Disputed Land

By Louis Changuion and Bertus Steenkamp

(Protea Books, R250)

This is a fully documented history of land tenure in South Africa, enhanced by a variety of good maps that elucidate the text, as well as appendices that make relevant historical documents accessible.

As such, it is a useful contribution to an important and highly topical subject.

Yet all the time the reader is disturbed by an unacknowledged underlying polemic.

The first intimation of this comes as early as the preface with its references to the government “taking” land from white landowners.

Changuion and Steenkamp respond to this putative threat with a rehearsal of the old-style insistence on the legitimacy of whites’ possession of the land by virtue of barter, the “law of conquest” and the occupation of empty land.

The first part of the book surprises by its unnuanced approach to such transactions.

Was it really unexceptionable for a vast area comprising most of North West and Gauteng to be “bought” for 49 head of cattle?

Does the fact that it was practice for colonial powers to dispossess indigenous people unequivocally validate our internal colonialism?

And do we acquiesce in the argument that because black people, who had been dispersed during the Difaqane and later returned to their ancestral homes, could not submit proof of their previous tenure, they were allowed to resettle only if they accepted the status of labourers on what had become white-owned land?

The rhetoric of black nations and their separate development gives rise to all manner of unconscionable distortions. The Natives Land Act of 1913, we are told, “upset the black people”; equal rights were accorded blacks by the Representation of Natives Act of 1936; job reservation meant that “certain jobs were reserved for the various communities”.

Despite all this, the authors accept the need for land reform and seek to contribute positively to the debate. Suddenly the ideological gap narrows and it becomes possible to start finding common ground.

Government policy is to redistribute 30 percent of white-owned land by 2014.

In the green paper published in September last year, the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Gugile Nkwinti, acknowl- edged that land reform would “take time and an enduring national effort”.

Minister of Agriculture Tina Joemat-Pettersson has highlighted the threat of increasing food insecurity, and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has conceded the impracticality of meeting the government’s redistribution goal.

In these circumstances, it is a pity the authors’ proposals (three pages headed “Possible solutions” at the end of the book) could not have been presented in a less conflicted historical contextualisation. – John Boje