Listeners to the testimonies of land appropriation, during the Constitutional Committee Review Proceedings, face a complex political and moral situation. In spite of vast scholarship on the land question, we have come to look for a solution that is, in fact, elusive, an intervention that finally will bring about fundamental change.
The testimonies - the very process of being witness to a massive trauma, dating back four centuries - end with the demand for an event that is extremely difficult to execute, in spite of the compelling urgency of its occurrence. The testimonies of land loss thus include the listeners, who are, so to speak, the blank screens on which the crime has come to be inscribed.
As listeners, however, we are also separate human beings and will experience enormous difficulties in the effort to resolve the land question. While overlapping, to a degree, with the experience of the victims, we nonetheless do not become the victims - we preserve our own separate place, position and perspective, a battleground of forces raging in ourselves, to which we have to pay attention and respect if we are to properly carry out our task. We have to be at the same time witnesses to the testimonies and witnesses to ourselves. It is only in this way, through our simultaneous awareness of the continuous flow of those hazards both in the victims and in ourselves, that we can become enablers of fundamental change. We, therefore, need to know “the lay of the land” - the landmarks, the undercurrents and where the stones are. There are possibilities for change, but under what stones do they lie? As listeners, we have to know all this, so as to explore possibilities for change, companions in a journey that government cannot traverse alone. We have to rediscover and regain our agency and dignity, as it were.
Through its uncanny intransigence, the crime of land invasion bears witness to the historical occurrence of an event that, in effect, has not ended. Land loss, leading to homelessness and poverty, is perhaps one of South Africa’s worst economic, social and health problems, measured by its impact on well-being and sense of self. Yet, apparently, not enough research has been done on its health consequences. How land-lessness and alienation have, over the years, impacted on people’s physical and mental health requires urgent attention. Government cannot legislate well-being or ban mourning, but the constitution can play a decisive role to ensure that the victims have land and home enough to relax with family and friends.
How can we undo the entrapment? How can we avoid coming back to the same place? How can we loosen the grip of land-lessness, its ceaseless repetitions and re-enactments? To undo the entrapment is a condition that must be grasped in depth; a process of constructing a new narrative of reconstructing history, and essentially, creating a new constitutional order. Like other humans, Africans in South Africa need nurturing, the pleasure of land ownership, a sense of belonging to a locality, to a “soil” that stretches beyond death.
Finding an approach to the land question must involve women, in particular, who are concerned about their own and their children’s future in a society which has legitimised land ownership through violence and conquest. Women have a particular relationship with land and home. For them, the proceedings are particularly urgent: the time for change has come, and that change will involve nothing less than redesigning apartheid geography and its legacies, and in doing this, it will bring the private and the public domains closer together. In the wake of the land atrocities, values, beliefs and loyalties risk losing their meaning and value. As a watershed event, the Constitutional Committee Review Proceedings entail an implicit revaluation in our constitutional order, a revaluation or, for that matter, a transvaluation of which we have not yet measured its full implications for our future.
The objective is to interrogate the process of expropriation without compensation, to develop a stage implementation framework, to analyse the behaviour of the victims and the landowners, to analyse the turnaround options for government, and to explore the recovery of public confidence through the lens of complexity theory and policy learning systems.
Revolutions which went through a political settlement, for whatever reasons, are littered with collapsed strategies on the land question. The policy debris often reflects lack of political will, risk aversion, despite the early warnings of impending doom. Neo-liberal economies, with their privileging of individual rights over social obligation, have a limited capacity for fundamental change. Policy responses are limited, critical opportunities are missed, and policy disorientation becomes inevitable.
But insofar as they remind us of the festering wound in the underbelly of our historical disfigurations, the testimonies summon us to our historic responsibility, a responsibility from which we cannot turn away.
In the last 24 years, has there been political and moral progress?
After those years of reconstruction and development, the persistence of the land crime, the atrocities of poverty and homelessness, the belief that we have progressed politically and morally has become difficult to defend. There is more to the question than utter desperation.
Assessing the extent to which the land question has been addressed and what more can be done is part of the proceedings. What really matters is that the Constitutional Committee Review Proceedings provide leverage that can be used to bring about substantial progress. For this reason, we should greet the proceedings positively, and resolve to close the constitutional gaps that still exist between the Freedom Charter and reality.
In 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognising happiness as a “fundamental human goal”, inviting member nations to measure the happiness of their people, and to make use of this measure as a guide to policy - in other words, to take some practical steps toward what the Batho Pele Principles enjoin us to do.
To maintain a sense of balance and perspective in the face of the intensity and complexity of the testimonies, we need to control a range of defensive feelings. These defences may include the following: a sense of total paralysis, brought about by the sheer enormity of the task; a sense of outrage and anger; a sense of total withdrawal and numbness; a flood of aura and trepidation in which we endow the victims with a kind of sanctity, both to pay our tribute to them and to keep them at a distance, to avoid the responsibility of listening; foreclosure through facts, through an obsession with facticity, an absorbing interest in factual details, which serves to circumvent the depth of the trauma; and hyper-emontionality, which superficially looks like compassionate understanding, yet the listener is simply flooded, drowned, and lost in the horrific details.
We should protect ourselves from these evasions of responsibility. We have to rebuild our lives, and the thrust of this rebuilding covers the widest spectrum of activities and the highest level of leadership.
In spite of everything, the victims are, in fact, rebuilding their lives, new careers, new friendships, have kept their lives afloat, and their families intensely bonded and cohesive. The notion of a history which encompasses a diversity of rhythms, a history in which one can sometimes take pause and decide to change direction, is central to self-redemption.
We should resist the anxiety of failure, the urgency to pull back, to withdraw to a softer place, a place where we can protect our personal and sectional comforts.
* Nkondo is a policy analyst, member of Council of University of South Africa and Freedom Park Council.
The Sunday Independent