Now here is a chilly warning: nobody will just give away their land, regardless of the country’s Constitution, writes Sechaba ka'Nkosi. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)
JOHANNESBURG - Something sad happened in South Africa last week. 

The rhetoric, the bravado, and the emotional reaction to the National Assembly’s motion to amend the Constitution for the expropriation of land without compensation denied the country an important opportunity to discuss one of the most important laws that has stood untouched since 1994 - the 1913 Native Lands Act.

The reactions showed just how far apart South Africans remain.

Instead of it being about finding the best ways to address a historical injustice against a people who were dispossessed of their land, it quickly deteriorated into a slug-fest with opponents and proponents exchanging unpleasantries.

Nowhere in the equation were voices of reason accommodated.

Alarmists flagged investor confidence falling; chaos; recklessness; Zimbabwe; and food security - words carefully chosen to cover a widely held belief that black people are incapable of running a successful commercial farm.

It was scary, because the noises were emanating mainly from those who benefited from one of the most draconian laws against the majority of South Africans.

The Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU) took it a step further - denouncing the decision as legitimising theft and the commencement of a process of nationalisation of land and property. (Note how the name Transvaal has remained an integral part of the organisation).

According to the TAU, the historical claim that black people were forcibly removed from their land without any redress is just a lie.

The land that its members currently occupy was bought through mortgages with heavy interest rates and worked from sunrise to sunset to be able to make payments and ensure that there is food on every table.

Now here is a chilly warning: nobody will just give away their land, regardless of the country’s Constitution.

Farmers - read white commercial - interpret the motion as a declaration of war against its members.

Populists were also not to be outsmarted - painting all commercial farmers racist. They threatened a Zimbabwe-like land grab if the government did not move quickly to address the situation.

They called for no consultations, arguing that black people were never spoken to when their land was forcibly taken away from them.

While this in the main is generally true, it feeds to the racial stereotyping of black people as inherently disorderly.

Never mind that President Cyril Ramaphosa has repeatedly said that everything would be done according to the law.

And down the drain went late President Nelson Mandela’s dream of a rainbow nation.

This is indeed a sad turn of events on what should have been a much more sober debate about South Africa’s land question.

For had it been less emotional, it would have started by acknowledging that an injustice was meted out against the vast majority of the country’s population and that it can no longer be left unresolved.

In a predominantly black country, it is unsustainable for a minority to hold more than 70percent of the commercial land.

The protection of property rights in the Constitution may benefit predominantly white landowners, but is not conducive to the commercial viability of the agricultural industry.

You just have to look north of the Limpopo to see how white farmers, who largely remained indifferent to cries of their black counterparts, became victims of opportunistic elements to the detriment of a successful industry.

This is what South Africa should try to avoid: a disorganised mass occupation of agricultural lands that will leave everyone poorer.

The land issue is not going to disappear by simply wishing it away. Families were destroyed, land expropriated and livelihoods lost.

It is a painful past that has been with us since 1913 and there is a majority who feel that the 1994 political freedom was never followed by economic emancipation.

It is a reality to many who feel that only those who are close to the establishment are reaping the benefits of freedom.

The issue affects just about everyone who wants to see the country succeed. Commercial farmers have invested heavily in modern agricultural technology to mitigate against the vagaries of nature.

For the farms to remain viable these farmers need to make profits.

Banks have huge sums exposed to the industry through refinances, bonds and collateral.

If the land restitution occurs without taking into account the banks’ involvement, then the financial system could easily collapse.

Then there are farmworkers who daily toil on the land to ensure that we have enough to eat and export to global markets.

The passing of the motion should, therefore, be seen as a beginning of a process that should involve everyone who has a vision of a peaceful future for their children. We also have an independent judiciary that would adjudicate on what is just and what is equitable in the land restitution process.

That is why the debate should have given the country an opportunity to shoulder equal responsibility to save it from ruin. The continuous finger-pointing leaves us nowhere to finding each other on what should otherwise be a joint path towards economic stability.

The situation where a majority feels left out of the whole has given rise to narrow right-wing nationalism in both Europe and the US. And it should never be allowed in South Africa.

Sadly, as things stand, the reaction over the land issue in South Africa remains more like a drunken brawl where everyone throws a fist against anyone in their proximity, without a full understanding of what started the fight in the first place.