Behind my family’s homestead in Mqanduli in the Eastern Cape is a communal pasture on which everyone’s livestock grazes. About a kilometre on is a small wattle forest that used to make every herdboy’s hair stand on end after sunset.
The place was somewhat creepy because it contains graves. As soon as you came within a stone’s throw all manner of night-time folklore and fables rang in your ears, from cannibals looking for succulent children to feast on to ghosts on the prowl for victims to terrorise. The graves belong to a family who are now one of our next-door neighbours.
The family had to move further up the hill during the 1970s after the government introduced the tribal trust land system. The land that they and many other families occupied became part of the communal pasture. Everyone was allocated the equivalent of about 4 000m2 on which to build a home with a small garden. Land for crop farming was allocated in a separate communal farming area.
Even though the graves are now on communal land the unwritten rule is that the family, the Gawulas, have unfettered access to an area that no doubt has enormous spiritual significance for them. They can visit the graves at any time and without asking anyone for permission. They can also perform family traditions and rituals.
This small piece of rural history is now relevant because the ANC resolved at its recent national conference that the Constitution should be amended to allow the expropriation of land without compensation. Even though this came with a caveat, few noticed or cared. There was either jubilation or grave concern. The resolutions revived an old, fractious debate that has been the fundamental basis of South Africa’s violent conflict for hundreds of years.
In a way, the resolution therefore makes sense. The restoration of land ownership and access to black people, as a fundamental principle, should be one of the foundational pillars of our efforts to form a new, united nation. It is much more than a material issue.
For many black people, particularly in rural areas, land has enormous spiritual significance. The ancestral home is still where we bury our dead. Each homestead must have a kraal in which ritual slaughter takes place to communicate with ancestral spirits either to introduce a new baby or when a boy graduates to manhood.
Unlike the reorganisation that took place in my village decades ago, land dispossession was almost always unceremonious and violent. For hundreds of years black people simply had to move to make way for white people, a trend that, in the middle of the last century, became a feature in urban areas too. People lost connection with sacred spaces that grounded who and what they are.
This is what happened to relatives of ours, the Bhashes. They were ordered to vacate their land and move to where our village now is and therefore had a valid claim to half of the Mqanduli town business centre. The grave of the patriarch, Nabileyo, is said to be directly beneath a large tree right on the doorstep of the post office. Next door is the magistrate’s court, the department of home affairs and the police station. These and businesses or residences next to this precinct fell under their claim.
Restitution was ordered in favour of the family in the form of financial compensation. As much as they had a claim to what is now prime real estate, the practicalities of returning the land to them would be rather difficult. It clearly would not be in the public interest to empty half of an entire town and disrupt critical government services to return the land to a few families.
The ANC resolution suggests, rather disingenuously, that land restitution and reform have been slow because the government doesn’t have money with which to buy land. This couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, the government cut the budget allocation for land restitution during the 2014 financial year and every year since. You would expect it to be increasing.
What has been missing is leadership, clarity of principle and efficient management of an undertaking so important and sensitive that it should be as perpetual a priority as education or safety and security. Failure leaves us vulnerable to the type of vulgar populism that now seems very likely, and will lead to chaos.
Leadership and its credibility are important because this process cannot be without severe conflict if it does not have a credible evangelist who infuses a moral purpose into it. It requires genuine sensitivity and respect between black and white South Africans. Building a united nation is about mutual recognition of the other as a whole, including what spiritually grounds people.
[People need land for a decent place to live, financial reasons including farming, a sense of belonging and for a spiritual connection to the land. (Madelene Cronjé/M&G)]
Such a gospel can only travel far if it is preached consistently and is accompanied by sincere, credible leadership. To date there has been very little to none.
Land ownership is not always about farming. The restoration of residential land ownership to black people carries spiritual significance, whereas land that could be used for crop or animal farming serves a material need. The former is about the restoration of dignity and cultural rights. It is important that white South Africans recognise this and accept it as being central to a lasting solution.
Second, only credible leadership that runs an efficient process can tell communities with conviction that land restoration is not always possible. As illustrated in the two examples above, more often than not the situation on the ground is complex and, in many instances, financial compensation is the only way to recompense people. That compensation can only come from the government because land ownership has changed hands many times over the past decades.
Third, the process has to be efficient by not only expediting the claims to reduce uncertainty but also to take account of spatial planning requirements. There are many more people in 2018 than there were in the 1800s or even in the first half of the last century. Many of these people are either in urban or peri-urban areas and would not really be motivated to own a piece of land in the Camdeboo or 100km south of Upington.
We have to differentiate between land for residential and for farming purposes.
Whereas some people are able to lay claim to a piece of land that was confiscated, others have no valid claim anywhere but need land nonetheless.
To navigate our way forward we have to resist the temptation to be populist because, for some of the loudest noises on this issue, the land question is a euphemism for racial income and wealth inequalities rather than a genuine desire to own land.
It is important that we identify principles that inform our land reform process in future.
The first is that, for rural communities, land ownership must be as fundamental a right as housing is in urban areas. There is an indignity that comes with landlessness that urban people usually cannot fully comprehend yet in rural areas it is central to establishing full citizenship in a community.
Second, it must be accepted by all that restitution of original land may not always be possible. Yet this needs to be accompanied by a willingness to explore genuine alternatives that restore ownership and dignity to people.
Third, we cannot be reckless in implementing land reform. Confiscating a farm whose owner owes R5-million to the Land Bank means that it would have to write off that loan, and taxpayers would have to fork out the amount owed.
Long periods of uncertainty will slow down investment in the agricultural and other sectors, cause job losses and long-term hardship. No one will invest in a business where security of tenure is not guaranteed.
We have to expedite land reform and restitution because it is fundamental to the restoration of dignity but reckless populism will vulgarise a noble endeavour and do more harm than good.
Songezo Zibi is an author and former editor of Business Day
This article was originally published on January 5 2018