Listen to politicians and bigots to see the lies of the land
Amid the ideological cacophony we must decode the political spin and defuse reactionary fear around the land debate
“Expropriation without compensation.”
It’s frightening. It’s exhilarating. It’s rancorous, confused, noisy, alarming. Just the way the politicians planned it.
Right now there are two conversations going on about land in South Africa. One is slow, careful, intelligent, reliant on research and evidence, and almost entirely unheard by the general public.
That’s because our ears are being deafened by the other one, a booming cacophony of promises, threats, factoids and dodgy statistics, designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to get politicians re-elected.
So far, it’s working.
Thanks to the so-called debate on land, the EFF is being talked about as if it is co-ruler of this country rather than a party that currently represents 6% of the electorate. For its part, the ANC is, for the first time in decades, sidling up to an idea that might convince people it is the revolutionary party it claims to be.Of course, it’s all smoke.
The EFF has no interest in nationalising the land any time soon: Julius Malema’s ultimate goal is to be president of South Africa, and if he’s going to achieve that, he needs the old class enemy firmly in place so that he can thunder at it and threaten it and generally delight his supporters with his revolutionary machismo.
If the landed gentry are dispossessed any time before 2024 – theoretically his first sniff at power – he will have nobody to shake his fist at and the whole show will go a bit limp.
It’s an existential crisis that’s already revealing itself in small glimpses.
The moment the ANC agreed to discuss expropriation without compensation, Malema retreated to his happy place: threatening class enemies, “enemies of the people” (aka anyone who disagrees with him), whiteness, Zuma offspring born in Mozambique, and Chinese and Indian people.
This weekend, when he trumpeted that the EFF was “cutting the throat of whiteness” by gunning for Athol Trollip in Nelson Mandela Bay, what he was really saying was: “Don’t look at the party that just stole my thunder, look at meeeeee!”
As for the ANC, well, if it truly wanted to redistribute land, it would have done it by now, instead of ignoring a constitution that demands justice for those whose land was seized.Instead it has decided, for the short term at least, to work with Malema for short-term gain. The ANC made Malema and understands that he is an opportunist, not an ideologue. And since opportunists turn everything into a transaction, there will always be profit to be made, whether in the form of a city in the Eastern Cape or simply a bit more time to organise an election strategy.
In short, what we are going through right now is not an historic shift or an economic revolution, but the familiar banging of drums and tooting of horns by politicians warming up for a bruising election.
Which is a pity, because we need to talk about land and economic justice; seriously, calmly and without interference from hustlers angling for another five years at the teat.Politicians, however, aren’t the only ones clouding our judgment. It may suit them for the land debate to become hostile and polarised, but for every belligerently stupid utterance by a politician there are 10 from members of the public.
Fear of having one’s property taken by the state is an understandable emotion, but too often that fear seems to be rooted in racism.
Every day on social media I see an unspoken but powerfully revealed belief that white property owners are keeping the whole country running; that they are keeping the economy (and the land) “safe” from black hands that inevitably break everything.Bizarrely, I see an unconscious assumption that South Africa’s black billionaires and land barons aren’t quite as financially savvy or forward-thinking as middle-class white people with their car finance plans and overdrafts.
So how do we distance the land debate from divisive politicians and frightened racists?
Perhaps one answer is that we all engage with it, so that it becomes a national conversation – a collective resolution – and not just an ideological stick to beat each other with.
We must all become more informed, so that we can decode political spin, defuse reactionary fear and treat the latest land audits with the suspicion they deserve.
We must read.
Professor Ruth Hall (@RuthHallPLAAS on Twitter) and the website of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (plaas.org.za) are essential starting points.
If we can free ourselves from the noise and stop the knee-jerk reactions, fear might give way to greater understanding. Many of those who feel anxious or even persecuted might slowly be drawn out of their insular, isolating fear, to understand that a vast economic crime was committed against black South Africans, and that our collective future is profoundly limited until justice is done.
Perhaps we might begin to accept as common cause that citizens who had their land taken under the 1913 Land Act – who were robbed of the generations’ worth of collateral, access to capital and compound interest that white property owners enjoy today – must get it back.
We might begin to understand that this is non-negotiable; that it is not only a legal imperative but a moral one too. South Africa can’t exist as a going concern while this injustice remains.
The land will be returned. The big question is how. I don’t know the answer, but I know it won’t be provided by politicians or bigots.
It’s time to learn.