Cooling off the debate rhetoric

Picture: David Ritchie/ ANA

More heat than light is being generated by the debate of Land Reform.  As it happens, I have been a proponent of radical changes for years, but I have avoided using offensive language to try to make people see the light.

The recent forum at UNISA did more harm than good to a process that will only get harder to solve – not easier – if intolerance and militancy prevail all around. For example, in marriage counseling, when the temperature of arguments heats up, the best advice is to call for a “time-out”. Cool off. Try to remember some of the positive aspects of the relationship that you would not want to lose.  Build some bridges, don’t burn them.  Shouting from the podium and punching up your opponents is not helpful. Lekota is right about one thing – if that methodology continues, then people are going to die on all sides.

For simplicity sake, I have clustered three “talking points” in the on-going Content debate, on each of the following three Process options – converging, contested and confrontational. I respectfully suggest this “point of order” – that we first try to build bridges in this debate, and to find one another.  Only dare to bring up the more volatile aspects of the debate once you have built up some rapport. In other words, look for convergence first, then try some contested issues.  Only if more light than heat is coming from this, then dare to raise some confrontational talking points. In other words, keep your eye on the temperature and don’t let the motor overheat!

If you see the temperature gauge rising on your dashboard, and the red oil light come on, and you see and smell vapour hissing out from under your bonnet – do you keep driving? You have to put as much value on the vehicle as on the arrival at your destination on time. This should be common sense.

The first example of converging is the question of the Khoi/San claims.  Look, we have 11 national languages. Two are Teutonic and five are Bantu. The Ba Baroa got left behind. Both sides in the “Great Debate” need to concede this.  It is not just a two-way tug of war. There is a third claimant.

A second converging question is: what purpose is land needed for? Is it to farm – that is turn into “productive” land?  Or is it to build houses?  If you go into a bank and ask for a loan, they always make a distinction between business loans and consumer loans.  Both are important to banks. Both needs are valid.  But what are we talking about?  The point is that 75% of the land claims that have been settled since 1994 have later been “cashed-out”. The debate needs to be clear on this, or we end up talking past one another, and not engaging meaningfully.

A third example of converging the debate is to look for models of Land Reform that are either succeeding or offer good prospects of success. One case in point is the Solms-Delta model. It does not sub-divide the land into parcels, but it gathers all those working on the farm into a structure of Ownership. This keeps the economies of scale that make mechanized farming viable, and side-steps some of the problems of equipping new, inexperienced, smallholdings. Other models are being touted as well, like stiffening Inheritance Tax to level the playing field (a kind of expropriation). There is also a radical model (Stephen Meintjes and Michael Jacques) that all forms of taxation be replaced by Land Rent. Namely, that the State should own all land, and that those who occupy more of it than others should pay much heftier taxes. This would generate more government revenue to meet socio-economic needs of those who are on the margins economically. Of course unemployed people don’t pay any income tax, but why should they then pay VAT?  Some exemptions in the recent VAT increase reflect the fact that taxation can be a burden on the poor, while the rich can afford lawyers and accountants who find the “tax loopholes”. SARS gets caught in the middle, not raising enough for the fiscus.

Moving to the contested “talking points”, here are three good examples.  One has been raised by Roelph Meyer – that is that government is sitting on between 4 and 5000 hectares of land that it has not yet redistributed. So why not allocate this land to those who are in need of it first?  Before rushing to change the Constitution!  One has to wonder to what extent this backlog is contrived.  We have heard that load-shedding may have been “induced” to create the optimal conditions for major coal sales that benefited the Guptas!  Now why has the number of land claims declined to 1994 levels, having peaked about ten years ago?  Excuse me, I am getting a bit confrontational is asking that pointed question.

The second example of a contested issue that can throw some good light on the subject is the inconsistency of sending out four “lions” to raise billions of Rand in investment in Brand South Africa, while at the same time shaking the foundations of property rights that are enshrined in the Constitution. Isn’t this contradictory? Won’t RET scare away investors?

The third example of a point worth debating is the question of priorities. Is Land Redistribution more important that Non-racialism, for example? Or is one of these primordial?  And what about the Rule of Law?  When people occupy land that belongs to someone else, what does that say about social priorities?  Are you willing to trade away the “Rainbow Nation” identity to speed up Land Reform?

Now we come to the flash-points, the risky topics in terms of dividing South African citizens into enclaves.  The obvious example is whether whites “stole” the land from the blacks, or whether blacks stole it first from the Ba Boroa?  Mosiuoa Lekota was quite emphatic at the UNISA conference that talking like this is historically inaccurate.  It denigrates the heroic resistance that the blacks put up to the arrival of white settlers. Speaking of “stealing” is an example of how the language of the debate can turn the heat up.  I appreciate Lekota’s wisdom, and remember him asking in parliament during the debate on expropriation: “Who is our people?  And who is not our people?” In asking this, he was keeping his eye on the ball, in a game where others are playing the man and not the ball.

Secondly, beware statistics!  For example, William Dulles reckons that in total white South Africans own 357 507 hectares of urban land and 26 663 144 hectares of agricultural land (which includes vast areas of semi-desert Karoo) making a total of 27 020 651 hectares. The total areas of S.A. is 122 million hectares, which means white people privately own 22 percent. Who owns the other 78 percent and why is all the focus on the 22 percent and not on the 78 percent? I find arguments like this disturbing, but I must say that I think the statistics that the ANC is quoting aren’t much better either.

Last but not least is the very term “expropriation without compensation”. There are two aspects to this – one is coercion and the other is loss.  In many countries, land is expropriated from time to time for purposes when the common good is deemed to be more important than the individual or local good. For example, when a huge dam is built, people in that valley may have to be relocated. But of course they are compensated. The term “without compensation” suggests a vindictiveness that has no place in a Democracy with a Bill of Rights. The use of this phases alone suggests double jeopardy for some of those who do work hard, who are good farmers, who fear God and are trying to secure an economy that is not performing well. I recognize that the historic past is not as pretty as this description of the present.

Finally I think that everyone agrees that something has to be done about Land Reform. This is an imperative, but it is hard to find common ground on HOW. I have often pointed to the Old Testament principle of Jubilee. This was a once-in-a-lifetime OPPORTUNITY for those who had “floated” up to the top of the economy, to level the playing field and make room for those who had been pushed to the margins. Often, those people had migrated to the cities and the Year of Jubilee offered them space in their home area to kick-start productivity again.

The reason that this was not seen as “expropriation without compensation” is that it did not FEEL like punishment. Why? Because it was embedded in the Law (the Torah).  Everyone, rich and poor, grew up knowing about it.  It was inevitable, in fact it was a built-in mechanism to avoid the emergence of classes. Because everyone in Israel was Hebrew, and thus related. The foundation under this whole system was that the land belonged to God. Not to the state, not to the farmer. But this did not shake private property rights, those remained intact. Nor did the State own the land like in Marxism’s dictatorship of the proletariat.

This kind of attitude would be most helpful in the Great Debate. The economy will not perform well when 30 percent of citizens are unemployed. The highest common good is to have everyone working, and working together – not at one another’s throats.

Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. He writes in his personal capacity