By Laurel Oettle, published 9th February 2017.
South Africa’s fortunes rest on land, which has become a rallying cry for #FeesMustFall, the EFF and various other organisations across the country. It took President Jacob Zuma an hour to get to the issue in his “radical socio-economic transformation” SONA address last night. The troop mobilisation, punch-ups, teargas, stun grenades, swearing and walkouts suggest that the disintegration of consensus will make it difficult for government to enlist broad co-operation in any of its objectives, including land reform, and will continue to drive change in a way that has been marked by 23 years of failure.
President Zuma’s pronouncement that it will be “difficult if not impossible to achieve true reconciliation until the land question is resolved,” was an acknowledgment of the seriousness of the issue, simultaneously pointing to the failure of land reform (quoting only 9,8% of arable land having been transferred to black people) and government’s contortions to appease the electorate and take the sting out of political competition that has taken over the initiative.
The renewed and ever more vigorous focus on land is welcome because land is the basis on which all South Africans are able to assume full citizenship. It grants them access, in a multitude of ways, to livelihoods, dignity and equality. The land question therefore remains a critical feature of the country’s politics, marked by volatility, insecurity and confusion. To break the logjams in land reform is necessary, and long overdue. But the question has to be asked: to what end? What will be solved or destroyed along the way? Will those who reap the reward be those in the queue of history, patiently waiting for justice to get around to them, or will it be those who already have the money and the connections and are poised to add a farm here or there to their property portfolios?
It is hard to ignore the staggering amount of money – R631 million, according to Zuma’s SONA pronouncements – that is going into a policy that as of yet remains highly criticised, unpublished and entirely opaque. Known as the “50/50 policy”, or “Strengthening the relative rights of people working the land,” this brainchild of Minister Nkwinti does not, in fact, transfer land to black farm workers. Instead, it is pumping millions of rands into failing farms for the transfer of business shares to a relatively small number of farm workers and farm dwellers, with the biggest benefit seeming to remain with the white land owners. This seems little more than a horribly twisted and empty embodiment of the ANC policy under OR Tambo of “land to the tiller.”
Everyone is watching the land space. It embodies transformation, and understanding this allows for a comprehensive and critical analysis of the successes and failures of transformation in South Africa. So what has gone wrong? We have policy and legislation, but poor governance and administration systems. The push and pull around land has not been grounded in the systems and resources that would be needed. Land claimants have been paid out in quickly-spent cash rather than having their land restored, without a full understanding of what options should be available to them. It is laudable that Zuma’s speech included an appeal to land claimants to accept land instead of financial compensation, stating that over 90% of claims are currently settled through financial compensation and acknowledging, moreover, that government from the outset has poorly handled this issue.
“Land remains,” he said. “It is important that you remain with the land.” It hasn’t been for lack of trying, if you are an evicted farm dweller or neglected labour tenant.
Government has tended to speak to people through announcement, through press statements, especially with regard to land. Dialogue needs to be moved from the central, urban, metropolitan processes and spaces, and must instead be grounded in variegated realities of rural life. Continue reading