Thousands of King Goodwill Zwelithini’s subjects gathered at Ulundi on Wednesday for an imbizo he convened. Top of the agenda was the issue of communal land. Picture: Sibonelo Ngcobo/African News Agency (ANA)
The unprecedented imbizo called by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini this past week to defend the Ingonyama Trust land is a clear and worrying indication that the land expropriation without compensation issue, if handled badly, poses a serious and real challenge to South Africa’s unity, peace and stability. It need not.

It’s strange that it is becoming a source of division within the black community, and yet land has historically been a rallying point that unified black people from different cultural and tribal backgrounds. Land, the world over, has the propensity to unite and divide people, depending on how they relate to it.

Those that relate to it as owners unite to keep it and pass it down to their future generations. Those who are dispossessed of it unite to fight and gain access to it, to also pass it on to future generations.

In countries marked by the historical legacies of colonial and apartheid dispossession and exploitation, the divisions tend to be between those who own the land and those feel that their ancestors were disposed of their land by those who own the land. That is why we are where we are.

However, the issue can and must be resolved with due consideration to the fact that there are still unresolved issues of land poverty and hunger in the black community, directly and indirectly related to South Africa’s history of colonialism of a special type and apartheid oppression and dispossession.

The constitutional dispensation provides a framework for this issue to be handled and resolved in a responsible, equitable and just way.

It is crucial that leaders look to the constitution and the country’s democratic processes to resolve this matter in ways that unite and strengthen the country.

This requires leaders who act in ways that deepen the country’s unity and reconciliation projects, rather than divide and confuse the country for short-term political expediency, tempting as it may be in the build-up to what is likely to be the most contested general election since the country’s first democratic election in 1994.

Effective leadership can and must be deployed to ensure that a constructive and amicable solution is found.

South Africa has the requisite leadership capabilities to do what it takes to find workable and amicable solutions to big and complex problems. The country’s political leaders need to unite the country around constructive and effective solutions to the land expropriation without compensation issue, which threatens to resurrect the ugly scenes of black-on-black violence which nearly tore our communities apart before the country’s first nonracial and democratic elections in 1994.

The attitude of “it’s either my way or no way” should give way to compromise solutions that seek to build unity and cohesion among all South Africans. It is inescapable that key compromises, especially by powerful and dominant groups, are a prerequisite for successful and enduring nation-building projects.

The issue of land expropriation without compensation requires bold and decisive interventions before it deteriorates into a national security issue and crisis of unknown proportions.

Bad leaders can turn problems into crises and crises into national disasters. Good leaders can turn problems into opportunities and crises into minor glitches. At the current conjuncture of political forces, South Africa needs selfless leaders who put the country’s unity, peace and stability above all else.

If we fail to resolve the land question constructively and unite around an effective and amicable solution, we are likely to undermine the post-1994 peace, reconciliation and unity settlement which has made South Africa a globally admired and respected case study of building unity in diversity.

We dare not fail. We cannot and must not sleepwalk to violence and destruction. It is reassuring and encouraging that the imbizo was not a declaration of war but rather a platform to articulate the frustrations of the king which are shared by other traditional leaders.

What is now required is a deliberate and concerted effort to constructively engage with the grievances that have been aired, with a view to find lasting and satisfactory solutions that deepen unity, peace and stability for generations.

The king did not hesitate to declare anyone aiming at taking his land “an enemy of the Zulus”. He reminded amabutho (regiments) that “The Zulus inherited the land from their ancestors, and what is now being suggested is an insult to the ancestors”.

The imbizo was an explicit show of force and call to action, (which coincided with the 139th anniversary of the attack on King Cetshwayo’s Ondini palace in 1879) to Zulus to defend their inheritance - the land of their forefathers.

There is a need for sober and cool heads from all the key role-players to address this looming challenge.

This is not time for polarising and inflammatory rhetoric aimed at scoring cheap political points at the expense of the country’s peace and stability.

It is not time for populist posturing by politicians to advance their electoral prospects in next year’s general elections at the expense of the country’s unity, peace and stability.

It is not time to trade insults and stoke the fires of tribal hatred and division which are antithetical to the spirit of the new South Africa. It is not time to widen the divide between town and country and between clever blacks and traditionalists.

This is the time for a new and unifying language on the emotive land expropriation without compensation issue.

It is time for leaders to embrace their responsibility to unite the nation across all divides.

The fallout on the land issue between traditional leaders and the governing ANC is a symptom of a leadership deficit on this crucial matter. This can and must be avoided.

This fallout has created space for opposition parties to jostle for position to maximise support in the build-up to next year’s general election.

The EFF has not wasted time to come out in praise of King Goodwill Zwelithini’s imbizo and his fight to retain control of Ingonyama Trust land. This was a carefully considered move by the EFF, which needed to make amends after Julius Malema recently launched a broadside against the Zulu king.

It remains to be seen if their strategic and tactical retreat will win hearts and minds in Nongoma and across the Zulu nation, which was offended by what was perceived as an unwarranted and reckless attack on the king.

Serious and genuine damage control is required to avoid the escalation of tension that has been unleashed by the mishandling of the public discourse on this emotive issue.

It is ironic that the Ingonyama Trust land is now centre stage when the initial focus was ostensibly on white-owned land.

How did we get here? It is partly because of fears stoked by the report of the high- level panel led by former president Kgalema Motlanthe which, among other things, recommended the dissolution of the Ingonyama Trust. This is widely interpreted to effectively mean the expropriation of the Ingonyama Trust’s land without compensation.

This is viewed by some as a sideshow and a distraction from the real issue of targeting and expropriating the bulk of the land targeted by the expropriation without compensation policy position taken at Nasrec.

Ingonyama Trust land is perceived to comprise an insignificant proportion of the land that must be targeted for redistribution to landless South Africans.

The imbizo was the first of its kind since the advent of a non-racial democracy in 1994. It was a significant call to action to defend what the king strongly believes is his nation’s inalienable right.

Land, especially tribal land, is an emotive issue not just in KwaZulu-Natal but elsewhere in South Africa and the world.

It requires careful, considered and rational approaches to ensure it does not stoke violent divisions or even wars that may be easier to start than to end.

The stakes are high. Very high indeed. Responsible, credible and effective leadership that unites rather than divides the country is what is desperately required to unlock lasting and constructive solutions to this issue.

* Dlamini is a member of the National Council of the SA Institute of International Affairs at Wits University.

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