GROWING NEED: Today, women’s land rights remain one of the most important sites of social, political and economic contestation in postcolonial Africa.Picture: Independent Media Archives
MAKING people aware of certain inconvenient truths might not win me many fans in populist circles, but they need to be brought out into the open anyway.

If you asked South Africans what was the most divisive issue our new democracy faced now, I would bet the majority would point to the land debate.

When the Land Act of 1913 was passed, it awarded the black majority population a mere 13% of arable land, which President Cyril Ramaphosa has aptly described as "the original sin”.

So, it’s only just and fair that the government moves decisively to remedy this grave historical injustice, committed by successive generations of colonial rule and apartheid over many decades.

While 30% of the country’s estimated 60000 commercial farms were earmarked in 1994 to be returned, only 8% is in black hands today. Hence the apparent haste to accelerate land reform, especially with elections looming next year.

A caution - let’s be careful that in our determination to right a historical wrong, we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Judging purely from media reports of the parliamentary constitutional review committee’s hearings to gauge public opinion, I got the impression this sensitive issue had become emotionally charged and “sloganised”.

It’s become a slanging match between those pushing for expropriation with compensation (EWC) and others, mainly white farmers, who fear EWC will turn the country into another Zimbabwe. What South Africa needs today is not noisy bun fights but sober, wide-ranging and rational debates that can deliver long-term, sustainable solutions.

As much as I support the urgency of land redistribution, it would be foolish to ignore warnings about some of the pitfalls experienced elsewhere in the world.

Sary Levy-Carciente, a professor at Venezuela’s National Academy of Economic Sciences who works with more than 200 civic organisations and think tanks in 125 countries,was in South Africa a few weeks ago. She recalled how her country had plunged into poverty since implementing land expropriation 20 years ago.

She said that when the government expropriated farms, land and factories, the manufacturing industry collapsed. Inflation shot up to a million percent and families were devastated by shortages of food, medicine and cash.

We can dismiss her warning as alarmist and stick our heads in the sand. Or we can take the trouble to look beyond our personal and political emotions and come up with holistic and viable solutions to address this historical injustice.

The choice is ours to make.

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* Dennis Pather writes the Tongue and Cheek column for the Sunday Tribune.

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