Over the past few months, South Africa has been talking about, and confronting the debilitating legacy of colonialism and apartheid in a way we have not been able to do since 1994. The nation has the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to thank for this. Nowhere is this legacy of colonialism and apartheid as brutally manifested as it is in the inequitable redistribution of land in the country.
Colonial land dispossession and apartheid forced removals facilitated almost all forms of class exploitation and racial oppression still prevalent today. Land dispossession targeted a particular racial group, Africans,alienated them from their land which was a source of not only their livelihood, but a basis of their culture, spirituality and dignity.
It went further, it designated Africans as a class upon which capital exploitation would be premised.
Debating the Glen Grey Act of 1894, , Cecil John Rhodes had this motivation for the Act that; “We want to get hold of these young men and make them go out to work, and the only way to do this is to compel them to pay a certain labour tax. But we must prepare these people for the change. Every black man cannot have three acres and a cow, or four morgen and a commonage right. We have to face the question, and it must be brought home to them that in the future nine-tenths of them will have to spend their lives in daily labour, in physical work, in manual labour. This must be brought home to them sooner or later. There is nothing new in this”.
This thinking has long been turned into a living reality for majority black people, who spend their productive years eking out a paltry living on white farms, white-owned mines, and white industries.
The multiple discourses on the land question in this country since Parliament’s adoption of the EFF’s motion on land expropriation without compensation have either been too abstract, thereby missing substantive nuances on the meaning of land in contemporary South Africa; or simply too particular, entangled as they are in legal and nauseating technical litanies about what is possible or not within the current legal framework.
The abstract discourse relies on the emotive aspects of the land question, and imagines a wholesale return of land from minority whites to majority blacks, without much thinking about the transitions that have been made by African communities in the conceptualisation of their identities as firstly Africans, before they are either Tswana, Venda or Pedi.
It is from this abstract conceptualisation of the land question that we for instance observe the emergence of feudal tendencies from traditional leaders, claiming to have land ownership powers over areas they lead, powers they never had to begin with in African customary law.
The narrow, technical and legalistic arguments advanced by a few neoliberal scholars, lawyers and policy makers seek to entangle and reduce the resolution of the land question into a laborious, nit-picking exercise; with courts as final arbiters. They knowingly attempt to bog down a political question of the resolution of the land question into a legal one, best left up to courts to settle; ignorant of the impatience of the landless. Their demand for “just and equitable compensation” for land draws a moral equivalence between the rights of the dispossessed and the rights of the dispossessor.
The EFF has thus far been alone in proposing a viable resolution of the land question in South Africa, and no one has offered a credible rebuttal of this policy proposition. Rather, we see spectacular misinterpretations of what the EFF is proposing on land expropriation.
From its inception, the EFF has defined its strategic mission as the “Attainment of Economic Freedom in Our Lifetime”, and identified seven cardinal pillars necessary for the attainment of this strategic mission.
The first of these cardinal pillars is the Expropriation of South Africa’s land without compensation for equal redistribution and use.
The Founding Manifesto of the EFF is unequivocal that the state must be the custodian of all land, and through legislative and other policy mechanisms, ensure that land is democratically administered and used for sustainable development purposes.
The most fundamental issue of the EFF land policy is that there must be discontinuation of private ownership of the land, and the state must be the custodian of this land on behalf of the people. One of the most important, yet often missed aspects of the EFF’s policy proposition, is the characterisation of state custodianship of land as “an elementary component which will lead to more progressive forms of collective ownership, control and benefit, and therefore not narrow state-capitalism”. This dispels the criticism of narrow statism in the EFF’s conceptualisation of state custodianship of the land.
The difficulty most liberal academics and policy makers have with the notion of the discontinuation of private ownership of land emanates from the deeply ingrained capitalist notion that views land as commodity that can be owned, bought and sold.
The Marxist-Leninist traditions from which the EFF draws its inspiration reject this notion of private ownership of what is essentially a public resource. The very conception of private ownership of land is at the root of inequality, it facilitates the exploitation of one class by the other, and in our case, the oppression of one race by another, and its continuation cements inequality and racism. An entrenched system of private ownership of land allows for a few individuals to accumulate and consolidate more land over a period of time, to the exclusion of a great majority.
