandoned and replaced by a Black nationalism!” 

Yes, the narratives of discontent – sentiments which, many have argued, are at odds with Tata and Tutu’s vision of a rainbow nation. There must be a more informed interrogation of these seemingly contradictory sentiments in a country grappling with racial reconciliation. Could the situation be the result of a disconnect between those at the forefront of these ideas, and the country’s vital sources of meaning? Could their calls represent a desire to reconnect with a greater sense of purpose?

Last week, a friend lent me a book authored by one of South Africa’s most prolific writers and incisive intellectuals on matters concerning contemporary Black Consciousness. In his book To the brink: The state of democracy in South Africa, Xolela Mancu illuminates and dissects some of the most complex questions in South Africa’s real politic. Amongst these is the question of the rise of a Black nativism (an exclusive black nationalistic sentiment): “… the idea that the true custodians of African culture are the natives. The natives are often defined as black Africans because they are indigenous to the country, and within that group the true natives are those who participated in the resistance struggle. And even among those who participated in the liberation, the truest natives are those who are on the side of government. By dint of their authenticity these natives have the right to silence white interlopers or black sell-outs.”

This is given versus the concept of racial syncretism (a natural dynamic non-racial inclusivity informed by the principles of “ubuntu”), where Mancu contends that “racial nativism goes against the long traditions of racial syncretism that have always characterised (black) South African political and intellectual history. In this syncretic approach, natives are all the people born in the country, irrespective of their struggle history or where they stand in relation to government. In a democratic society no group of people has greater authenticity or licence than others.” He argues further that “even the radical Pan Africanist and Black Consciousness movements upheld the ideal of a non-racial democratic society in which all citizens are regarded as equal and therefore entitled to express their views just like anyone else.”

I believe that central to the amplification of the narratives of discontent in recent times is precisely the tug of war between Black nativism and racial syncretism as defined by Mancu. The compelling question becomes: What is the reason for the emergence of this black nativism in post-Apartheid South Africa, when the ideals which fuelled the struggle against colonialism and Apartheid were based precisely on the syncretic imperative?

In a recent discussion with Andile Mngxitama, one of the most vocal activists and advocates for the redistribution of white-owned land without compensation, it emerged that the economic inequalities so prevalent in South Africa between Blacks and whites continue as a result of Government’s refusal to use their democratic mandate and “give back” to blacks what was taken from them by the whites. This is a similar line of reasoning used by the ANC Youth League, the likes of Julius Malema and, more recently, Ronald Lamola, the acting President of the ANC Youth League in the absence of Juju. This logic therefore gives credence to the other narrative of discontent – “Mandela sold us out!” because, the reasoning goes, it was Mandela and his cohorts at Codesa who negotiated a political settlement with the Nats, which resulted in a constitution that guaranteed, amongst other things, the right of tenure for white land owners – a right that prevents blacks from attaining what rightfully belongs to them. 

The willing buyer and willing seller regimes agreed upon at these negotiations were fundamentally flawed, the logic continues, because they assumed that the land occupied by whites was theirs when this was, in fact, the ill-gotten gains of criminal violence and dispossession and Mandela and his boys should have known this and negotiated from that premise. In fact, the argument continues, there was no need to negotiate because the whites negotiated with no one when they dispossessed the blacks. The same is true for the minerals and the mining companies controlled by whites, such thinkers add, reasoning that Robert Gabriel Mugabe is the only authentic African leader and his land redistribution and nationalisation model is correct – Zimbabwe being, then, a true example of an authentic African state.  

So the emotionally charged argument goes into a frenzy of platitudes and expletives, ignoring or violently rebuffing all rational argument or questions that may remotely resemble disagreement. Clearly a case of Black nativism at play here.

Whether one agrees with these propositions or not, whether there is any real economic and practical credibility to them or whether the rationale that inspires them is sound or not, is a discussion for the politicians and economists. I am, however, intrigued by the emotive resonance that such arguments generate. Even amongst the most stoic of black intellectuals and moderates, this kind of talk is a cause for pause and reflection. It is this very pause and reflection, the entertainment of this type of talk in post-Apartheid democratic SA, that causes some to believe that the “ideals of non-racialism of Nelson Mandela have been abandoned and have been replaced by a Black nationalism”. Yet another narrative of discontent. 

How, then, do we resolve the narratives of discontent? How do we deal with this emerging black nativism? Do we shout it down with equal fervour, pointing to the sanctity of the Constitution, and extol the lofty virtues of Mandela’s syncretic approach? My guess is that this will give it more impetus and momentum as its proponents point out that these are just measures aimed at entrenching white privilege and the cowardly attempts of “uncle Toms” to ingratiate themselves to whites as they perpetuate widening inequalities and crippling black poverty. Do we comply with their proposal, dispossess the whites without compensation, nationalise the mines and elect Juju as President? History, basic logic and the experience just north of us is enough to discourage the very thought. 

So what is the solution?

The solution lies in realising and understanding that the cry for ownership is not so much about economic emancipation, land and banks, although that is a desired and expected outcome. It is more about the desire for dignity, purpose and meaning that comes from being in control. Any land owner would attest to the truth of the sense of fundamental meaning and purpose emanating from a connection with their land. The colonial dispossession of African people was not only physical; it was deeper and of a spiritual nature. It violently severed that connection, that sense of purpose. Negatively affecting Africans’ sense of history, of self and of a place in the universe.

This is best articulated by Mancu, relating to the colonisation of the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape, where he writes: “Defeated in war, the people of this region (Eastern Cape) became the main focus of missionary proselytising. British missionaries such as William Shaw and John Philip of the London Missionary Society set up mission schools in the region with the express intention of undermining local customs and rituals, which they viewed as heathen and backward. Scholars have long commented on how cultural degradation has always played a central part in the colonisation process. The economic historian Karl Polanyi noted that social calamities were often preceded by and predicated on the destruction of the cultural institutions of the victims, depriving them of vital sources of meaning: not economic exploitation, as often assumed”.

I contend that the call for land ownership and its proceeds is a proxy for a call for the reclamation of a lost cultural identity, and a sense of reconciliation with a history severed by colonialism. It is a desire to be reconnected with a reality that is not defined by the subservient role of a defeated people. Land, the only tangible connection with a history before black people’s subjugation and subservience, becomes more desirable than even the gold and diamonds it holds. Land holds the treasures of meaning, purpose and dignity. That is what makes even the most moderate and stoic of intellectuals pause and listen; this is why the message of black nativists, as clumsily articulated as it is, has such resonance. It is this desire for a lost sense of purpose that ignores all manner of cogent economic rationale. It is the whim that says, “I would rather be free in hell than be a slave in heaven!”

We need to learn to understand this desire for meaning, so that we serve it with the correct discourse. This will produce the appropriate actions, which will unite us under the syncretic impulse of life and not divide us into sterile silos of death. DM


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