/ 28 February 2018

Land Question: It’s about identity

"Over the past 24 years
"Over the past 24 years

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage – need not be lived again…”

So said poet and writer Maya Angelou, addressing an audience at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton on January 20 1993. The land restitution debate in South Africa requires that we descend into the repository of history to confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. 

Our rainbow nation relies heavily on black people to indulge – to nurse – white guilt. When we mention the word “land” (you don’t have to say much else really), we are seen to be putting white people who have already been gracious enough to ‘allow’ black people into their schools, businesses and into government in an invidious position. 

We must remind ourselves what has precipitated land reform in the first place so we can free ourselves of the discomfort that’s inherently tied up to this conversation. When we remember that land was violently taken from African people through a process of colonisation we can start viewing land restitution as a necessary part of completing the political and economic programme of redress. 

According to Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi— who’s upcoming book The land is ours will speak to these issues in great detail— 80% of the land is privately owned. 

‘Privately owned’ largely being code for ‘white-owned.’ No one is more tired than talking about race than I am. But in a country where land ownership patterns still largely represent apartheid envisaged political programme of spatial separateness, it is hard not to. 

READ MORE: ANC reclaims its central mission— land

If white landowners adjust their attitude that land reform is a policy which decreases their personal wealth to land reform is a policy which increases economic justice and stability – we would be heading in the right direction.

When we ignore the simple and basic fact that dispossession dating back centuries has resulted in skewed patterns of land ownership, we ignore that these patterns will persist unless the government reallocates this land.

During the state of the nation address our current president made a re-commitment to expropriate land to this end declaring that expropriation of land would take place without compensation. 

Over the past 24 years, land restitution has moved at a sluggish pace – much to the frustration of land claimants in need of land for housing, farming and whatever else. This backlog has been a result of land owners who refuse to negotiate with the government in good faith and who demand huge amounts for their land that government is unable to give to them. 

There is of course some corruption involved as well (as there usually is in South Africa) where government officials add kickbacks in addition to amounts proposed by property valuations. It’s not surprise that, as per the Motlanthe Commission, only 6% of dispossessed land has been restored to black people since 1994.

The president further stated that the ‘expropriation without compensation’ would be implemented in a way that increases agricultural production, improves food security and ensures that “the land is returned to those from whom it was taken under colonialism and apartheid.”  

I am not sure what the president says about land that is meant for occupation. Perhaps President Ramaphosa was merely trying to be discerning and measured in what he says seeing as the state of nation was his maiden speech— but this qualification seems to advance the erroneous view that land need only be expropriated for its capitalist utility.

Advocate Ngcukaitobi challenges us to conceptualise land as something which is tied up with the very ethnicity of Africa people. We belong to this land as much as it belongs to us. Land is therefore not just a primary economic asset, it is also a place of belonging and source of identity. 

In looking at the question of land, one may think of James Cameroon’s film Avatar. In the film, the people of Pandora, a lush habitable moon, are fighting off colonisation. Humans have set sights on Pandora in order to mine the mineral called unobtanium. The Na’vi people are not mining unobtanium. They have a different relationship with their environment, and it is one that is deeply spiritual. 

What is foregrounded in the film is the deep spiritual connection the Na’vi people have to their environment – how the environment shapes who they are and the ways in which they survive. The film challenges audiences to understand that the connection to land is not just to monetise its potential. Our limited imaginations ridicule this line of thinking unless it’s the premise of a block-buster film. The injustice of dislocating and displacing entire populations from their land is unacceptable.

Unfortunately, land security continues to remain a threat even today. 

The Amadiba community in the Eastern Cape fought murder and intimidation for 10 years in attempts to ward off an Australian Mining company from mining titanium from their land. The position of community members was simple. This was their ancestral land, sacred and special. They would not allow the land to be invaded and taken away from them.

“Our land is not for sale. Your mining is not development. It is a destruction of our land.”

Mining communities are often on the front line of negative environmental, social and economic impacts while receiving little, if any, proceeds of the mineral wealth. One of the defences advanced by the Amadiba community was that this land was their ancestral land. It boggles my mind why an Australian mining company should come into our country with a view that it should be permitted to have mining rights on land that people are currently occupying. 

Would an African company, owned by black people be permitted to do the same in a ‘developed’ state? It is only poor, predominantly black communities which are always seen as having the potential to be displaced. This is how we arrived at the current status quo – the belief that black people can be dislocated and relocated at whim with no regard for their psychological well-being and connection with their chosen place of residence. The restoration of former and protection of current land rights is grounded in the notions of identity, dignity and belonging.