Ten days ago AfriForum made an oral presentation to Parliament regarding land reform that was, by all accounts, a hectic irritation. Melanie Verwoerd made such a good point it is worth repeating; AfriForum’s presentation did not mention the legal framework of the Constitution, a dereliction of duty given the parliamentary committee’s mandate to address just that. On the other hand, Saul Musker (South Africa’s white nationalists are their own worst enemy, 12 September, Daily Maverick) criticised Roets for whistling at dogs, by which he means “right-wing supporters”, by which in turn he seems to mean racists.
It is worth quoting AfriForum’s most charged claims more fully, in the words of deputy CEO Ernst Roets:
“It is regularly argued, and especially in this House, that whites stole the land. This is the single biggest historical fallacy of our time. There are three ways in which white people acquired land, namely, the settlement on empty land; the purchase of land through treaties, co-operation and agreements; and most controversial, but least significant, by conquest. Then of course there was legislation such as the Native Land Act of 1913 and the Group Areas Act of 1950. These injustices must be dealt with, but they must be dealt with specifically and not used to construct grand false narratives or to advance new racist policies.”
What to make of this? On a bluntly unsympathetic reading, Roets had trouble counting, as he stated “three ways” white people and their representatives acquired land and then detailed four or five. If we grant that Roets has a serious command of the English language, and there is plenty of evidence for that, we must assume that he believes the 1913 and 1950 “injustices” technically slot into one of his “three ways”, although which one exactly he left unhelpfully unclear. He also left it to his audience’s imagination as to precisely what he meant by saying “conquest” is the “least significant” of all manners of land acquisition, and some of the implications are very wrong.
Roets would be wrong, for example, if he meant that conquest is least significant in political discourse. In addition, he would be wrong to claim that “conquest” is not colloquially interchangeable with “stolen”. Despite his apparent commitment to the distinction, he offered no argument for why the common synonymous usage should be amended rather than the Constitution.
On the other hand, Roets would be perfectly correct if he meant that redress for pre-1913 conquest is least significant in terms of the legal Constitution of the South African union. This is a difficult point and none have been so brave as Cope MP Mosiuoa Lekota in making it repeatedly. When Lekota noted that this country’s mission is not to return to a pre-conquest state of disunion with Zulus and Xhosas and Afrikaners and Tswanas all sent back, property-wise, whence their ancestors came, he was booed and insulted, especially by the EFF.
Malema has repeatedly attacked Lekota, going so far as to physically elbow him out at one of the land hearings. In a standard attempt to deny black people freedom of thought and political self-determination, Lekota is often slurred as a sell-out to white bogeymen and a failed student of the Robben Island school of politics. Despite this viciousness, largely unchecked by the media, Lekota never fails to mention the relevant legal conception in the Constitution, in contrast to Roets.
In any event, neither Verwoerd nor Musker took the time to explain their own views on the 1913 cut-off date in their efforts to shame Roets. Nor has Parliament’s Constitutional Review Committee shed much light on the question. The major concerns were rather with Roets’ style, both “hysterical” and commandingly deliberate, and his claim that one of the four ways in which land was acquired was “settlement on empty land”.
Musker wrote that Roets’ submission amounted to “a denial that whites had ever ‘stolen land’” (my emphasis) followed by the rhetorical question, “had he heard of the Natives Land Act?” As is plain from the quote above, Roets has heard of the act, calling it one of the “injustices that must be dealt with”. Musker apparently turned off the clip moments before, three minutes into the speech.
The same excuse cannot be applied to the Constitutional Review Committee who shared the room with Roets. ANC MP Madipoane Mothapo said:
“You want to tell us that in 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias arrived here it was no man’s land. In 1652 when those guys, Jan van Riebeeck, arrived here it was no man’s land. That’s sheer insanity and drunkenness on hatred.”
This was not Roets’ claim – again, as the quote above shows – a fact he further rehearsed in his clarifying answers at the end. Roets accused Mothapo of attacking a strawman version of his argument rather than the argument itself. She covered her ears and repeated: “Don’t call us strawmen, don’t call us strawmen!”, literally strawmanning him again.
Roets could and should have done a better job from the start. He should have been clearer about the fallacy he wanted to debunk. For example, the claim that all white individuals stole land is untrue and worth debunking. The respected commentators Verwoerd and Musker have surely stolen nothing, for example. The claim that any white individuals (rather than state actors) stole land is also worth interrogating. If there are any private white individuals around who stole land post-1913 they should be named, shamed and dealt with by the courts immediately.
