Over the past decade my experience with “squatters” has turned my head around. I have been converted from one who championed “Jubilee” – the biblical return of land to its owners – into a believer in the primacy of non-racialism. I have concluded that land-grabs are only going to poison relations between the haves and the have-nots. Land redistribution needs to be done. It also needs to be done without theft, invasion and hostility.

The whole point of a Year of Jubilee every 50 years was that it was locked into Hebrew culture and religion – so everyone (rich and poor) grew up knowing of its inevitability. There is a sort of fatalism in this.  If you were a business tycoon – you could buy more land and expand your fortune. But you always knew that it was coming.  Because all Hebrews were one family… children of Abraham.

In our context, we are all citizens and we all vote. So, we need mechanisms like that – ways to redistribute wealth and land that do not divide us but that bind us together. There are such models – like the Solms-Delta approach that is succeeding. Because everyone on the farm becomes a co-owner, and the economies of scale of modern farming are not crumpled into inefficient small holdings.

An even older proverb was paraphrased by Benjamin Franklin into its familiar form: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  To the Hebrews, it was death and Jubilee. So, all reverent, God-fearing Jews went along with it because it was written into the Law of Moses.

According to research, a large majority of those who have settled land claims since 1994 have not kept and farmed their land – but cashed out. This is the kind of “churning” that Jubilee envisaged. But neither would it allow the emergence of classes – no one could be perpetually stuck on the margins of the economy.

It should not be up to a radical political party or a political philosopher like Marx to dictate to land-owners what they can keep, and what they will lose – without compensation. This needs to be part and parcel of a Social Contract with a high level of buy-in. Not even the two-thirds majority required to change the Constitution is enough. We need to find ways to eliminate dissent – that is, to agree on mechanisms BY CONSENSUS. Surely this is why the Solms-Delta model took a whole decade to do deep research into attitudes and culture before adopting a co-ownership business model.

Another model being touted is that all taxation should end and be replaced by land rental that everyone with land must pay to the State. This seems radical, even extreme, but there are voices saying that only the State can be the fair arbiter. Until one remembers the way senior government officials in Zimbabwe abused what started as fairly sound policy. The big problems there came with implementation. And the State is not always impartial. One has only to think of the Guptas getting a tax rebate to remember that truth!

My first-hand experience has been with tenants who thought they were clever to not return the keys to the landlord when they left. Instead they installed squatters in the house, who continue to occupy it.  In the language of Johannesburg – where there are 115 000 such gambits (we have only one!) – the tenants became “slumlords”. The landlord company is contesting any right-to-occupancy (by either tenant or squatter) but we have heard all the RET rhetoric – and of course they can rapidly outnumber us, even as we try to co-habitat the same farm property and to keep up our existing standards of cleanliness (e.g. garbage removal), compliance with by-laws (e.g. control of alien invasive species) and good citizenship (e.g. closing the main gate behind you after you drive through it). 

Squatters don’t care about corporate standards, no matter how much they may talk about Ubuntu. And slumlords drain all the revenue away without contributing a cent in levies. They just ignore the “common cause”. Individualism prevails and this reinforces all the stereotypes of neighbourhoods that go to ruin because they fill up with people who do not care about rooting out Lantana or Parthenium – just because the Department of Environmental Affairs has declared them to be enemies of the environment.

It is very hard for me, after my personal confrontation with slumlords and squatters, to buy into any mechanism of land reform that is unlawful. Our story is one of trying to get to court, and which court has jurisdiction, and all the “Stalingrad strategies” that their attorneys can think up. It all makes me sure that a lawless, unilateral approach to land re-distribution is just a pay-later plan. It will make matters worse, not better, in due course.

I believe that non-racialism has a primacy that only a few parties like the Democratic Alliance and COPE espouse. The Patriotic Front got its priorities right recently – saying that the colour of a Mayor’s skin was no reason to remove him. (There may be other, legitimate reasons to do so – but racism is not a valid reason.)

Nor is it legit for people who do not own a house to occupy it indefinitely – that is looting. They are plundering someone else’s resources and that only pours oil onto the fire that is already burning about Inequality, Unemployment and Poverty. These must be addressed by legal solutions.

To sum up, while land reform is an imperative (and I invoke the Torah in saying so), there are good ways to go about it, and detrimental ways. Some approaches will help it to speed up, while others will hinder our future as a Rainbow Nation – and those should not be adopted as the Way Forward.

I was the first director in our company to insist (over a decade ago) that we should no longer rent out houses only to whites. That was the history of the property when our company bought it in 2001. I was accused by shareholders of introducing racial quotas and so on. But as company director, I rented one home to a Magistrate, a black woman, a widow, who drove the nicest car on campus. She soon became the provincial HOD for Public Works. She made a great tenant.

Over a decade later, the squatters occupying one of our homes on campus unlawfully are a paragon of the stereotype that so many farmers dread when they hear of land invasions. Will we have to call the Red Ants to remove them? The cost of removing them could end up more than the value of the house that they occupy.

Here is an example – twice our attorney and I went to their door to hand them a Notice letter, that we were starting an Eviction process. They responded by applying for Protection Order against their landlord, which prevents me from delivering any more letters to their door!  The magistrate insists that all messages must be sent via her lawyer.  Who later told me that he is not a mailman and will dump all further messages into his trash bin.  Another Stalingrad strategy!  Thank God for the Law Society of SA who agreed to investigate this as malpractice.

Mayor Mashaba will tell you that too many such litigations will keep you awake at night. They will turn the country into a legal mess that will make fighting State Capture look easy.  An old country song says: “Don’t sling mud because you’re only losing ground”.  We have to find one another on this imperative of land redistribution. Or it will explode and we will all get burned. This is the voice of first-hand experience speaking.

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

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