Note: I have attached a letter from a friend at the end of this post, and my response to his letter. His letter is a welcome challenge to various aspects of my post.
I have been wondering if our government’s recent, sudden and slightly suspect embrace of “Radical Economic Transformation”, together with the militant pronouncements of the EFF’s Julius Malema and Andile Mngxitama of Black First Land First (BLF), and all the other disparate voices in the mix (AgriSA, journalists, politicos, academics, historians, ratings agencies…) are not evidence of an unfortunate lack of imagination on the part of South Africans.
The shame and catastrophe of colonial dispossession on this continent – “the Scramble for Africa” as it is politely called (as if it was a game played by a clutch of grubby schoolboys: systematic rape and pillage is more fitting) was a self-evident crime and moral outrage. What saddens me is that the white European obsession with land – his demonic possession by the lust of ownership – pathological, aberrant, sinful – seems to have found it’s Jungian shadow in populist, black nationalist rhetoric. It is as if, rather than determining or redefining the rules of engagement, Africa instead offers back a reflection of the same contorted grimace, a perpetuation of the same frenzy which tore the continent apart in the first place. Perhaps this is inevitable, understandable, justified even: a revolutionary, radically cathartic, seismic shift may represent a kind of belated judgement by history, a history exhausted by man’s greed and cold-heartedness. The fetishization of land seems a perpetual vice elevated to virtue-status by nationalists of every persuasion. Land and blood and volk: a spirit which keeps manifesting itself.
“The whole economic system of Capitalism is an offshoot of a devouring and overwhelming lust, of a kind that can hold sway only in a society that has deliberately renounced the Christian asceticism and turned away from Heaven to give itself over exclusively to earthly gratifications. … It is the result of a secularization of economic life, and by it the hierarchical subordination of the material to the spiritual is inverted. The autonomy of economics has ended in their dominating the whole life of human societies: the worship of Mammon has become the determining force of the age. And the worst of it is that this undisguised “mammonism” is regarded as a very good thing, an attainment to the knowledge of truth and a release from illusions.” – Nikolai Berdyaev
With Orwell’s Animal Farm in mind, it is unclear how the increasingly urbanized South African would benefit from a total land seizure except symbolically; one struggles to find an example where such a land policy has ever truly benefited the masses (though they have always benefited political, racial or class elites).
South Africa and land: what a conundrum! The agricultural sector is already under strain, with 30 000 fewer commercial farms than the 60 000 total of just 15 years ago. SA government statistics indicate that 90% of redistributed farms are not productive (The Economist, Feb 2015). Fin24 statistics from 2016 identified in excess of 19 000 farms for sale in SA, with low yields, drought and financial difficulties listed as contributing factors for farmers wanting out. I was shocked to learn that, due to the aridity of the land, only 13.5 percent of the country is suitable for crop production, and only 3 percent is considered high potential land. This means that embarking on a path of Radical Economic Transformation if indeed this is more than just rhetoric – should at very least be done with our eyes open.
Social experiments from Marxist-Leninism to Apartheid, Cold War socialism and command economies in the old Eastern Bloc to Cold War-era Africa – all have invariably left the masses hungry – albeit with vocabularies rich in the rhetoric of nationalism and freedom. Famine in Africa is not uncommon, and occurred in the former Soviet Union too as a direct result of Lenin and Stalin’s punitive, collectivist policies. Millions died: Prodrazvyorstka, a 1921–22 Bolshevik policy and campaign of confiscation of grain and other agricultural produce lead to famine and the death of some 5 million people. A second famine in the Soviet Union occurred as a direct result of Communist collectivization during the 1930’s and Stalin’s persecution of Kulak-farmers. 40 million people were affected. So while transformation must take place, we must avoid economic suicide in the name of ideology. Such failures do not absolve us of our responsibility to find a just solution. I do not mean to diminish the travesty of dispossession, far from it: I want to explore it, expose it, seek some way to correct it, see justice done not in some conveniently deferred future – but now. How the agricultural sector manages the commercial and symbolic transfer of the land to the people without an implosion is of course a vital concern; but Black South Africans have waited too long for justice, and justice has an economic, symbolic, psychological, land- and spatial dimension too frequently ignored or simply exploited to serve political agendas.
