Terms like “land grabs, land occupation, land re-distribution, land expropriation”, and so on are bantered about without any clear indication of what the land is needed for, says the writer. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/African News Agency/ANA
Land grabs. Land release. Land reform.

Pardon me but I don’t get it? Just about everyone that I have spoken to agrees that resources have not been distributed fairly and that inequality must be addressed. But when it comes to the debate about land, I have come to the conclusion that communication is rendered almost meaningless by the loose use of terminology.

In the run-up to the summit between North Korea and the USA, the pundits are warning that what Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un each mean by the term “de-nuclearization” is different. This renders the dialogue a bit meaningless. It confuses matters instead of clarifying them. The same applies to the Great Debate about land in South Africa. If we don’t understand one another’s use of terminology, we will never find a solution.

First of all we have heard terms like “land grabs, land occupation, land re-distribution, land expropriation”, and so on. These terms are bantered about without any clear indication of what the land is needed for. One minute it sounds like it is needed to generate income for unemployed people. The next minute it sounds like they want to confiscate land for poor people to build dwellings on.

Then you face the fact that 75 percent of the land claims settlements since 1994 have resulted in the sale of that reclaimed land, not its re-occupation.  So is what people need really money, not land?  In David Makhura’s recent initiative - called “rapid land release” - his stipulation lines up with the RDP housing – that is, that the ownership cannot change for at least eight years. This seems to mitigate against speculators, and that is a wise move.

But there are still two sides to this coin – rural and urban. Premier Makhura’s province of Gauteng is mostly urban, of course. As the trending goes across Africa, population converges on the Reef where there are jobs in the mines and the factories. But as Willem Saaymen once pointed out:

“dispossession of land did not come about by accident.  There was a good economic reason, according to the capitalist system being introduced, why Africans had to leave their land.  The exploitation of the Colony depended on the availability of cheap Black labour.  As long as the Africans had land (and cattle), they could exist independently by way of successful subsistence farming.  As soon as they were dispossessed of land, they became dependent on the colonists (and missionaries) for their livelihood.  Black South Africans were therefore increasingly forced off their land to supply the cheap labour needed by the growing capitalist system”

So on the urban side, migrants need land not for farming but for housing. The size of the plots needed is relatively small, compared to what farming would require. But the plots do need services like access roads, water reticulation and waste disposal. Not to mention schools and clinics, and of course market infrastructure like malls.  This has been the concern of the Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) attitudes that have been expressed by both white and black homeowners.  They do not want to see the value of their properties depreciate, and the security risks rise, because of the lack of commensurate forms of support for those who acquire a plot under “land release” schemes.

This even includes credit, which for urban land occupants would be for building. One can only admire the accomplishment of Human Settlements in the provision of about 3 million RDP homes since 1994.  However, to some observers, that approach is a bottleneck. It could be opened by provisioning Credit and other inputs to allow for each land occupant to negotiate their own building arrangements.

Similar concerns exist in the rural sphere. Land alone is not enough to ensure that smallholders succeed. They need credit, inputs, know-how and mentoring. Thus white farmers are looking for assurances that if their land is expropriated, this will not cause national Food Security to crash like it did in Zimbabwe.

One has to wonder what exactly the proportions are, of these two sides to the Land Reform coin? Is it 50/50 between rural and urban? Or is it 80/20? Where is the centre of gravity of this need?

This question has political ramifications. For example, EFF has sounded like its demand for land expropriation was to give poor people access to means of production. EFF’s emphasis on only occupying unproductive, unused land, seemed to imply that its ambition was to make that same land productive again.  That would gain votes for the EFF in rural areas.

Whereas Premier Makhura’s “rapid land release” initiative is urban. It could result in a “swing vote” in the big metros back to the ANC, which seems to be expropriating EFF policy territory – without compensation.  Put bluntly, the ANC does not seem to want to let the EFF run off with a lot of its votes by being the champions of land re-distribution. Makhura’s initiative seems like an echo to the rallying cries of the EFF.

Could both 50/50 and 80/20 answers be correct? In rural areas, land occupants will need proportionately more land each to make farming viable.  That all depends on whether they are growing vegetables intensively or needing more grazing land for their livestock. Again this comes back to terminology and the dangers of generalization.

Could it be that 80 percent of those who need land are migrants to urban areas?  But because they only need small building plots each, that this 80 percent only needs 50 percent of the total requirement in terms of surface area?

The Great Debate rages on but will be better served by more precise terminology. As they say, you cannot compare oranges and pineapples.  Sure, they are both fruit, but they are different in size and colour and texture.

Mosiuoa Lekota says that the land was not stolen. He argues that to say so is to denigrate the wars and settlements that were agreed to.  It would be interesting to hear his take on Willem Saaymen’s term “dispossession” (in the above quote). Speaking of terminology, stealing is not an exact synonym for dispossession.  Lenin, Stalin and Mao killed millions of citizens not with tools of war, but by policy. There are those who argue that 350 000 citizens of South Africa perished from the AIDS pandemic, who did not need to. They perished from public policy as much as from physiological causes.

Colonialism seems to have dispossessed indigenous people of their land, even if it was not technically stolen, but negotiated after a military confrontation.  But by the same token, the word “indigenous” is vague. If anyone can stake a claim to the term “indigenous” it is the Ba Baroa, not the bantus. Blacks immigrated into southern Africa from the Great Lakes zone, not that long before the whites started to arrive. Originally, the whites were looking for a sea route to the Orient, not to colonize. The Cape started as a provisioning points for fresh water and meat.  Our first lady Krotoa was someone who believed that trade was natural and could be mutually beneficial to the white sailors and the Khoi and the San.

Black South Africans are treading on eggs to claim that they owned the land. Primordially, that is not so. It all comes down to semantics and terminology.  Lekota is right about one thing – we need to think through the terminology of what is being said carefully, lest it incites violence. For what good is it to own a farm or a plot if there is no peace in the land, and your children cannot play safely in the veld or in the street?

* Stephens is the chairperson of the UNEMBEZA Desk at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. He writes in his own capacity.

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