Lekota's land insights ignore historical injustice

Mosiuoa Lekota (David Harrison/M&G)

Mosiuoa Lekota (David Harrison/M&G)

Mosiuoa Lekota, an anti-apartheid struggle icon in his youth, has in recent years faced scrutiny for his political views and associations. The struggle stalwart broke from the ruling ANC party in 2008 to start the Congress of the People (Cope), a political party that he serves as the president of and which presently has three seats in Parliament.

In recent times, campaigns casting suspicion over Lekota’s ideological leanings have been made through bringing attention to his association to Afrikaner interest organisations, such as AfriForum, which he collaborated with on its Safety Summit that was held in co-operation with the Solidarity Movement on May 6 last year in Pretoria. The summit featured other notable attendees, such as the Democratic Alliance’s Solly Msimanga who was an invited speaker along with Lekota and others.

Over the last year, Lekota has also faced increased criticism for his views on the land question in South Africa.

BusinessTech last year reported on Lekota’s interview with Eusebius McKaiser where he said that the claim that white people “stole the land” from black people in South Africa is not correct, and that land ownership in the country is determined through decades of buying, selling and negotiation.

In expressing similar kinds of views on South Africa’s colonial history, Lekota was heckled on stage in a recent public appearance at the #LandDebate hosted by Unisa on Monday. There he said that land was not stolen because dispossession happened through war.

Critics view Lekota’s present political positioning as so diametrically opposed to his earlier position as an anti-apartheid freedom fighter that he has been described by his fellow opposition party parliamentarian, and Economic Freedom Fighters leader, Julius Malema as “a historical mistake”.

The news of insults and the shouting down of the man has made him seem a person speaking truth to power. His struggle credentials seem to lend him an air of credibility and his position within his party makes him seem like a voice of reason in an age of populism.

But there are numerous issues with Lekota’s position — from his understanding of history to its implications for South African society and how the country may go about tackling inequality.

We can take, for instance, Lekota’s claim that saying whites stole land in South Africa is “belittling” since such land was acquired through war.

He claims that this land was not stolen because black people fought against land occupation. Lekota makes a comparison in which he equates the wars between the indigenous peoples of South Africa with the wars brought by settler colonialism. Although this comparison ignores the kind of changes these events made to the societies affected, his basic argument is that through war and conquest different groups of people in South Africa have taken land from one another.

In his interview on Radio 702 last year, he put forward the same argument saying this is the way groups had “taken over” the right to the land from other groups, and that the right to land ownership in South Africa was only introduced by Europeans through title deeds.

His use of the phrase “taking over” is an obfuscation of a number of legal, ethical, and historical questions.

One could question if the displacements that were the result of indigenous warfare are comparable to the dispossession and subjugation of all the indigenous peoples of South Africa that resulted from the wars of colonialism and apartheid. But whatever the case may be, Lekota’s historical point infers a justification of the killing and subjugation peoples over land.

In his discussion of land acquisition during colonialism, Lekota is saying that whites taking land in South Africa was not stealing because the land was won through wars and killings whose purpose was for one group to “take over” from another in purportedly the same fashion as other groups in South Africa have done to each other in the past.

This kind of view is based on the philosophical idea of the Right of Conquest (which, by the way, would today constitute a Supreme Crime as a War of Aggression). We must seriously ask ourselves what it means to defend such a view and not leave the resurgence of such thinking uninterrogated.

If Lekota’s view as the president of Cope represents the official stance of party, I fear what options Cope leaves on the table for how it is that South Africa can resolve the “land question” and the problem of the country’s racialised structural inequality.

Basically, what his view means is that the right to land ownership in South Africa is secured by two things: wars of colonisation, and what is gained materially through those wars of colonisation. Lekota suggests that this material gain is immune to corrections guided by current values — these gains are purportedly immune to even the values established in the democracies that follow such conquests.

Lekota’s statements are obfuscations cloaked through euphemism and the omission of their implications. But when his views are expressed clearly, without euphemistic gloss, it is easy to see why people such as myself consider them to be brutish, backwards, and unjust.

The options presented in Lekota’s worldview should not be the only options available to South Africans striving for a more egalitarian society, but this remains dependent on how much we are willing to co-operate with one another for justice.

​Phila Mfundo Msimang

​Phila Mfundo Msimang

Phila Msimang is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Stellenbosch University and serves as the convener of their Socratic Society. He is also amongst the founding members of the national Azanian Philosophical Society. Read more from ​Phila Mfundo Msimang

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