In­for­ma­tion vac­uum

There is no au­thor­i­ta­tive land database, yet the rhetoric con­tin­ues and ex­pec­ta­tions grow

The Witness - - OPINION - Christo­pher Mer­rett

LAND resti­tu­tion: you will not find a main­stream po­lit­i­cal party or com­men­ta­tor in South Africa who does not fer­vently sup­port it as an es­sen­tial pre­req­ui­site of the na­tion’s fu­ture.

The cur­rent pop­ulist cry (and in­creas­ingly ac­tion) is ex­pro­pri­a­tion with­out com­pen­sa­tion; ac­com­pa­nied by amend­ment of sec­tion of 25 of the Con­sti­tu­tion, which ac­cord­ing to some opin­ion is un­nec­es­sary to­kenism that holds wider dan­gers. Lit­tle is heard at present about the more en­abling land re­dis­tri­bu­tion and re­form. This is fairly typ­i­cal of a sit­u­a­tion where a po­lit­i­cal band­wagon feeds a wave of pop­ulism.

And as so of­ten with sim­ple an­swers, the prob­lem lies in a glar­ing ab­sence of in­tel­li­gent ques­tions. For a start, these might in­clude which land, to whom and for what pur­pose?

In the case of land once owned by black South Africans and to which they held ti­tle deeds (the of­fen­sively named black spots) that was con­fis­cated in pur­suit of apartheid’s mad ge­og­ra­phy, there should be a pa­per trail to en­able fair resti­tu­tion. How­ever, ex­pe­ri­ence at District Six in Cape Town sounds a warn­ing. The­o­ret­i­cally, this well-doc­u­mented ur­ban area should be eas­ily re­turned to the heirs from whom prop­erty was stolen as re­cently as the six­ties. But the prob­lems have been le­gion, not least the claims of de­scen­dants of ten­ants.

Most alien­ated land in terms of area was not owned by Africans in the mod­ern sense of the term, but held in ef­fec­tive trust in the name of a group or tribe by a chief. Here there is no pa­per trail of en­ti­tle­ment; just an oral tra­di­tion of fam­ily iden­tity and a claim to an­ces­try and burial places. In mat­ters of prop­erty, oral ev­i­dence car­ries lit­tle weight. How is this conundrum to be re­solved?

It is one of the ironies of a mod­ern state that a sta­ble sys­tem of prop­erty own­er­ship is es­sen­tial to the con­fi­dence re­quired for in­vest­ment, in large mea­sure to en­sure the in­tegrity of the bank­ing sys­tem. But at the same time, land as a driver of eco­nomic growth is now a rel­a­tively mi­nor fac­tor. In the 21st cen­tury, the in­for­ma­tion econ­omy is on the as­cen­dant and agri­cul­tural sec­tors have be­come highly spe­cialised. Is there a yearn­ing among the ur­ban poor, the pre­cariat liv­ing on the mar­gins of so­ci­ety, to be­come small-scale agri­cul­tur­al­ists ful­fill­ing their own fam­ily sub­sis­tence needs and re­leas­ing a sig­nif­i­cant sur­plus into the mar­ket to earn in­come for other re­quire­ments? If so, this would be an ex­cel­lent rea­son for land resti­tu­tion, even with­out com­pen­sa­tion. Suc­cess­ful small farm­ers could re­lease pres­sure on over­pop­u­lated ur­ban ar­eas, sta­bilise ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties and con­trib­ute to na­tional food se­cu­rity — if nu­mer­ous enough. Is this the plan? If so, there is not much in­for­ma­tion about it, al­though it is im­plicit in the news that agri­cul­tural stud­ies are to be­come com­pul­sory up to the last year of sec­ondary school­ing.

In­stead, one fears that land resti­tu­tion may be an­other of the pop­ulist fan­tasies of our times: the South African equiv­a­lent of Don­ald Trump’s Amer­i­can au­tarky, the Brexit of English im­pe­rial nostal­gia, and any num­ber of Euro­pean rightwing agen­das. Lis­ten­ing to SAfm (what was once the na­tion’s pub­lic ser­vice broad­caster), it is clear that land is re­garded as a panacea. Mirac­u­lously all will be well, but what hap­pens when this fan­tasy bub­ble bursts and turns out to be Pan­dora’s Box?

Talk and rhetoric, lek­got­las and ind­abas, song and dance: these are all quintessen­tially South African ap­proaches to prob­lem­atic is­sues.

In a very im­por­tant and highly alarm­ing, but sub­se­quently un­re­marked, in­ter­view with eNCA News re­cently, Ben Cousins, one of SA’s lead­ing aca­demic ex­perts on the land is­sue, made the point that no one has any real idea who holds what land. There is no au­thor­i­ta­tive database. The de­bate about land re­dis­tri­bu­tion car­ries on within a se­ri­ous in­for­ma­tion vac­uum. Politi­cians, as politi­cians do, are en­cour­ag­ing ex­pec­ta­tions for short-term gain; rhetoric is fly­ing thick and fast; and il­le­gal land in­va­sions have started in earnest with po­ten­tially dis­as­trous con­se­quences. In the Pi­eter­mar­itzburg area, so-called MK veter­ans, the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers, and a va­ri­ety of pri­vate op­por­tunists have seized the op­por­tu­nity. No one has con­fi­dence in the forces of law and or­der and the le­gal sys­tem has been sys­tem­at­i­cally un­der­mined.

Some of the great­est chal­lenges are emerg­ing not from is­sues around white farm­land, but ar­eas that have never been alien­ated, such as much of KwaZulu-Natal (60%) which falls un­der the In­gonyama Trust Act, in other words King Good­will Zwelithini and the amakhosi. This was a late apartheid-era stitch up rem­i­nis­cent of colo­nial ma­nip­u­la­tion of the chief­tain­ship sys­tem that guar­an­teed KwaZulu in­volve­ment in the 1994 elec­tions and averted threats of se­ces­sion, which are now re-emerg­ing. For­mer pres­i­dent Kgalema Mot­lanthe de­scribed the chiefly trustees as “vil­lage tin­pot dic­ta­tors”, there are doubts about the trust’s con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity, and ev­i­dence of cor­rup­tion and mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion. Zulu na­tion­al­ist as­pi­ra­tions re­flected in the land is­sue are a se­vere ob­sta­cle to eco­nomic progress. Cer­tifi­cates of oc­cu­pa­tion are of ten­u­ous value and there is ev­i­dence that rent is be­ing ex­tracted. Ti­tle deeds and eco­nomic eman­ci­pa­tion are not on the agenda of the amakhosi.

If land is a me­taphor for a bet­ter life it must be backed up by con­crete and cre­ative pro­pos­als that take the na­tion for­ward. SA’s in­abil­ity to man­age other as­pects of so­ci­ety and econ­omy hardly bode well. There is the dis­turb­ing no­tion that once land is con­fis­cated and dis­trib­uted, riches will flow. They won’t. And this in­vites the ques­tion in in­creas­ingly des­per­ate times — what next will be seized with­out com­pen­sa­tion?

• Christo­pher Mer­rett is a for­mer aca­demic li­brar­ian, univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tor and jour­nal­ist based in Pi­eter­mar­itzburg. He has a blog called From the Thorn­veld.

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