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South Africa can’t speak about land without speaking about race

Lubabalo Ntsholo works as a Researcher for the EFF in the National Assembly. He previously worked as a strategist and project coordinator in both the land reform and biodiversity conservation sectors. He holds a masters degree in development studies from UCT, and a second masters in land and agrarian studies from UWC.

The discourse on the land and agrarian question in South Africa risks being captured by neoliberal narratives whose agenda seems to be the masking of history and the de-legitimisation of black pain.

The narratives on land in South Africa would have us believe that the central problem relating to the land and agrarian question is that relating to the reorganisation of the economy in the countryside, and is less to do with race as both a historical and present determinant to access social and economic power, and the centrality of race-based land ownership as a facilitator of inequality.

Valid as the argument for agrarian reform may be, it is archaic, treacherous and void of honesty if at the same time it does not deal with the primacy of redress for historical land dispossession as a necessary precursor for comprehensive agrarian reform. The evolution of the land question in this country has been along a very peculiar, racial path; a path unparalleled even by other African experiences of land alienation. Therefore, arguments that seek to relegate race as a key determinant on the discourse on land are dishonest intellectual posturing.

Earlier this month Professor Ben Cousins of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape wrote an illuminating article on what ought to be done to make land reform a reality in South Africa. Cousins makes a number of valid points about the need to reform the structure of our agrarian economy, the possibility of encouraging a viable smallholder agricultural economy through land reform, and the job creation potential of land reform pursued through the framework he suggests, that of viewing land reform narrowly through the economic lens.

However, the professor nails his colours to the mast when he argues:

Political rhetoric on land draws on a narrative in which white farmers and foreigners are villains, black South Africans are victims, and the government (or an opposition party, or civil society activists) are heroes riding to the rescue. A political imaginary centred on race tends to dominate land discourse. For many young activists today, ‘land’ seems to connote the nation, sovereignty and control of the economy as a whole, rather than a resource used for food production. The dual meanings of ‘land’ in English elide the difference, but in nationalist and populist discourses such elisions help to mobilise supporters.”

I struggle to decipher what a man as well read as Cousins is attempting to put across here, because I do not want to believe that this is a poor attempt at race denialism on his part. The elevation of the land question among many young activists today emanates from a deep sense of continuing injustice of exclusion. Cousins is fully aware of the history of the land question in South Africa, and I don’t need to repeat that history here. But for his benefit, I need to remind him that white people and their successive governments maimed, killed and dispossessed black people from their land, they continue to extract innumerable benefits from their possession of the land to the disadvantage of black people, and that makes white landowners whose defence of their ill-gotten land is premised on notions of superiority, villains. There would be no need for land reform, at least in the way we conceptualise land reform to mean, were it not for this history of dispossession.

Cousins is not alone, a long list of white “experts” on land have long dismissed the validity of dispossession as a means through which to frame the discourse on land in this country. Cheryl Walker, for instance, who was formerly a regional land claims commissioner, argues that the experience of loss among many black people is not confined to just land, and that land may not even be the most significant of the losses. To some, she argues, a loss of something as small as a sewing machine constitutes the most significant loss in their memory. The narrative of loss and restoration, therefore, is wholly inadequate as a framework through which to design land reform.

These are problematic insinuations that have unfortunately been assimilated by the ruling ANC in the way it has been unsystematically dealing with the land question.

A second problematic argument by Cousins is what he purports to be a solution to the land crisis in the country. He correctly argues that of the 37,000 or so commercial farmers we have in the country, about 80% produce less than 30% of our agricultural products. He argues that the government should be focusing on these struggling farms, buy them cheaply, and distribute those to about 200,000 black smallholders with secure titles. He provides no explanation of why the 80% of farms are not productive, and how these unproductive farms would be best suited for black smallholders. He also does not provide any explanation of why he thinks the redistribution of the 20% of highly productive farms to black people would threaten the country’s food security. In the absence of any explanation, we can only draw an inference that distributing highly productive land to black people would lower the standards and lead to nationwide famine.

Third, private property has long been a holy grail of neoliberal thinking, and, based mainly on the argument that capitalism’s success depends largely on a formal system of documented property, the key to unlocking capital. This assertion has been dismissed by Raj Patel for instance, who is an authoritative figure on the land question globally.

The ability to own and transfer possession of land through private property, in turn, has invariably been predicated on other forms of economic, social, and cultural power. At the same time, the development and concentration of private property rights have typically been mechanisms for entrenching and consolidating the power of some groups over others. Perhaps the starkest example of the inequities propagated through the privatisation of property is seen through the lens of gender: while they produce the majority of the world’s food, for example, women in the Global South own only 1% of the land. The dominance of the private property model has allowed landownership to become increasingly concentrated along existing lines of power in the hands of fewer and fewer people, usually men. Exceptions to this rule are hard won,” wrote Patel.

By supporting the agricultural induced job creation projections of the National Development Plan, premised on the protection of the system of private property, Cousins hammers the last nail on the coffin of any hope for redistributive land reforms.

The discourse on land reform needs to deal first with the primary issue, and that is the question of the return of land from minority white to majority blacks. All successful land reforms anywhere else in the world have these characteristics; they were swift, radical, and entailed the uprooting of submerged interests of minority landowners.

In our country, for justice to be done, land would have to be expropriated without compensation, for the genesis of private property in this country is the killing of black people. Agrarian reform, the development of the countryside, job creation, though intertwined with the resolution of the land question, are at the same time secondary issues whose success depends on the resolution of the primary land question. DM

Lubabalo Ntsholo is a researcher for the EFF’s Parliamentary Caucus.


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