Iden­ti­ties, sense of be­long­ing are cru­cial for land


LAND re­form re­mains one of South Africa’s most press­ing un­re­solved is­sues. At­tempts to ad­dress skewed own­er­ship and eco­nomic par­tic­i­pa­tion pat­terns, the re­sult of many years of ex­clu­sion and dis­pos­ses­sion of black South Africans, have been un­suc­cess­ful since 1994.

The gov­ern­ment has now turned to pos­si­ble changes to the Con­sti­tu­tion to deal with these fail­ures.

But pub­lic hear­ings on these pos­si­ble changes have high­lighted the im­por­tance of un­der­stand­ing iden­tity and re­la­tion­ships be­tween groups – not just eco­nom­ics or ma­te­rial wealth – for re­solv­ing these sen­si­tive is­sues.

The hear­ings show that fix­ing the prob­lem of land re­form isn’t as sim­ple as deal­ing with le­gal ne­ces­si­ties, or par­celling out land to new own­ers.

Land re­form in­volves is­sues of iden­ti­ties and in­ter­group re­la­tions, as this study of agri­cul­tural landown­ers’ views shows.

The study is based on ex­ten­sive in­ter­views con­ducted with 40 landown­ers in the Lim­popo prov­ince.

Landown­ers don’t see land as only of eco­nomic value. It car­ried deep sym­bolic value too.

Land (and the abil­ity to own and de­velop it) is closely re­lated to own­ers’ iden­ti­ties and their sense of be­long­ing.

The study also showed that landown­ers were crit­i­cal of re­form ini­tia­tives that seem to be mo­ti­vated by what they per­ceived to be po­lit­i­cal agen­das rather than agri­cul­tural ones.

They thought dif­fer­ently about land re­form when they be­lieved they were per­ceived as “farm­ers” rather than just as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a race.

Landown­ers, the study re­vealed, can see the po­ten­tial of re­form for es­tab­lish­ing last­ing re­la­tion­ships.

This sug­gests that the so­lu­tion to land re­form in South Africa lies in re­la­tion­ships be­tween groups, not just in di­vid­ing up ma­te­rial goods. Own­ers ap­peared more will­ing to try re­form at a com­mu­nity level than at a level where gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials are in­volved. This was be­cause peo­ple de­pended on each other in com­mu­ni­ties.

A fi­nal im­por­tant find­ing was that landown­ers felt the cur­rent de­bate por­trayed them as be­ing op­posed to re­form rather than co-op­er­a­tive. This in­ter­pre­ta­tion arises partly from landown­ers’ own prej­u­dices (this in­cludes racial, class and ide­o­log­i­cal prej­u­dices) and partly from the way in which cer­tain land re­form nar­ra­tives are pub­licly con­structed.

Un­for­tu­nately much of the dis­cus­sion about land re­form is con­ducted in ways that sug­gest only win­ners and losers, “us and them”, in­clu­sion and ex­clu­sion.

For ex­am­ple, talk about “re­turn­ing the land to our peo­ple” can un­in­ten­tion­ally im­ply that those who cur­rently own land are not “our peo­ple”.

There is prob­a­bly no sin­gle for­mula that will trans­form the en­tire de­bate, but there are a few things every­one can do. And they are not only the re­spon­si­bil­ity of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers.

First, the pub­lic dis­cus­sion needs to make land re­form a South African prob­lem rather than a racial prob­lem.

Peo­ple have shown that it is pos­si­ble to adopt more in­clu­sive iden­ti­ties when there is a shared ded­i­ca­tion to such an iden­tity.

The way in which South Africans of all back­grounds ral­lied around the 1995 Rugby World Cup win­ning team bears wit­ness to this.

This is an ex­am­ple of peo­ple unit­ing be­hind an over­ar­ch­ing iden­tity.

Sec­ond, the dis­cus­sion should em­pha­sise that the so­lu­tion will come when peo­ple de­pend on each other.

Re­search has shown that if com­pet­ing groups face prob­lems that have dire con­se­quences for all of them and if the so­lu­tion lies in co-op­er­a­tion, con­flict­ing so­cial iden­ti­ties mat­ter less.

Some may ar­gue that these sug­ges­tions are naive. But the de­bate can’t con­tinue in the same old way. Some­thing has to change in the in­ter­ests of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of South Africans.

The con­flict as­so­ci­ated with land re­form will not be ad­dressed by sim­ply re­dis­tribut­ing land ac­cord­ing to what­ever tar­gets are cho­sen.

If re­form disregards how South Africans re­late to each other in terms of their so­cial iden­ti­ties, the un­der­ly­ing con­flict will re­main long af­ter any re­form process is con­cluded. – The Con­ver­sa­tion

Gert Young is a PhD grad­u­ate at the Depart­ment of Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence; se­nior ad­vi­sor: Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity.


Gertrude Maqungo pre­pares to sign the last pa­pers be­fore tak­ing own­er­ship of her piece land in Ivory Park on the East Rand. The writer says land, and the abil­ity to own and de­velop it, goes be­yond eco­nomic value. It car­ries deep sym­bolic value too.

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