And yet I suspect the two aforementioned black nationalists would, in response to my opinions, tell me to shut up, then hang me by my bootstraps: I’m white; although I am an immigrant (having come to South Africa as a child) historically my “race” has more or less deserved the accusation of being a band of interlopers, settler-land-thieves and oppressors. In this sense one could argue that “my” people are therefore simply like the rest of the human race in all but degree – rape and pillage not being the provenance of the European alone. Of course in recent history land was purchased, title deeds changed hands. But there is nevertheless a long and shameful history of violent expropriation. From a historical perspective, the aforementioned black nationalists do have a point (although, returning snarl for snarl, Rian Malan shreds the comfortable narrative with his caustic “Dear Mr. Malema” letter (PoliticsWeb, 14 November 2016 (1).
I guess Afrikaner farmers would similarly tell me that I’m a rooinek, an uitlander and that I should stil bly, for they have farmed here for hundreds of years and have no reason to listen to a pontificating, hand-wringing English liberal. Especially given the historic violence and bigotry they experienced at the hands of the British, and the calamitous Anglo-Boer War and its aftermath. No doubt they too would soon have me hanging by my bootstraps if the black nationalists hadn’t got to me already. The British claimed vast swathes of Africa for the Crown and then swiftly abandoned the colonial experiment; the Boer Republics staked their claim to the land in the name of their dour Old Testament God, a nascent Volk and – rather less nobly – the riches beneath the ground. Who am I to say to Afrikaner farmers that the land is not theirs, or to Mr Malema and Mr Mngxitama that they are wrong in claiming Africa for black Africans? If they are arrogant, they were certainly not the first Sméagols gazing at Africa and hissing, “my precioussss…”
Bootstraps or none, I will tentatively offer a point of view:
Where did we get the notion that anyone owns the land anyway?
Now I am conscious that even at the outset, my opinion is suspect. Who am I to write about African land? Better to maintain a respectful silence perhaps, after all, my “race” has had so much to say about land since 1653. So many crooked deals, double-crossing and cheating, so-called “Acts” which were simply legislated theft. And when we haven’t been talking about it, and writing dispossession into our imported laws, we have simply been taking it by force.
I think the metaphor of rape is not inexact.
Dispossession: “to put out of possession or occupancy”. It rings of the occult, containing the notion of possession and exorcism. Who is doing the casting out? On whose authority? Which demons? Who gets to name the spirits of evil?
Bishop Desmond Tutu famously and humorously said,
“When the white man arrived he had the Bible and we had the land.
When we looked again, we had the Bible and he had the land.”
So my point of view is the perspective of one who is, like it or not, sullied by the narrative, complicit if only by association and by being a beneficiary of centuries of white skulduggery. Rather than adding my inexpert opinion to the debate, I offer the perspective of three minds more acute than my own: Leo Tolstoy, Henry George, Robert Gilman.
Firstly, the assumption that land can be or should be owned is not only a debated position philosophically, but even morally and legally is not without it’s difficulties.
What does it mean to own the land?
A document? A wooden peg? Thousands of miles of barbed wire and gum-poles?
The sweat and toil of the farmer or his laborer?
Robert LeFevre (a libertarian by the way, who argues in favour of private ownership of land) in The Philosophy of Ownership, observes that even in the United States, “…although we praise private ownership of the land as the bulwark of our system of land ownership, the taxes levied actually perpetuate a kind of collectivity in ownership.” He points out that so-called primitive societies exercised collective ownership, excluding notions of private ownership. Early societies presumed that all items of value found in the claimed territory were to be used for the good of the group. Primitive tribes forbade private exclusiveness in land.(1) We can get into all sorts of difficulties here with anarcho-capitalism versus collectivism, and I’m well out of my depth in this area of the debate. The problem is that the choice between anarcho-capitalism and old-style socialist collectivism seems like a choice between two armed madmen, both holding us hostage.
But owning land in South Africa is not quite the same as owning land in, say, Switzerland: the legitimacy of the owner here is in question. So we have a question of private ownership vs collectivization as well as the debate around legitimacy and vestigial white supremacy.
