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Recently I have had the opportunity to present my PLAAS Working Paper, entitled ‘The Land and Its People:  The South African Land Question’ at a series of seminars: once at PLAAS (the session was recorded — you can see a video of it here) and once at the Wits Independent Seminar in the Humanities at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER).  

This Working Paper is not a normal research or academic paper. Rather, like its companion paper, Whose Land Question – Policy Deliberation and populist reason in the South African Land Debate, it is intended as a ‘thinkpiece’ –  a polemical intervention intended to provoke thought and ignite introspection. In particular, my aim has been to stimulate a process of political self-reflection within and among the activists and researchers who make up what used to be known as the South African ‘land sector’.

Both papers were written in order to make sense of the journey we undertook here at PLAAS following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on 16 February 2018, when he revealed his government’s intention to implement the ANC’s adoption of Land Expropriation Without Compensation (EWC).

For us at PLAAS, this was an electrifying moment. After all, we have, over the last two decades, dedicated ourselves to in-depth research and critical analysis of land reform policy, so as an organisation, we have strong and clear opinions on the matter. But the president’s announcement placed us in an intriguing position.  On the one hand, it was clear to us that the whole focus on EWC  was something of a red herring. As we have been arguing for years, and as lawyer and author Tembeka Ngcukaitobi eloquently pointed out in his recent book, there is no need to amend the Constitution.  If you want to pay zero compensation for an expropriated farm, the Constitution already provides for that. In fact, the Constitution already offers ample provision for a comprehensive and expansive land reform process.

In our view at PLAAS, the core issue with South Africa’s land reform policy lies not in the government’s inability to expropriate but rather in the basic direction of land reform policy as a whole. Since the early 2000s, this policy has prioritised not addressing the tenure security and land requirements of millions of land-poor and marginalised South Africans but rather supporting the creation of a select group of medium to large-scale black capitalist farmers: elite capture, in other words. Not only does this approach contradict the constitutional mandate for equitable access to land, it is also doomed to failure under current macroeconomic conditions.  

For this reason, researchers at PLAAS have spent much of the last two decades advocating for a fundamental shift in the direction of agricultural land reform.  We have argued that the focus of land reform policy should not be the 5,000 or 10,000 medium-scale capitalist farmers who could benefit from current frameworks but rather on the estimated  200,000 black smallholders currently seeking to make a livelihood with very little policy support from the state – and the approximately 2 million households dependent on land for subsistence agriculture and social reproduction. Our aim, in other words, has been to challenge and transform the class nature of South African land and agricultural policy, moving away from elitism towards a pro-poor approach.

Unfortunately, our efforts have not resulted in any great success. We and our allies in the ‘land sector’ have found ourselves as voices in the wilderness, with land reform policy gradually fading into the background in the years since 2000.

In this context, the political firestorm triggered by President Ramaphosa’s announcement seemed to present us with a significant opportunity. Land reform had returned to the political agenda.  What if we could use this moment to open the door to a discussion, not about the side issue of expropriation without compensation, but rather a broader and deeper discussion about who should benefit from land reform?  We hoped, in other words, that the heightened energies of political contention could be redirected and harnessed to reshape the direction of policy deliberation. 

By now, however, it is clear that these hopes were dashed. Our efforts did not yield the desired outcomes. The 2019 elections came and went. The Constitution was never amended —  Indeed, it was arguably never our President’s attention to amend it at all.  More to the point, the nature of the debate about agricultural land reform in South Africa has remained essentially unchanged.

This is what the Working Paper is about.  It is an attempt to ask: What went wrong? Why did we fail? What aspect of that apparently fruitful political moment did we not understand?   My answer is that one of the reasons is that we were mistaken about what that debate was really about and what was really at stake. We made the mistake of assuming that just because the notion of  ‘land’ features in both the discourses of policy deliberation about land reform and in the context of political contention about expropriation, one debate could be used to address the other.  But this was a mistaken assumption.  Because the land debate as it exists in public discourse is, in a fundamental sense, not really, or not only, about land. It is not at a bottom question about the nature of agrarian productive relations or about who shouldn’t be allowed to own a particular farm.    Rather, it is about who this country belongs to. 

In other words, it is not a policy question in the strict sense at all. It is a political question. It’s a question about who the People are — the People who are supposed to be governing. The resurgence of the land question in South African politics 25 years after the transition to democracy should, in other words, be recognised as a symptom: a symptom of the failure to resolve, not agriculture and farming, but the national question.   In this debate, land functions as a metaphor, or what political theorists would call an ‘empty signifier’: a malleable symbol that can be used to absorb a wide range of broader political meanings – political meanings that function to put into question the very legitimacy of the post-1994 political settlement. 

Why was land the metaphor?  I believe it was because to say ‘land’ is to say ‘race’. To say land is to say ‘colonialism’, ‘land theft’, ‘dispossession’ and  ‘genocide’.  In other words, in a manner of speaking, the ‘land’ in the debate does not simply refer to physical farming land only. It also functions as a symbol for the violated black body of a thwarted nation.   To raise the land question, in other words, is to bring up an issue that has been taboo in South African political discourse since 1994:  who actually are the people who shall govern? Who is a member of that community? Who is not? 

