File picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency(ANA)
File picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency(ANA)

Diplomacy key to resolving SA’s land issue

By Cyril Madlala Time of article published Mar 28, 2021

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Had a victorious peoples’ army toppled the apartheid regime from the seat of power in Pretoria in 1994, expropriation of land and property without compensation would probably have been one act that marked the fulfilment of one of the key demands in the celebrated Freedom Charter.

“The land shall be shared among those who work it,” the document had proclaimed, going on to state that “restrictions of land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land redivided among those who work it to banish famine and land hunger.”

But such was the delicate nature of the constitutional negotiations which gave birth to the new South Africa, that the majority black population got the right to vote for the first time, but not the right to the land they had been dispossessed of without compensation.

Tales of the agony of forced removals from District Six, Sophiatown, Umkhumbane and other urban settlements pale into relative insignificance against the harrowing experiences of rural communities who had to abandon their farming livelihoods and the sacred graves of their ancestors as apartheid bulldozers flattened their homesteads. Government trucks dumped them in unfamiliar, far-flung corners of the country where they had to start life afresh.

And by the time uhuru (freedom) came, those who had helped themselves to the most productive and fertile parts of the land had, through a generous apartheid government helping hand, become the feeders of the nation. The facility of cheap labourers who were denied the right to offer their services wherever they wished, perpetuated the master-slave relationship for decades.

The Constitution of the new South Africa, appropriately, sought to address this wrong of the past by including the famous Section 25. The National Assembly subsequently agreed to amend it to make expropriation of land without compensation more explicit in the supreme law of the land as a legitimate option to bring about land reform.

Parliament established an ad hoc committee, under the leadership of ANC MP Mathole Motshekga, to initiate and introduce legislation amending Section 25 of the Constitution to effect the necessary changes so that there was no doubt about how this sensitive matter should be addressed.

The polarisation of our society over property rights is being laid bare in the public hearings. This is not a simple matter of the state merely taking possession of any piece of land, with or without compensation, to do with it whatever it may deem to be in the public interest. There is general consensus from all concerned – from farmers and workers, property owners and traditional leaders, far-right and far-left political bedmates – that after more than a quarter of a century of the adoption of the new Constitution, addressing the land question decisively can no longer be deferred.

But what is to be done? Simple logic would be that the 87% of land that black people were dispossessed of in the 1913 Natives Land Act should be restored to them and there should be nil compensation to those who acquired it without paying. If traditional leaders throughout South Africa had their way therefore, the vast tracts of communal land under them would be exempted from expropriation. Needless to say, the expectation would be that the controversial chapter over land under the Ingonyama Trust in KwaZulu-Natal would be closed and amakhosi would remain in charge.

As has been pointed out, legitimately, by those who stand to be ruined financially if the route preferred by traditional leaders were to be followed, the issue around the amendment of Section 25 of the Constitution is not only about land. It impacts fundamentally on property rights enshrined in the same Constitution. In fact, those who were in the forefront representing divergent constituencies during negotiations for a future democratic South Africa would recall that the property clause was one of the most contentious.

White people had accumulated much wealth through the acquisition of property such as mining rights, and had over decades built conglomerates which sustained the South African economy despite biting international sanctions and isolation aimed at nudging the rulers then to abandon apartheid policies.

It is almost certain that if the whites had not been guaranteed that their investments would be safe from the claws of the state, they might as well have packed their bags and left South Africa when democracy dawned. Worse still, the former army generals of the eminently capable erstwhile South African Defence Force would have had little difficulty persuading their followers to fight to the bitter end.

Now, the compromises that brought about a negotiated, peaceful settlement towards the realisation of Nelson Mandela’s dream of a rainbow nation, have come back to haunt all of us.

Those who have often frowned upon the kind of deal brokered at the Convention of a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) on the basis that more punitive concessions should have been extracted from those who represented white capitalists, will want the current exercise in Parliament to correct that. Regardless of the consequences. We are, however, wiser now.

The handling of the land question as it unfolded in neighbouring Zimbabwe has left us with stark lessons. Failure to appreciate the importance of sustained food security as we attempt to address the inequities of the past will have dire consequences. Nor should we pretend that investors in our economy would welcome the threat of a possibility that the state could lawfully expropriate property without adequate compensation. They would rather look elsewhere to grow their fortunes, and that is the last thing the country’s ailing economy needs.

For Motshekga’s ad hoc committee, it will not be easy to find the middle ground and present a workable solution to Parliament.

Importantly, for the ANC, the matter comes up when it least needs issues in the public domain that draw attention to conflicting persuasions within the party regarding the transformation of the economy and the protection of business interests built on the exploitation of the black majority.

One can imagine how the lines are being drawn at Luthuli House between the two factions. What both will need to bear in mind though is that it was only the give-and-take type of diplomacy by Madiba that brought about a peaceful transition and sought to build a South Africa in which all would live comfortably side by side. There were no outright victors.

* Cyril Madlala is an independent political analyst.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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