South Africa Land Reforms: Politicians Should Not Lead the Debate

Published on 2nd October 2018

A fully developed land policy, which is still a way off, should take into account both emotions and practicalities.

The Makgobas and our clan, baTlou of Makgoba’s Kloof, Limpopo, know all about the pain of having our land expropriated without compensation. When our great-grandfather, Kgoši Mamphoku Makgoba, resisted the decision of Paul Kruger’s government to parcel out our land to white settlers in the 1890s, they sent a force of at least 4,000 to crush our army of 250. They finally caught up with Kgoši Makgoba in the kloof on a Sunday. Because Gen Piet Joubert, hero of the Boers’ First War of Liberation against the British, and his men were at church, the Swazi auxiliaries who found Makgoba cut off his head and sent it to Joubert to prove they had killed him. Announcing the news to Kruger, Joubert ended his telegram: “The Lord reigns, and I am his servant.” We are still searching for our ancestor’s skull.

More than 120 years later, when I drive through white-owned land down the beautiful Makgoba’s Kloof Pass, I pass citrus farms, avocado pear trees and commercial pine plantations. It smells of wealth and privilege. Arriving to visit relatives at Tlhabine in the lowveld — the descendants of those driven from the kloof — it is barren by comparison. The stench is of deprivation and dispossession. The suffering and the hurt live on into the current generation.

Although I don’t want to turn the current fight over land reform into a free-for-all, we cannot afford to ignore the seizure of land before the current cut-off date of 1913. Expropriation going back to colonial times has sentenced many generations to utter poverty and shame. Laws and practices were maintained by force of arms, leading to a system of land ownership and economic development disproportionately based on race.

However, we must recognise that going back to the colonial era raises difficult questions. What happens to white families who have long since sold the land originally seized by their forebears and invested the proceeds? And what about those who bought land for the first time more recently, using big loans from the banks? If the banks lose their money, what damage does that do to the economy?

What about land given in the 19th century to those of our ancestors who helped the colonisers defeat other groups of African people? Who adjudicates those disputes?

While our history gives us no choice but to redistribute land, I am not happy with the way politicians are playing on people’s hunger for redress and their yearning for better lives. In people’s minds, the unjust distribution of land has become a proxy for economic disadvantage, and “expropriation without compensation” is being sold as an instant solution to all our problems, from failed land reform to unemployment. Expropriation does not automatically improve the lives of our people.

We, the Makgobas, secured the return of some of our land under current legislation. But it has become a curse. Dissension among us resulted in some of the country’s most productive tea estates lying derelict for years. When I see the continuing poverty, I think the ghosts of Piet Joubert and Paul Kruger must be thumping their chests, celebrating that we still haven’t figured out how to deal with what they did to us.

I have not heard anyone spell out an overarching vision which takes all the complex practical and emotional factors into account. Nor have I heard a satisfactory answer to the fundamental question: expropriation to do what?

When I was a bishop in the Eastern Cape, before land reform became the buzzword it is today, we began to do it on our own. We took two sizeable pieces of land near Komani and East London and negotiated its future with both communities and the descendants of the traditional leaders who gave us the land. We ended up placing it in the hands of trusts set up to benefit the local people. To safeguard the process, we made provision for taking back control if it was not used properly.

At the beginning of this month, I challenged our church to look at similar models nationwide. I have said that even if we feel we have been granted land legitimately and used it properly, in the interests of reconciliation let us work with communities to see how best we build the future together. In this way, we can keep the land in the hands of the community, for the benefit of all and with particular concern for the poorest of the poor.

Our intention is to infuse a debate otherwise pursued for political and commercial gain with Gospel values: sharing, reconciliation, healing and taking care of our neighbours. While our model is specific to our needs, I do not think land reform will work if it is driven only from Tshwane or Cape Town, or only by business. We should decentralise the process by allowing people to work out local solutions backed by laws and policy provided by the government.

A fully developed policy of redistribution needs both to take into account that there is more demand for urban than for rural land, and to provide an economic model for developing rural land, including clear proposals for education and practical help for those who want to work the land. It should not be a political tool but a tool for real transformation, to address inequality of opportunity and unemployment.

Finally, we need to address the social imperatives of land reform. My mother used to say that the damage wrought by the loss of our land will not be repaired by its restoration. The scars to our psyche left by the seizure of our land are real and still inflame the debate, and as a psychologist I know that the emotional component of the debate is as important as the practical.

We cannot ignore the importance of place in our lives. While many of us may not want to go back to our ancestral lands to farm, to address the pain and cultural deprivation we need to work out forms of restitution for cultural purposes, for example enabling even urban dwellers to visit their ancestral areas to reconnect with their heritage.

Each of us needs to consider: what can we contribute to economic transformation and social cohesion? If we cannot bring that about, the SA of tomorrow will be as unsustainable for our children and grandchildren as the SA of the apartheid past.

 By Thabo Makgoba

The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.


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