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Of land and other thorny issues

There is always a buzz around a Unisa-Sowetan Dialogue, but never more so than when the topic is as current and controversial as the land reform question and with panellists of the calibre of Bulelwa Mabasa, Philani Madletyana, Prof Cyril Nhlanhla Mbatha, Dr William Mpofu, and Prof Lesiba Teffo weighing in on the thorny issue.

Panelists Prof Cyril Nhlanhla Mbatha (Unisa SBL), Dr William Mpofu (Wits), Bulelwa Mabasa (Werksmans Attorneys), Prof Lesiba Teffo (Unisa), and Philani Madletyana (Foundation for Human Rights)

And, if the evening of 22 November 2018 raised more questions than answers, then that meant it was time, as Dr Somadoda Fikeni, Unisa’s Director of VC Projects and Advisor to the Principal, and programme director for the evening, advised, to “take this debate to your community and to your circle of friends”.

Why have land redistribution efforts failed?

Teffo opened the discussion by saying that while agrarian reform was a precondition for establishing an equitable, just, and politically stable South Africa, it was not necessary to amend Section 25 of the Constitution to make room for land expropriation without compensation.

He said it was strange that those spearheading the current land reform were not talking about redistribution efforts that had failed in the past 25 years and asked why most of the actual beneficiaries were politically connected.

Mbatha had similar concerns. “I don’t think that we are asking the right questions at this discussion seminar. I think we need to ask at least two questions: First, why have land transfers been slow and by how much, and, second, why have many land transfers not been successful?”

He pointed out that government had spent only R50 billion on land reform over 25 years. “From a 2017 budgeted fiscal spending alone, R50 billion constitutes around 2% of the 2018 allocated spending.” His conclusion was that land reform had not been given the urgency that it deserved. “The fact that the ANC government has not used the clause of the constitution to expropriate land for the last 25 years also indicates that maybe they are not so serious about the land reform project itself.”

What does ‘land’ mean?

“Is it not interesting that as much as the land question has been a topical issue, nobody has ever asked the question: when we talk about land, land hunger, what are we actually talking about?” queried Mabasa. “Is land a metaphor for disenfranchised land? Is land a metaphor for poverty? Is land a metaphor for dignity? Is land a metaphor for heritage? Is land a metaphor for identity?”

Mpofu agreed that the semantics of the word” land” should be clarified. “The English word ‘land’ doesn’t does not contain or fully express what those that are displaced or dispossessed are asking for. In my mother tongue, land is umhlaba and umhlaba is not only the whole country, it is the world. This means that the descendants of the dispossessed, the displaced, are not just asking for the soil but are asking for land in the world.” Belonging, he said, was a much bigger issue, and land was an existential marker of life and death.

Re-gender land

“Land reform, especially land redistribution should be focused on vulnerable and marginalised communities such as women, farmworkers, farm dwellers, and labour tenants,” said Madletyana.

He said that the Foundation for Human Rights recommended that women be allowed title in their own names in rural areas and that title to rural land should not be transferred to traditional leaders but should be transferred to persons who live on the land and who work the land. It would also help immensely, he pointed out, if a simpler cost-effective method of transferring and registering title deeds were developed and implemented.

Mabasa concurred: “Don’t undermine the rights of women. The topic of land is not just about men.” Land reform, she said, should be “re-gendered”. A multiplicity of voices had to be heard.

“Every human being is a descendant of someone and in every human being there’s the possibility of being an ancestor of someone, said Mpofu. “We need to have liberated descendants. They are not only going to be black; they are not only going to be men; they are not only going to be able bodied, but they are going to be human beings.”

He then spoke metaphorically of the “great suicide” that had to be committed to bring this about. “The identities constructed by conquest are not sustainable into perpetuity,” he warned. “The perpetrators and the victims must all metaphorically die so that new systems can be born. There needs to be reconciliation among survivors.”

Mpofu said that it was necessary to re-establish the borders created by apartheid that we carry in our minds and in our psyches. “We need to relinquish boundaries that we use every day to discriminate women, children, the elderly, the white, the black, yellow, and others. Until those borders are broken, until we undo what the coloniser and what the conqueror did, we are keeping a distance from liberation.”

Rural vs urban

Land reform has always been touted as a rural question and that is a big mistake, argued Mabasa. “79% of our country is urbanised. We still do not have a plan on how urban land reform should work.” She said that people wanted land for various reasons and that so far it had had a rural base to it. “And I think if we focus on rural and on agricultural, we are missing out on the majority of people who are homeless, who are landless, and who need land. It is about time that we start framing the discussion of land to not just be about agricultural farming but to be about poverty alleviation, job creation, and the like.

Madletyana agreed that the issue was not only about rural need . Allotments, he said, should be allocated to unemployed persons on the periphery of urban areas for the purposes of growing their own food. “Land for housing should be allocated to persons in urban areas, especially those in informal settlements close to job opportunities.”

In conclusion, Mpofu said that every struggle produced heroes, mavericks, and new saints, but he warned against the dangers of heroism. “The first step towards betraying a struggle is the production of heroes. To make someone a hero is to dehumanise them and to prepare them for being a traitor and a sell-out.”

Where should we take our heroism? Whom should we worship if not heroes, he queried. “We should worship institutions that work; courts that are just; parliaments that are vigorous; systems, structures, and processes that deliver justice, fairness, and land to all human beings under the sun.”

Dr Somadoda Fikeni, Director of VC Projects and Advisor to the Principal, was the programme director for the evening. “Take this debate to your community and to your circle of friends,” he urged.

Bulelwa Mabasa is an attorney and partner at Werksmans, and acts for landowners, land claimants, lenders, and investors in the sphere of land reform, public law, mining litigation, and commercial litigation. President Cyril Ramaphosa has recently appointed her as one of the panel members to advise the president, deputy president, and inter-ministerial committee on land reform.

Philani Madletyana is a project officer at the Foundation for Human Rights. His work at the foundation is centred on the land question. Prof Cyril Nhlanhla Mbatha, Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL), Unisa, does research in microeconomics, international economics, and development economics. His current project is land reform in post-colonial Africa and AGOA trade.
Dr William Mpofu is a founder of the Africa Decolonial Research Network (ADERN). He works as a researcher at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Mpofu's research work is on the philosophies of liberation, decolonisation, and critical diversity. Prof Lesiba Teffo is Director of the School of Transdisciplinary Research Institutes (STRI) in Unisa’s College of Graduate Studies and a noted political analyst.

The evening concluded with a vigorous question-and-answer session.

The Unisa-Sowetan Dialogues series aims to begin an informed debate on the meaning and importance of history in shaping South Africa's present and future. The dialogues draw from The Road to Democracy in South Africa volumes, compiled by the South African Education Trust (SADET), that chronicle four decades of South Africa's history from the 1960s to the 1990s. This initiative calls South Africans to a further study of history and to encourage them to interrogate the veracity of their strongly held views on the state of our nation.

*By Sharon Farrell

Publish date: 2018-12-03 00:00:00.0