Confronting Racism

Land Debate: "Racial dispossession is not just a legacy of Apartheid"

More than 20 years into our democracy, South Africa still grapples with the issue of land ownership. It is a highly emotive subject in the country and deeply rooted in our history. Many believe that it is central to how we can move forward in addressing the injustices perpetuated in the past.

In part 7 of the “Confronting Racism” podcast series, 702/Cape Talk’s Koketso Sachane confronts the land issue with Associate Professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, Ruth Hall and Dr. Sibonginkosi Mazibuo, Chairman of the Department of Developmental Studies at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and Editor-In-Chief of the Africanus Journal of Developmental Studies.

A recent study conducted over nine years by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform shows that 79% of land is privately owned, while the state owns about 17-million hectares of land in the country.

It begs the question, who owns what percentage of land in South Africa? The answer is not encouraging.

The truth is we don't have the answer, because we did away with the Population Registration Act many years ago, and so when people buy property we don't know who it is who buys that property.

Professor Ruth Hall, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies

Hall says that if we say that most of the land has been redistributed to black ownership through the land reform program, then we know that we have made little headway in dealing with land ownership.

Less than 8% of agricultural land has been transferred into black ownership since 1994. We know that some the people who got land have since then lost that land, because they got into debt and that land got sold off...

Professor Ruth Hall, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies

Real concerns exist in South Africa about the lack of "real" change in the demography of who owns property and who is accumulating wealth. Hall says it is important that the issue must be considered on two levels: The first concerns people wanting access to land to improve their lives and accumulate wealth and, the second concerns justice and correcting historical wrongs.

It is wrong that we have a situation in which most land is owned by white South Africans and big corporations and there hasn't been the change on the ground. It is wrong that this injustice, that is rooted in our past, continues to be perpetuated.

Professor Ruth Hall, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies

The discussion offers a third consideration of the connection between land and the dignity and identity of those who have been deprived of land.

Land is not just an economic matter, it is cultural, religions, it is everything. When you take land away from the people, you are taking away their dignity, you are taking away their identity.

Dr. Sibonginkosi Mazibuko, chair of Department of Developmental Studies at UNISA

The land debate largely focuses on commercial and agricultural land, which begs the question: are we missing something when we debate the matter or is the focus exactly where it should be?

Hall says that we are dealing with a situation where most of us know that we haven't dealt with "something deeply problematic" that is at the core of our history. She argues that attempts to address it through land reform is a very small, marginal and narrow approach.

The big issue lies with whether land reform succeeds in addressing the "national grievance" that South Africa is founded on the theft of land and that, that is what our economy has been built on.

The returning of that land does not in any way make up for what was lost... More than land has been lost, returning of the land is a relic, it does not by itself restore what was lost...

When we deal with race and racism in South Africa many people talk about this as if it's merely a question of personal prejudices... Whereas actually when we come to issues of land we must realise that the issues are structural. It is about the structure of our economy and very huge difficulties in changing those structures.

Professor Ruth Hall, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies

Hall warns that when we debate racism that it is important that we don't only look at racism in relation to land as something that just happened in the past, but as an issue that continues to be felt today.

Mazibuo argue that the approach taken in 1994 did little to deal with the problem and the dispossessed still have to fight for their right to land and in courts that suffer from what he calls "coloniality".

The 1994 process is a reformist approach, there is nothing radical about it... which court will address a colonial situation, when all courts suffer with what we call 'coloniality'? The issues of 'coloniality' of power are present there, where they always work to the disadvantage of the dispossessed - of the colonised. The people who are accountable here... are those who are in government.

Dr. Sibonginkosi Mazibuko, chair of Department of Developmental Studies at UNISA

Hall says all indications are that government failed to make any headway in its program of land form despite having the powers to transform land relations.

The ANC fought hard to have a property clause that allowed for expropriation of land, in the public interest, subject to payment of compensation that need not be at market level. For 22 years our government has chosen not to use those powers to transform land relations.

Professor Ruth Hall, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies

Hall says it is critical that we decide how we want to transform and change land relations in the country.

Minister for Rural Development and Land Reform recently indicated private land ownership will not be transferred to black South Africans, but rather leased to them over a period of 30 years. During this time they will have to prove that they are using the land or they will lose it. White South Africans who own private property do not have to prove or justify their ownership.

We again have this asymmetry between what is the 'conditionality' under which white and black South Africans hold property. This takes us to a very uncomfortable point which is to question, are we perpetuating racism in how people are holding land? Racial dispossession is not just a legacy of Apartheid, it is a continued experience.

Professor Ruth Hall, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies

Listen to the podcast for the full conversation. To listen to past episodes of Confronting Racism, click here.

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