At a practical level, the idea of private ownership of land has never been proved to work anywhere in Africa, and is alien to African customary law. Contemporary notions of ownership are derived from western jurisprudence.
This, Archie Mafeje argues, leads to a series of misconceptions, particularly over the notions of ownership of land, and the viewing of land as property. Contrasting that with African land tenure systems, he argues that African jurisprudence recognised rights of possession determined by prior settlement and membership given to a social group, user rights contingent on social labour, and rights of social exchange underscored by implicit reversionary rights. He further adds that land rights could be recognised in any of these forms, but not individual ownership of land.
From both an African customary law perspective, and from a progressive radical Marxist-Leninist perspective, the discontinuation of private ownership of land becomes a primary requisite for both the decolonisation of our neo-colonial socio-economic set-up, for redressing inequitable and racial distribution of land, and for ensuring self-perpetuating development for the benefit of the majority of South Africans.
The practical position in this regard is that there is a separation between the soil, and its possible manifestations such as crops, and buildings. What becomes the property of an individual is not the soil, but rather what the individual can produce from the soil. The land itself becomes a permanent part of social existence, and that it is in principle inalienable. It is fixed in space, but transcends time.
At a practical level, this means that the state must develop internal capacity to administer land in a transparent and democratic manner. For this purpose, it is important to identify three broad land use categories and how state custodianship of land ought to manifest itself.
Residential land: A house is immovable property, and the land upon which the house is built becomes an accessory indivisible from the house itself. What this means is that current and future homeowners retain ownership of their houses, together with the erven that their houses are built on, but unutilised pieces of land around their houses and elsewhere belong to the state, and the state can build low-cost housing in those open spaces for poor people if they so decide. This will decisively address the problem of class and race exclusion in residential areas. Quality low-cost houses can be built for the poor in the middle of Sandton, or in Bishopscourt, or in the city centre in Cape Town. The state retains the right to direct and strategically plan for development of residential areas, and for the decongestion and final elimination of townships as labour concentration camps, and for finally integrating the South African society without consideration of race or class.
Agricultural land: The dynamic is quite different for agricultural land. The products of individual labour are the crops, the animals, and sometimes plantations, which are not all permanently attached to the soil. It is these that can be rightly said to be personal properties of a private individual, not the soil. The state must expropriate and be in custodianship of all agricultural land, and in a developmental manner, lead the process of reforming the entire agrarian economy, from the downstream economic activities relating to the production of agricultural inputs such as fertilisers and seeds, to the point of production, and properly address the inverse relationship between farm size and productivity. There must be a deliberate process to transform secondary agriculture and this must involve opening up marketing opportunities for everyone, particularly small scale farmers. Security of tenure on agricultural land must be provided in the form of medium to long-term leases to producers, at very low cost to the producers themselves.
A truly transformative intervention in the South African agrarian economy must of necessity entail the subdivision of large and unproductive farming estates, redistributing these to small-scale farmers, farmworkers and farm dwellers, whose residence on farms must be given the air of permanence guaranteed to residents elsewhere in the country.
Industrial land: Companies who want to utilise the land for industrial purposes must apply to the state for land use licences. This must be given on the basis of clarity of what the land is going to be used for, the period required for the land to be used, and the kind of economic activities to be performed. The industrial actors must then pay a nominal lease price for the use of public land to generate private gain.
There are other specific land uses, such as spiritual and cultural use of land, these must be mediated through locally developed and accepted land use mechanisms.
For these to be realised, there must be a thorough reorganisation of the state as a key agent of development. This then requires a deliberate process to build institutions that would, working with civil society organisations and other players, be able to manage and redistribute land on an equitable basis to all South Africans, particularly the dispossessed Africans who are on the margins of economic activity.
Overall, state custodianship of land is the most decisive break from the corrosive and exploitative nature of capital in South Africa since the entrenchment of colonialism and Western notions of ownership. It is the most transformative proposition on the resolution of the land question thus far, and those in opposition to it do so merely to maintain the status quo. DM