File picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency/ANA
In his maiden SONA, President Ramaphosa chided citizens to drop the prevailing “negativity” and to focus on hopes and aspirations.

Thoreau once wrote: “You see things are they are, and you ask WHY? I see things that never were, and I ask WHY NOT?”

I am disturbed by the language used in the land reform debate. It is hindering progress, not helping it. 

The blues say: “Our approach is to give emergent black farmers title to their land so that they can be secure and prosperous.” (quoting James Selfe). This view is endorsed by parties such as DA and COPE, who oppose expropriation of land. At the root of this is their belief in the premise of private property, brought to you by Adam Smith. He published his famous book the Wealth of Nations in 1776, only 250 years ago. There is no question that worldwide, capitalism as he called it has become the predominant economic system.

The reds say disagree and have put forward a motion to expropriate land without compensation. They invoke the Freedom Charter and present a compelling case based on the unacceptable Inequality in the nation. Many of the reds are Marxists. Karl Marx wrote his famous book Das Capital in 1865, only 150 years ago. Many of the countries that experimented with his ideas have struggled economically in a world dominated by capitalism. The reds believe that ultimately the State owns the land and thus it can expropriate land without compensating any private owners. This view is endorsed by parties like the EFF and SACP, which seem to be returning to the fold of the ruling alliance?

The coalition governments of the big metros could end up on the rocks over this issue. If the ANC supports the EFF’s motion, the EFF has threatened to pull back its support of the DA in those municipalities.

But there is a third view that is not being talked about enough.  In fact, it was the prevailing view for much longer than either Adam Smith’s or Karl Marx’s. And it lines up to some extent with traditional African beliefs and views that are still near and dear to many citizens. The third view is that land is neither private property nor State-owned.  It belongs to God. 

One reason that this view should not be discarded too quickly is that debate between the reds and the blues could very quickly slip back into a fight between whites and blacks. Even though there are black voices like Mosiuoa Lekota championing private property and some white voices saying that expropriation without compensation lines up with the Freedom Charter. For example, Stephen Meintjes of a Johannesburg brokerage, Momentum Securities - who endorses “land rent” by the State as an alternative to taxation.

As Ramaphosa said in his maiden SONA, it is better to drop the negativity and work in “unity” together. We need to look for solutions that bridge the gaps between us. In this regard, most observers will agree that both white and black citizens, both rich and poor, are still very religious in South Africa.  They fear God, and would probably accept that in the last analysis, He owns the land.

How does this play out in reality? Let me just touch on the principle of Jubilee – that every 50 years (that is, once-in-a-lifetime) there has to be a levelling of the playing field. Because He ordained it. No one, neither the haves nor the have-nots, will dispute this - if they fear God and believe that the land belongs to Him.

My worry with negativity is that angry, hostile youth have been politicized to occupy the unproductive land. With what and for what? Do they have tools? Tractors? Inputs? Credit? Farming know-how?

Or do they rather want it to live on, not to farm? Or worse yet, to rent out or to sell, illuminating that their basic premise is still private property? I wish that people would not just occupy new land, but occupy a new “space” in terms of their beliefs and convictions. The re-distribution of land should be predicated on either the maintenance of - or even an increase in - PRODUCTIVITY.  You can’t eat soil. Food security will only stabilize and improve if that land brings forth a harvest. And that takes skills, inputs and hard work.

During and after the American Civil War, there was a Vision called “Forty acres and a mule”. People (soldiers and freed slaves) dreamed this dream – they had a positive idea HOW MUCH land they would need to prosper, and HOW they would farm it (by animal traction). But I never heard EFF say anything about which crops people will grow, or if those land invasions come with tools and business plans!

The Solms-Delta model in the Cape does not shrink the existing farms into more, smaller plots. Instead, it changes the structure of ownership of the existing farms in a more equitable and inclusive way. But of course, the premise is still that of private property. It is, however, vision-led.

Abahlali baseMjondolo is a more urban model in Durban. Its language is more vision-led as well: “We continue to take the view that the social value of land must be placed before its commercial value, and that democratically organised land occupations in the cities are a form of grassroots urban planning.” This sounds like it is on the edge of State ownership?

The language of “without compensation” sounds hostile. When the fact is that our stable food security is largely a function of the expertise and acumen of our farmers (Boers in Afrikaans).  This is not the language of “Jubilee”. That is a structural mechanism within a market-driven system to level the playing field. It is not voluntarism, like “the Giving Pledge” that millionaires subscribe to in the capitalist system. It is part of the social fabric. It is a festival – when people welcome those-who-lost-their-land back home. Hope springs eternal; we fail forward.

The operative element in Jubilee is that ALL citizens are South Africans and Inequality is only acceptable to a point – then you have to level the playing field again. Because all of us are children of God, the land-owner. And God had no grandchildren. We are all siblings in his family. This is incompatible with a class system.

Another positive approach that discards negativity and puts forward a vision-led alternative has been articulated in Our Land, Our Rent, Our Jobs by Stephens Meintjes and Michael Jacques. The assumption here is that farmers don’t own their land, it belongs to the State – which collects rent for it from those occupying it. This provides a financial mechanism to level the playing field by redistributing wealth in more familiar ways (within the capitalist framework) while the State exercises ultimate ownership. It is a red-blue hybrid.

Last, of all, there is a lingering rumour that government already owns thousands of farms that it has acquired since 1994, but not yet allocated to the poor. One wonders: Why not? Would this buy us some time to re-frame the debate about land reform in positive terms? Or is there some kind of guilt-manipulation in letting it be loaded with negativity?

One thing is for sure – land reform is an imperative. Citizens should focus on their commonalities, not on their differences, in finding a way forward. “Divide and conquer” is NOT the best strategy for South Africa; “unity” is the order of the day. Let us go back to the future by following the advice of St. Gregory the Great: “The Old Law did not punish the desire to hold on to wealth; it punished theft. But now the rich man is not condemned for taking the property of others; rather, he is condemned for not giving his property away.”

* Chuck Stephens is Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. He writes in his personal capacity.

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