Too much complacency, not enough prophetic insight

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Recent events have had a ring of “déjà vu” that bothers me.  We are seeing polarization that to some extent lines up along the racial fault lines that seem to haunt us.  Those in favour of Land Reform are mostly black, not excluding some whites who see it as an economic imperative.  Led by the EFF whose militancy is starting to sound quite anti-white.  Those against it are mostly white, citing reasons like Food Security which could be just a smoke-screen for their vested interests.

It reminds me of the 1980s, when Reagan and Thatcher were plotting a new world order.  Thatcher was resisting the voices within the British Commonwealth to apply economic sanctions against South Africa.  Her logic was that sanctions would hurt black citizens more than whites.  She said there would be major job losses and reduced imports would mean a lower quality of life.

One brave prophetic voice spoke out against this logic – that of the then-SACC general secretary, Desmond Tutu.  While travelling abroad, he was interviewed on TV in Denmark.  He did not bring up the subject of sanctions, but when asked, he endorsed the need for them to complement local efforts.  Upon his arrival home, he was visited by the police who asked him to publicly recant his views.  He discussed it with his wife Leah, who told him that she would rather see him happy on Robben Island, than miserable at home for recanting his views.  So he didn’t, he called their bluff.  To everyone’s delight, he was left alone.

But not all church leaders were this cunning.  In 1985, the bishop of ZCC invited ex-President Botha to Moria for Easter worship.  Botha came and spoke about Romans chapter 13 where St Paul instructs Christians to respect their authorities.  Because ZCC was and is a largely self-contained black church denomination, it seemed to somehow “fit” within apartheid.  History judged this as a tactical mistake for that bishop and he had to mend a lot of fences with the ANC, which was still banned and in exile at that time.

Today when we hear about Land Reform there is a similar polarization of opinions.  First the whites say that agriculture will collapse and South Africa will go the way of Zimbabwe.  It resonates with Maggie Thatcher’s logic for not going along with Sanctions.  Then the blacks say they don’t mind if there are catastrophic economic results – because it is a visceral issue, not an economic one, and the land was stolen from the blacks by the whites.  But then other black voices speak up (like COPE leader Lekota, speaking in Parliament) and disagree that the land was ever “stolen” at all.  He is right that migrations of population have been going on all through history, as far back as Attila the Hun who was a great-grandson of Noah, who migrated from the Levant to where “Hun”gary is still on the map today.

Indeed, Europe is reeling under a huge migration of Africans coming across the Mediterranean Sea.  Donald Trump complains about the excessive immigration of Latin Americans into North America.  It was a French king, Charles the Simple, who got so tired of the Norse (i.e. Vikings) raiding his north shore, that he just offered them territory in exchange for peace.  Today it is still called “Nor”mandy, because Norway accepted his offer and colonized the north of France.

Land Reform is the huge moral issue of the new millennium so far.  There is no way that one can square an unemployment rate of 29% – which is even higher among youth – with the plentiful space that still exists in South Africa.  The question is not whether access to land can mitigate poverty, unemployment and inequality – it can.  The question is HOW?

For ten years, the prevailing policy of the ANC government has been to keep the land it owns (in other countries this is sometimes called Crown Land) – and to lease it to emerging black farmers.  They require business plans and they offer short leases at first (e.g. five years), followed by longer leases up to 30 years if the farmers succeed.  This depends on evaluations of the farmer’s success. This was codified in the State Land Lease and Disposal Policy of 2013. The aim has been to pass on “access” to assets, not property in any real sense.

Certainly no one wants to see land redistributed that is then left unused, or worse yet, sold off for cash.  Like RDP houses, the redistribution of land should be based on strict provisos about how long it must stay in agricultural production, before it can change hands. 

It seems ironic to hear of a court instructing the ANC government to transfer ownership to a black farmer – David Rakgase.  He has been farming successfully in Limpopo province since 1991.  Almost 30 years later, he had to take government to court to get his lease converted to full ownership.  Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction!

My personal experience with Tenants is that they will never keep up a place like an Owner.  They let the place run down no matter how many clauses there may be in the Lease Agreement to protect the landlord’s interests.  This is human nature.  And if the owner is government, there is no telling how bad this could get.  And if government tries to foreclose and evict tenant farmers, what kind of protests could arise?

In the run-up to the expropriation without compensation Bill being enacted by parliament, it is important for churches to speak with wisdom and prophetic insight into the Land Reform debate.  The church’s voice can serve as a radiator when the engine overheats because of friction between EFF and Afriforum!  It can cool down the rhetoric by examining key principles like the Year of Jubilee.  To the extent that churches remain silent and complacent, as some did during apartheid, the pot could boil over.  To the extent that church leaders can read the signs of the times and address them, prophetically – the church can bring measures of salt and light into the Great Debate.


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