An article by Dr. Robert C. Gilman, Ph.D., (President of Context Institute) titled “The Idea Of Owning Land: An old notion forged by the sword is quietly undergoing a profound transformation” offers a refreshing (naive?) perspective – some fresh air – to an oppressive debate. (http://www.context.org/iclib/ic08/gilman1/). He writes,
“But the human-human power struggle is hardly the only, or even the most important, issue in our relationship to the land. Whatever happened to the tribal concerns about caring for the land and preserving it for future generations? What about issues like justice, human empowerment and economic efficiency? How about the rights of the land itself? If we are to move forward towards a planetary/ecological age, all of these questions and issues are going to need to be integrated into our relationship to the land. To do this we will have to get out beyond the narrow circle of the ideas and arguments of the past.”
“We have been talking about “ownership” as if it was an obvious, clear-cut concept: either you own (control) something or you don’t. For most people (throughout history) this has been a useful approximation, and it has been the basis of the “great ownership debate.”
“But if you try to pin it down (as lawyers must), you will soon discover that it is not so simple. As surprising as it may seem, our legal system has developed an understanding of “owning” that is significantly different from our common ideas and has great promise as the basis for a much more appropriate human relationship to the land.”
But let me take one step further back: in 1886, Leo Tolstoy wrote a book titled, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” an intriguing allegory which addresses one man’s obsession with and possession by – land. (James Joyce considered Tolstoy’s little book to be “the greatest story that the literature of the world knows”.) Tolstoy was much influenced by the American political economist, journalist, and philosopher Henry George who believed that “people should own the value they produce themselves, but that the economic value derived from land (including natural resources) should belong equally to all members of society.”¹ Am I naive to believe this could be a way forward for South Africa, beyond the “it’s mine/no it’s mine” impasse? Or is a fascist-populist, Zimbabwe-style land grab with the inevitable bloodshed and famine simply and inexorably to be our fate? Henry George’s thinking “attracts support widely across the political spectrum, including labor union activists, socialists, anarchists, libertarians, reformers, conservatives, and wealthy investors. As a result, Henry George is still claimed as a primary intellectual influence by both classical liberals and socialists. Edwin Markham expressed a common sentiment when he said, “Henry George has always been to me one of the supreme heroes of humanity.”
Frankly, I am not optimistic about the outcome of the land issue. So much blood has been spilled over land in Africa: it is as if the land itself has been violated, and the cold winter wind which moves the veld grass and stirs the thorn trees seems to me like a reproach, a keening at so much injustice and pain. The land, stained red with the blood of African, Boer and Englishman perhaps knows no other language than blood. Perhaps the black nationalist and the white farmer sense this; I shudder to hear both speak in apocalyptic terms of slaughter and genocide. Walter Scheidel, the Stanford historian and author of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality From the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, writes these sobering words:
“With the rarest of exceptions, great reductions in inequality were only ever brought forth in sorrow. Inequality has been written into the DNA of civilization ever since humans first settled down to farm the land. Throughout history, only massive, violent shocks that upended the established order proved powerful enough to flatten disparities in income and wealth. They appeared in four different guises: mass-mobilization warfare, violent and transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic epidemics. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake, and by the time these crises had passed, the gap between rich and poor had shrunk.”
God save us from such an apocalyptic vision! Yet in the absence of political will by a deeply compromised and elitist capitalist state – bound in a union of mutual benefit to the capitalist barons of our economy, what’s to prevent the ploughshares being hammered once more into swords (See: Beyond white monopoly capital: http://aidc.org.za/beyond-white-monopoly-capital-owns-south-africa/)
The ravages of empire, colonial and apartheid dispossession with all its manifest evil, is unlikely to be addressed by moderate, liberal, Georgian or Tolstoyan idealism. Perhaps a voice of reason or Christian idealism merely adds insult to the injury.
I must be quiet: I am that liberal Englishman whose bootstraps are a temptation for many an angry man.
I will leave off with a thought by John Talbot:
“Our responsibility is, however, to act consciously and with the attitude of respect and desire for cooperation. It is no different from respecting other people’s rights in our interactions, being courteous and sensitive to their needs and feelings. This attitude toward the land is almost universally held by aboriginal and native peoples, from the Bushman to the Native American Indians to the tribes of the South Pacific. Earth Etiquette, you might say.
Following directly from that is the principle that you cannot really buy, sell or own the land. Just as we cannot (or should not) own slaves of our own species, we would not make slaves of animals, plants or the land and nature in general.” 
A Response from my friend MB;