Editorial: Restoring land is restoring dignity

When we talk about land in South Africa, we talk about earth firm enough to allow us to stand tall. When we talk about land, we talk about earth gentle enough to raise children who will know what it is to belong. When we talk about land, we talk about earth wide enough to admit the full complexity of who we are. When we talk about land, we talk principally about the dignity of those who live with an ongoing deprivation that can only be remedied by a fastidious process of redistribution. When we talk about land, we are talking too about recognising that black South Africans have had their humanity systematically denied by a legislated system of dispossession.

The Natives Land Act of 1913 and the Native Administration Act of 1927 are two examples of the way the law was used to dispossess black people. As Tembeka Ngcukaitobi writes in this week’s Mail & Guardian, it is these laws that governed the process over which white governments undermined the security of tenure of black people living in “native reserves” or on farms taken over by whites.

He says, when the Native Administration Act was passed, it recognised the (British) governor general as the “supreme chief of all natives”, with the power to order the expulsion of any native from any part of the country.

This was not just about the law being used to govern the ownership of land as a physical thing, it was the law that was used to institutionalise the dehumanisation of black people. It was used to assert a sense of control over the very being of black people.

And that is why the Bill of Rights, as the cornerstone of our democracy, the contract we enter into with each other, “enshrines the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom”.

Dignity is not some manufactured sense of entitlement. Affirming a person’s dignity is to affirm their humanity.

So when Parliament voted this week in favour of beginning a process that will look into the current legal infrastructure surrounding the restitution of land, it was an important moment in the history of South Africa. Especially important, because, for the past 23 years, the government has failed to use the existing legal framework to push through an active process of land restitution.

What is at stake is not the egos of politicians and their careers, which are so dependant on playing on the emotions of the public. What is at stake is the recognition that the time to relegate this debate to idle chit-chat is long gone.

And the likes of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema know this. You can mistrust the motives of politicians like him and the ANC du jour but you cannot deny that a concerted push for the restitution of land is long overdue. Elsewhere in the M&G today, we convey the results of government’s most recent land audit, which found that an overwhelming majority of privately owned land in South Africa is in the hands of white people. It is unconscionable to maintain these systems of ownership.

And yet, for some of the dissenting voices this week, the emphasis on redistribution of land appears out of place. After all, this is a South Africa with a struggling economy, where corruption sinks its hooks into even the best intentions to do good by the people.

Our current economic framework needs growth to ensure more people have jobs, more people have access to livelihoods. The World Bank and other institutions believe that a system of secure and well-protected private property rights is best justified by its function of promoting growth in developing societies. But a neoliberal conception of property rights that views land redistribution as antithetical to growth is flawed.

We must seriously rethink concerns that posit land restitution as a threat to economic growth. The discussion about to unfold in Parliament must understand land in terms of both dignity and wealth.

Weighing up the restoration of a people’s dignity against the whims of the market may prove challenging. And it is complex, as the ANC’s amendments to the EFF’s motion proves this week.

But we should not fear complexity. We must ensure an honest, rigorous, well-governed process of restitution ensues. Our dignity depends on it. 

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