Of course, “whites stole the land” can be parsed another way. Suppose “whites” = the white supremacist apartheid state and white nationalist pre-apartheid states. “Stole” = expropriated without just compensation and conquered. “The land” = a significant portion of SA land. If that is what those words mean, “whites stole the land” is not a fallacy, it’s perfectly true.
The problem is that “whites”, in this particular sense, do not exist any more. So no white state or agent is still around to be punished for those crimes. In particular, this is a problem for Musker who clearly likes the idea that “after centuries of unchallenged power and privilege” some white people must be punished, urging them not to be “hysterical” or “fragile” about this prospect. I cannot think of any state or individual in the vicinity of SA that has enjoyed “centuries of unchallenged power and privilege”, so I assume Musker means white people in some broader undefined sense.
If white people in this broader sense should be punished for the sins of apartheid there is no reason why a few farmers should take the hit on behalf of the rest of the group. The sacrifice should either be made on a voluntary basis, with apparent believers in white collective guilt like Musker offering themselves up, or through a special fine for being white levied by the state. I nominate Musker to lead the lobby by making it clear exactly how much of his livelihood should be fined for whiteness. He is extremely well equipped, an erudite Oxford student whose fees were paid by Cecil John Rhodes.
I cannot do so myself because I see individual agents and group agents (like states) as being the only proper targets for moral responsibility, but races are not group agents. So while Musker thinks land restitution is a problem to which the financial sacrifice of a few white people should be the solution, I see restitution as a problem to which the current state must be the solution. As the IRR submitted to Parliament, restitution must be paid for by levying taxes and streamlining the restitution process so that bureaucrats don’t grab the lion’s share for themselves. This is not an abandonment of collective responsibility; it means taking up that responsibility in the most just and effective way at a national level.
As citizens we all share responsibility for the state, most obviously through voting and paying taxes but also through civil discourse. Journalists have the privilege of being paid to do the latter, and it is our responsibility to hold the state in check by noting, for example, that the Constitutional Review Committee could and should have done a better job, too.
Their function was to ask clarifying questions, not to put words in Roets’ mouth that contradict what he actually said. UDM MP Mncedisi Filtane did worse than strawman AfriForum.
“You have hardened our attitude that maybe we don’t even need a Codesa, we don’t even need a court case. The Constitution has to be amended in a matter of months if we have got such people in the country. Then we can go back to war if need be. That’s basically where you have sent me from now onwards. I know there is a Member of Parliament who said should this happen there will be civil war… we are wasting time by talking; after all, there were no talks 400 years ago, people were simply murdered.”
That is unethical parliamentary conduct, plain and simple. Musker makes the excuse that Roets’ speech robbed our elected representatives of self-control. He ascribes Filtane’s call for civil war to AfriForum’s “self-sabotage”, as if Filtane had no command over his own behaviour. Verwoerd likewise said that only “organisations such as AfriForum” drive “this country to the edge of the abyss”. As if the EFF, ANC and UDM representatives are not adults but machines compelled to respond irrationally when the some-unspecified-amount-of-land-was-uninhabited-centuries-ago button is pushed by an Afrikaner.
More precisely, Musker and Verwoerd treat our state representatives like children, children for which they have tremendously positive feelings no doubt. Children lack full agency; when they cover their ears or shout bloody murder it is often appropriate to shift the blame to any provocative adults in the room who should have acted with more paternal or maternal care. Treating black adults, even those who have assumed profound responsibility, as children has a long and sordid history. This has formed a social habit whose persistence the EFF encourages, adults in that party often referring to themselves as “black child”. Whatever the EFF call themselves, Verwoerd and Musker should not treat adults that way.
Alternatively, the eagerness to slam Roets while leaving the MPs’ bad behaviour unnoted might reflect a suspicion that mentioning the latter would exonerate Roets of any error. This is not how criticism has to work. But it is how criticism works when it is filtered through a polarising binary. You’re either with us, in which case we’ll scapegoat any mistakes you make, or you are the enemy of the people.
The propagation of this false binary is one of several factors that drive our country in the wrong direction, incentivising representatives to react inappropriately again and again in the future of this and other difficult debates. DM
Gabriel Crouse is an Associate at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.