Land reform: is there a right and a wrong?

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Whilst South Africans have until the end of February to share their comment on the draft national policy for beneficiary selection and land allocation, it feels like the land reform debate largely remains a dialogue of the deaf. Many spend their energy shouting about how they are right and others are wrong. 

Perhaps conflict resolution and problem-solving skills of perspective-taking and bridging principles – proven in other long-entrenched conflicts – should be applied in South Africa to shift heated public debate beyond opposing, one-sided arguments to move the conversation forward and engender real problem solving.

Land reform in South Africa is critically important in its own right: an unfinished promise to redress epic historic wrongs on the one hand, and on the other, a project that could easily have unintended negative social and economic consequences – in particular for the poor black South Africans it is most needed to serve – if poorly managed.

How we all go about land reform is also a bellwether of our ability to engage around the construction of the just, democratic, and united South Africa envisioned by the Constitution. Research had shown that a key skill of people who help find solutions to exceptionally entrenched conflicts is perspective-taking: the capacity to view the world – even if temporarily – through the lens of other people’s fears, hopes, rights, and interests.

If we want a satisfying meal of positive progress – rather than just the thin gruel of self-righteous indignation that all sides of the land debate seem to be enjoying – a starting point might therefore be to acknowledge where others are right. I invite those who react strongly against the phrase, “give back the land”, to consider how there may be nothing remotely radical about such a demand – the principle is already contained in the Constitution.

The current Constitution – never mind any amendments under consideration – promises restitution to people and communities dispossessed of property as a result of racially discriminatory laws or practices going back to 1913. It gives Government broad latitude to carry this out. Any other proposed solution can and should be measured against ‘giving back the land’ to those who have legitimate expectations that it be returned.

One has to recognise that the mixing of questions on the principles of restitution of land with those of whether and how people to whom land is returned would put it to productive use, must be hurtful and angering in the extreme to former black landholders and their descendants.

It reeks of the argument in favour of the Natives Land Act of 1913 by the President of the Chamber of Mines, who opined that it would end ‘the surplus of young men … squatting on the land in idleness’ – but in fact provided low wage workers for the mines as it destroyed families and communities for generations to come.

In relation to those currently holding land that may be returned in the name of restitution under the provisions of the Constitution, we can concede that many of the issues they raise – even if immaterial to the fundamental right of dispossessed people and communities to land – are real. It need not be in contention that it would indeed be better for all South Africans if land reform is managed in a way that confronts the realities of the substantial bonds on many properties, minimises corruption, maximises food security, and improves the possibilities for people either to make their livelihoods from the land or to make their transition to urban life, each according to his or her choice.

Such perspective-taking might in the first instance invite parties to let go of one-sided arguments that serve to raise hackles rather than engender any real problem solving. Putting tongue in cheek for a moment, the current owners of large plots in Bishopscourt and Sandhurst, or Plettenberg Bay and Umhlanga, might agree that the person to whom land is returned is entitled to do anything with it, or nothing at all – lest universal application of standards of idleness or lack of productive use put their own tenure in question.

Others might begin to realise that ‘expropriation without compensation’ is a wonderful rallying cry in the international press but fairly empty here at home. Property returned to its rightful owner is hardly being expropriated; and thus, the fundamental question that cannot be bypassed is not one of compensation, but one of just and rightful ownership consistent with the mandates of the Constitution for restoration and transformation.

Those who currently weaponise the concept of ‘give back the land’ to exclude any discussion at all might admit that the phrase might usefully be continued: ‘… in ways that protect the poor and vulnerable from corrupt officials, dishonest businesses, and an economic system that makes it difficult for the person to whom land is returned to benefit from it or even keep it’.

Such perspective thinking might therefore remind each and all of us of our responsibilities. As neither land claimants nor substantial landholders under threat, we may be happy to sit on the side lines of the land reform debate when in fact we are in a privileged position to help move the conversation forward. We can do so with another skill of exceptional problem solvers: that of constructing bridging principles, or the power of AND.

At every available juncture, we can be impatient with the failure to implement the land reform envisioned by our Constitution – AND be advocates for land reform that addresses the broadest possible array of social and economic interests. We can insist that the interests of the poor, vulnerable, and dispossessed in land restitution and land distribution be put first – AND readily agree that we must have answers for those whose lives and businesses will be inevitably be disrupted.

We can state that no one should be asked to compromise their rights, values, or dreams around land reform or any other issue in a constitutional democracy – AND point out that endless posturing without reference to Constitutional principles or viable and just solutions is making the situation worse rather than better.

Such perspective-taking and bridging principles had proven in other conflicts to provide a starting point for transforming hearts, minds, and civic discourse. No less is required to move forward land reform, and the country. South Africans can comment on the draft policy released by the Government’s Rural Development and Land Reform Department until the end of February by sending an email to Bsla@drdlr.gov.za.


Professor Brian Ganson is the Head of the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).