The EFF's Nazier Paulsen and his supporters erect a shack on private land between Swartklip Road and Mew Way after a Khayelitsha resident and EFF Western Cape leaders invaded it. Picture: Bheki Radebe/ANA Pictures

The issue of land ownership was always going to come up. It is one issue that democratic South Africa has failed to resolve, not for lack of trying but because the land reform process has been fraught with many challenges - more on these later.

More than 20 years into our democracy, land ownership in South Africa is still racially skewed. And for those who pretend this shouldn't be a matter of concern to black South Africans, may I just remind them that The Native Lands Act of 1913 “prohibited the establishment of new farming operations, sharecropping or cash rentals by blacks outside of the reserves”.

Therefore, land policy in South Africa before the dawn of our democracy actively supported white commercial agriculture through, among other measures, eliminating independent black production and restricting access to land in small communal reserves designated solely for black occupation. The exclusion or restriction of blacks from land ownership and commercial agriculture in favour of whites was thus central to the making of contemporary South Africa and the land challenges we face today.

The sooner current landowners acknowledge this historical fact and commit to being part of finding a solution, the better for the country and its future generations.

But even before the 1913 land act, white colonial land dispossession had started at the Cape with the expansion of the Dutch colonial settlement established by Jan van Riebeeck on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. Initially, he was authorised to set up a refreshment station for the company’s ships, but with the need for a more sustainable source of meat and vegetable supply land was seized from the local inhabitants to increase Dutch grazing pastures, expand their farming activities and to establish settlements.

The British in this period annexed land too, particularly in Natal as they followed the Voortrekkers into the interior of South Africa for further colonial conquest. Conquest and land seizure were at times achieved through warfare. Local communities fought to defend and regain their lost land, but superior weaponry enabled the colonists to prevail. I thought it important to remind ourselves of this history so that there is an appreciation of the current land challenges and the proposed policy trajectory.

When the democratic era came in 1994, there were attempts to correct the land injustices of the past. A land reform policy focusing on restitution, land tenure and land redistribution was formulated. Restitution, where the government compensates (monetary) individuals who had been forcefully removed, has been very unsuccessful. Restitution was predicated on land being bought from its owners (willing seller) by the government (willing buyer) and redistributed.

The willing seller-willing buyer principle has not worked for a number of reasons. First, it takes a long time to negotiate land price with the current land owners. There have been instances of high land prices and disputes on land valuation. Also, it is a long process to mediate and resolve claim disputes and to select the rightful beneficiaries for land redistribution.

The shift now is towards redistribution with secure land tenure. Land tenure is a system of recognising people's right to own land and therefore control of the land. But how practical is it for all the people to have access to land ownership? Is it desirable for people to have individual title deeds or should the land be held in trust by the state, giving access to citizens who want to work it for a determined period? And should there be a distinction between agricultural land and residential land? What happens to private property rights?

These are the questions that are coming up in the light of the expropriation of land without compensation recently adopted by Parliament, something that will definitely trigger a constitutional amendment. Different political parties and stakeholders hold different views on the matter, but the possibility of sitting around the table and finding a common solution always exists. My challenge to the country is let's do exactly that. There does seem to be a good starting point in that everybody agrees that whatever we do we should not negatively affect food security and our economy.

What I must discourage is the use of land ownership as a political football. This is too sensitive a matter to be subjected to political grandstanding. We saw what happened in Zimbabwe when the genuine issue of land was politically mishandled. While Zimbabwe holds a lesson to South Africa on how not to implement land reform, it should not be used as an excuse for not confronting and addressing the land inequality that still exists in our country. Current land owners may be tempted to point at Zimbabwe as a disaster and therefore a warning to South African authorities.

The lesson from Zimbabwe for South Africa is not that land reform is a disaster. Far from it - it is an aspect of our economy and cohesiveness as a nation that must be handled with care.

* Pastor Ray McCauley is the president of Rhema Family Churches and co-chairman of the National Religious Leaders Council.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Star