Trumping the land debate with facts, not fake news


Donald Trump’s tweet on expropriation of land in South Africa caused a flurry at home, here in South Africa, and in the United States. The United States president, long a critic of fake news, had himself, though not for the first time, been a victim of such fake news spread by alt-right groups in the US with the prompting of apartheid apologists such as Afriforum.

Yet the US president was correct to instruct his secretary of state to study the developments on land here in South Africa. For the first part of his tweet, not surprisingly, was made out of pure ignorance. What it seems the US president is also ignorant of is that the question of the ownership of land is not unique only to South Africa but one found across the globe. 

Whether this is through forced removals in order to make way for new developments such as roads and dams or whether it is for communities to reclaim their land, the fight for land ownership is global. A prime example of the reclaiming of land, the US president would be surprised to know, is also happening in his ancestral home of Scotland. A simple Wikipedia search would assist much in understanding Scotland’s land reform process.

Scotland has both had a long experience of colonialism, for sometimes we in the developing world think we were the only ones colonised, but has also had a long history in land dispossession and then seeking the resolution of their version of “the land question”. 

Among others, authors such as Eric Richards in his 2008 book, “The Highland Clearances: People, Landlords and Rural Turmoil”, tell of how during the eighteen and nineteenth centuries, the Highland Clearances occurred whereby many Gaels, an ethnolinguistic group found in the north-west of Europe, were evicted from the Scottish Highlands. During this dispossession process not only were common lands cordoned off into private property owned by the Scottish nobility but there was also a whole transformation in the agricultural landscape of the Highlands where the emphasis was changed from farming to the rearing of sheep. 

Traditional leadership in Scotland, aka nobility or aristocrats, could forcefully and wholly encroach on the land because people living on the land did not enjoy property rights and as a result these traditional leaders could therefore either drive people from the land which happened on a large scale or they could impose heavy burdens on commoners living on the land. A new form of serfdom.

As a result, these Clearances caused huge migration to the Scottish coastland, to Australasia and North America. While Trump’s maternal grandparents were from a northern Scottish isle, he may well find that there are many Americans who claim Scottish ancestry as he does but whose ancestors were forced to flee Scotland during the Highland Clearances.

Even worst still, the Clearances had a devastating effect on Gaelic culture in Scotland. So devastating was this dispossession process that Karl Marx, living in London at the peak of the Clearances, would write, in “Das Kapital”, “…the spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism…”  

As a result of this dispossession process, even up until today, as in South Africa, there remains a huge over concentration of land in the hands of a few wealthy people. In an article by the “Holyrood Magazine” on 5 June 2015 titled: “Land reform in Scotland: What do ownership patterns say about our identity?”, it was suggested that 432 people (families) own half of Scotland’s private land whereas more than two-thirds of rural land in Scotland is owned by only 0.025 per cent of the Scottish population.

With little ambiguity and again like South Africa, Scottish society, the Holyrood Magazine article went on to state, is one of the most unequal globally. Sarah Boyack, a Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament interviewed for the article, linked a “more socially just” Scotland and creating “economic opportunity” to land reform and land use. 

This understanding of an umbilical chord existing between land rights and use of land rights to basic and fundamental rights such as dignity and equality was later again emphasised in the Scottish Land Reform Review Group, establish by the Scottish Government in 2012, when in their terms of reference they underlined that the “relationship between the land and the people of Scotland is fundamental to the wellbeing, economic success, environmental sustainability and social justice of the country.”  

Since the election of the Labour government into power in the United Kingdom in 1997, Scottish land reform has sought a three ponged approach. Firstly to secure access to common land. Secondly, to secure the rights of tenants and farmers and thirdly, to ensure that small farmers buy land from bigger farmers. What the reform process also did was to ensure that land ownership was linked with land use but that each was treated as equally important in order precisely, as the ANC has articulated, to guarantee food security.  

In this reform process the first pieces of legislation was the Abolition of Feudal Tenure Act of 2000 in Scotland. This law allowed for those, in the rural areas, living like vassals, to seize ownership of the land. Noticeably, the Act made provision for compensation for the “superiors” of the land. 

Three years later, the Scottish parliament passed the Land Reform Act as well as the Agricultural Holdings Act. The Land Reform Act ensured the legal framework for access to land, detailing a community’s right to buy land as well as a crofting community’s right to purchase land. On the other hand, the Agricultural Holdings Act granted new models of agricultural ownership of land and regulated the agricultural tenants use of the land, if for any other purposes besides agriculture. 

Land reform continues in Scotland up until this very day with the Scottish National Party’s then First Minister, Alex Salmond, promising in 2013 that by 2020, 1 million acres of land must be within community hands. As recently as three years ago, the Scottish parliament passed the Community Empowerment Act ensuring ongoing community empowerment and public participation on land policy and planning. 

What are the lessons for South Africa?

Firstly, we must set priorities. We must reaffirm that land ownership by our people is as important as food security and communal land ownership, as the Scots have done. We cannot shy away from the fact that basic and fundamental human rights are continuously violated by the fact that our people do not have access to land. Yet use of this land and common ownership is as important.

In the wake of the economic recession in the country, like the Scots, we must recognise that the grossly skewed ownership of land contributes enormously to this economic stagnation and ultimate regression. The structure of land ownership in this country, like the structure of our economy, remains fundamentally unsustainable and we must not be surprised if we continue on a downward spiral economically when the vast majority of our people remain mere economic spectators.

Secondly, we must acknowledge that expropriation of land without compensation is but one of a number of models or avenues in land reform. It is not the sole method but should we seek to expropriate land without compensation we must be able to do so within the bounds of the law. The ANC has always fought for a democratic state where the rule of law remains cardinal and this is why we are pushing for a policy within the confines of the Constitution of the Republic. 

We must engage with case studies from around the world for even the Scots recognised that there were various approaches to land reform. Yet all these models must ensure greater ownership of land by our people, food security as well as community ownership of land. 

Sadly, there should be no doubt though why President Trump and Afriforum would pull up their noses for South Africa’s land reform process and not that of countries such as Scotland. 

Wesley Seale is a PhD student in International Relations at Beiwai University, Beijing, China