As you can see, what is at stake here is far more than the property clause. Rather, it is the very legitimacy of the political community inaugurated by our Constitution. In fact, one could argue that the part of the South African Constitution that is actually being put in question in the land debate is not only Section 25 but also, crucially, the Preamble to the Constitution: the phrase that we have inherited from the Freedom Charter, and which says South Africa belongs to all who live in it. 

I think we have to take this formulation in our constitution very seriously.  We have to read it both politically and morally. Politically it is quite clear what that statement does: it establishes — or at least calls for the establishment of — a political community, a nation, and it does so in uniquely universalist, inclusive democratic and egalitarian terms.  That’s fair enough. But morally, I would like to suggest that it is a scandalous statement. Because it provides that from this point forward, the descendants of the people from whom the land was stolen shall live in peace and in relations of formal equality with the descendants of those who stole the land.  That assertion is what is at stake in the South African land debate. But it is not stated directly — it is put on the table indirectly through the invocation of the metaphor of the land. 

At this point, I would like to say two simple things. Firstly I think that this question should be welcomed.  Far too many of the problems we have faced in the process of nation-building in South Africa over the last twenty-five years are because we have too often tried to side-step and avoid that question.   We have dealt with it as if the best way to deal with it is not to allow it to be asked — to tiptoe around it and hope it goes away. But it’s not going away: it is still with us. We have no option but to confront it head-on: do we accept that definition of political community in South Africa, or do we reject it?

Secondly, I should make clear that, speaking for myself, my answer to that question is yes.  I believe that South Africa should belong to all who live in it, and everybody who lives in it should feel that it belongs to them—  should experience themselves as full members of the  South African political community, and should feel at home in it. Everyone.  Including those whose papers are not in order.  Not only citizens:  everyone. 

The problem is that they do not. That’s why land is still a hot issue. Land is a live issue in South Africa today not because of the way in which our agricultural land is farmed but because the actual lived experience of the vast majority of people in our country is conditioned by the present-day experience of marginalisation and exclusion, so that everyday life becomes an experience of the remembering and the re-enactment of historical trauma, an experience of being a second-class citizen, of not really belonging.

But here, land is central, not in the way in which we at PLAAS have tended to address in land reform policy debates. It is not significant primarily as a factor of production or even as a component of social reproduction. Rather, land matters above all as a site of social and political being — as a constitutive element of South African political identity.  Think about it this way: whoever you are, whatever you are,  you are always a body located in a particular place, sustained or not sustained by the land in a particular way,  governed in a particular way… included on adverse or advantageous terms. And this shapes the meaning of your membership of the South African political community. Are you a homeowner, or a ratepayer in the suburbs? Are you a farm tenant?  Are you the subject of a traditional leader? Are you the client of a warlord or a group of shack farmers? 

This is what we have to focus on when we approach questions of access to land in South Africa.  In other words, land reform is important not primarily because we want to change the nature of productive relations in South Africa — that ship, as Henry Bernstein has pointed out, has long since sailed — but because giving people access to land where they need it, when they need and in a way that involves them as social agents is an absolutely vital way in which we can re-weave the web of social connection and political community.

I believe that this is where the flashpoints are, and this is where the work is: the places where there are present-day contestations of the right of people to live reside, and work where they are.  It has been calculated that something like 60% of the people in South Africa live in a condition in which their constitutionally protected informal and customary land rights are not institutionally validated, enforced, guaranteed, regulated, and governed. In the former homelands, this is where people face expropriation without compensation either at the hands of traditional leaders or mining companies or, indeed by middle-class people choosing to settle there. In the urban areas where people are struggling for the right to be in the cities where they are trying to find work, and in our nature reserves, it’s also about the right of people to be part of the processes of caring for the land.

This is potentially a very productive way of looking at the land question. But I think it also takes us at PLAAS into new territory. Because it asks us to go to a large extent outside the comfort zones of Marxist agrarian political economy. Make no mistake — I do not question the value of Marxist class analysis. It’s an extremely useful tool. But on my reading, Marxist agrarian political economy as it has been practiced has tended to be characterised by an overly instrumental understanding of the nature of the state and a  reductive approach to politics. Approaching the land question along the lines that I’m suggesting means that we have to take absolutely centrally the question of the nature of the art of government: not only the notion that the people should govern but also the question of how they shall agree to be governed.  

Times have moved on from the years when the word on everybody’s lips was expropriation without compensation. Right now, that word is load shedding. Why load shedding? It’s not only because people like the lights to be on and to be able to cook their food when they get home from a day’s work. The debate about load shedding, like that about the land question, can also be seen as a symptom. But if it is one, it is a symptom of the crisis of the developmental state and of the project of using the provision of services to weld people together into a nation.  It is an outcome of the betrayal of the promise to create a state that could take care of its people.

The thing about government is that it’s tricky. Good government is not contained in abstract principles or fundamental logic. It’s a skill. It is complicated. It is an art. Above all, it’s about contestation and compromise. It’s about the complex calculations required by the will to improve, by the will to care. This is a tricky and dangerous terrain.  It’s a terrain that requires us to go beyond sweeping generalisations and look at the complexity of local politics. But that’s where we should concentrate our energies.

View the recording here