The Land does not belong to those who do not live in it

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File picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)

The Freedom Charter states “the land belongs to those who live in it”.  It is time to get real.  People who live in “ekasi” or townships are not going to return to the land in droves as farmers.

History tells otherwise. In the USA, after the Civil War, the freed slaves sort of expected to be granted “forty acres and a mule”. This did happen in some places, for a while. But in spite of the North’s victory, there was a built-in inertia, and the gains of freedom were soon corrupted. For example, the phenomenon of Convict Leasing. This was just a new name for forced labour. Prisons could lease out their convicts to farms and factories, an early version of privatization. This meant that many blacks were incarcerated and given long sentences for minor felonies like shop lifting or drunkenness. This went on for decades, resulting in three mass migrations.

First, blacks migrated to the big cities of the North.  Second, there were efforts to return to Africa – like Liberia.  Third, there were then migrations to the cities of the West and North-west. In a way, expecting “ekasi” culture people to suddenly return to the land is a kind of romanticism akin to returning African Americans to the mother continent.  It did appeal to some.  But they had become Americanized.  They had fought for their freedom.  So most preferred to stay in America and to migrate internally.

We are seeing some migration of Africans across the Mediterranean into Europe.  Just like Latinos are migrating from South and Central America into the USA.  Many African migrants go south instead, and end up in South Africa, where they do not always feel welcome. But the core phenomenon across Africa is urbanization.  People want to leave the land and move to the big city.

How does Land Reform become the mantra of a generation that is leaving the rural areas?  Surely citizens need jobs, homes, and services more than they need Land? A recent article by Eve Fairbanks refers. It is called “Why South Africa’s formerly segregated townships are still central to its imagination” and was first published in Foreign Policy. She concludes:

“But few black South Africans were fully able to make this transition. Around half of the country’s black adults still live in townships today, and a quarter of South Africans, virtually all of them black, live in conditions that meet the United Nations’ threshold for extreme poverty. It was partly in response to this failed transition that the word previously associated with oppression began to make its way into young people’s vocabulary as a celebratory, even defiant, slang term.  “Living ekasi meant everything” to him growing up, Thebe said. “The way we love. The way we talk. The way we dress. You have lived under harsh circumstances. You have survived.”

Another recent article scans and scopes Land Reform in other countries of the world. From corvee labour in Japan, to serfs in Russia, to share-cropping in the USA, it tracks what happens to peasants. The article is called “Land Reform all over the world” and is written by Brooks Specter. It first appeared in The Daily Maverick. As they say, misery loves company, and South Africa should not think that it is the first country to look down into this abyss.

But serfs or peasants anywhere can honestly claim the promise of the Freedom Charter: “the Land belongs to all who live in it”. Serfs and peasants are amazing, experienced farmers at subsistence level. Each and every example that Brooks Specter cites tracksagrarian people from subservience to freedom. But as they rise from feudalism or even Slavery, they all bring with them an intimate familiarity with farming.

In fact, Specter notes that the rise of “agri-business” and mechanization was largely a response to the migration of people to the cities, leaving so few behind in the rural areas to guarantee Food Security.  So while the scoping of Land Reform elsewhere may be of some comfort to those who have the most to lose, the relevance is missing.  Is there any example of a migration of city folk returning to the land en masse?

Two migrations across the English Channel during the dark ages are instructive. The so-called Anglo-Saxon invasions of eastern England (from Holland and Germany) were peaceful.  That is, there is no archaeological evidence for military disruption. During this period, though, the lingua-franca of England changed from Latin (the Romans Brexit was in 410 AD) to German. Old English and Old German are one and the same language.

Then later came the Norman invasion in 1066 AD.  The “Nor” in Norman derives from “Norse” and “Norway”. They were Vikings who settled in Normandy under a deal with Charles the Simple of West Frankia, more than a century earlier. Their invasion of England was disruptive and introduced the Plantaginet kings who ruled England fiercely for 300 years.

If anything, township-dwellers invading rural South Africa would be more like the Norman invasion. Ownership would change, but basically the same citizens would remain farming the land. It would be more of a BBEEE of farming that beating their swords into plowshares.

Perhaps we should talk less about Land Reform and more about Agrarian Reform?

For example, could we not reverse that trend to mechanization and champion more labour-intensive technology? Because what we really need is jobs for the unemployed.  This would be less of a revolution and more of an evolution of farming techniques. Why is ownership the focus?  Especially when the Tribal Chiefs themselves are opposed to breaking up their Trusts? That seems to be the only way for “expropriation” to be consistent without undermining nonracialism?

Why not focus on Food Security?  Starting with “Use the Land or Lose it”.  Unproductive land – not productive land owned by white farmers – should be the initial focus.  Government already has a large inventory of land to distribute.  

Some strategies from other countries like “share-cropping” may be relevant.  Ownership does not change, but space is created for labour and productivity that can add value to Food Security.  Getting unemployed people economically active again must be a higher priority that who owns the land – whether tribal chiefs or boers.  And making the transition as seamless as possible – not disruptive like revolutions tend to be – is the best way to go.


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