Forget tipping – what about the land?

What else is left to say about Ntokozo Qwabe and the waiter at Obz Café? This is South Africa. The rage, the flagellation – all the players played their roles suitably in the tragicomic drama we call sometimes mistake for constructive dialogue. We’ll be here again in six months’ time, when another ill-conceived social media rant bubbles up to the surface like a stubborn floater in a public latrine. 

Do we act out this multi-episode telenovela because we have given up the hard work of reconciliation and redress? Is fixing the legacy of apartheid too complicated and emotionally draining, that we choose to find succour in these pantomimes? I would argue that the uproar surrounding the Penny Sparrow, Ntokozo Qwabe and Matt Theunissen incidents is a symptom of failed redress.

Frantz Fanon wrote: “For a colonised people the most essential value, because it’s the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”

This is one thesis on redress. Dispossession in action was landlessness, and therefore black dignity can only be restored by a restoration of land to the black population.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the discredited “empty land” mythology upon which the colonisation of South Africa morally justified itself. It marches alongside its cousin, the ‘right of might’ thinking that men like Cecil John Rhodes espoused. “Africa is still lying ready for us, it is our duty to take it,” he said.

The truth is neither here nor there. History is rarely concerned with that. We are in a pantheon of competing mythologies, each disavowing the other, each competing to capture the popular imagination in its totality.

This is the context in which to read Qwabe’s refusal to tip until the land is returned. This is how we think ourselves out of this futile cycle of cheap pschyodrama episodes.

The African National Congress’ response to Qwabe came from a party that has apparently grown cold to the Freedom Charter’s tenet that “our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality.”

I’m being unfair. As the ANC Western Cape spokesperson Yonela Diko wrote: “It is incontrivertible that land redistribution has happened and even improved during the last 22 years.” Indeed it has. Various independent sources, including the 2014 UN Development Programme, find that the overwhelming majority of land claims relating to apartheid-era dispossession have been processed, or brought to finality.

And yet various ANC leaders, including President Jacob Zuma, continuously promise to abandon the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ policy for something more robust, claiming that redistribution isn’t happening fast enough. So what is the truth, Yonelisa Diko?

The Economic Freedom Fighters, that Marxist-Leninist Fanonian formation, are – whatever you may think of their position – at least crystal clear on the land question. The harangued waiter “should have taken consciousness of the reality that the silence of all other whites is complicit with a racist generational crime against the humanity of black people who to this day, remain landless in the country of their birth, simply for being black,” their statement said.

It is not strictly true to say that black people remain landless, though once again, politics is mythology, not truth.

This is not to dismiss the question of land, as many conservative commentators, such as the Institute of Race Relations and their ideological allies, have repeatedly attempted to do. We must recognise the land debate for what it is: a symptom of an untenable status quo. Our circumstance simply cannot continue.

Sooner or later, our competing mythologies must either merge, and a common mythology upon which a common future can be built must emerge, or one myth must prevail against the other. There is no other choice. In the end, we must finally answer Qwabe. Is he landless or not? If he is, if I am, then what?

My personal position on this is unimportant, as is yours. It is in pretending that they are that we trap ourselves in these endless, self-indulgent tantrums. South Africa must be made whole, and that means setting aside the personal egos driving the agendas of self-serving myths about our past.

So, with full cognisance of the past, and the need to build a united future within a country that we can be proud to someday leave to our descendants, I ask you, what of the land?

 
Sipho Hlongwane

Sipho Hlongwane

Sipho Hlongwane is the Mail & Guardian's special projects editor. A published author, columnist and reporter by training (School of Hard Knocks), he has covered some of South Africa's most vivid protest marches, wildcat strikes and press conferences. His most challenging assignments were for women's glossy magazines. He obsesses over football and popular music for fun. Read more from Sipho Hlongwane

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