A non-racial approach to the land question when the access to land is racialized will never be effective. It will not do the people of South Africa any good to sweep under the rug very real differences that racial categories have wrought on South Africa’s society.
The question on land expropriation without compensation has been at the center of debates in South African politics recently. Different organizations have varying views about how the issue of land redress should be confronted.
The Thabo Mbeki Foundation has recently released a document with recommendations on how the land question should be dealt with. The document invokes several historical documents of the African National Congress to supports its argument. The main argument that is propelled by the document is that the resolution by the ANC in its 54th National Conference to expropriate land without compensation violates the principle of non-racialism which is the hallmark of the ANC. A critical reading of the document reveals that this main argument is used as nothing other than a euphemism that seeks to advance a view that protects the interest of white land owners at the expense of the landless black people. This is to say the document does nothing more than defend white people who control the majority of the land in South Africa by selectively using certain historical documents of the ANC as authority.
The unnecessarily long document by the Thabo Mbeki Foundation does very little to contextualize and speak to the conditions that have made it possible for the ANC to adopt the resolution of land expropriation without compensation. In its vehement rejection of the resolution of land expropriation the foundation refuses to acknowledge that for more than 20 years after the democratic dispensation the land still belongs in the hands of a few white people while multitudes of black people remain impoverished and landless. The document refuses to recognize that the issue of land has a direct bearing on the economy and the livelihoods of the people that it claims to represent. This is because the document does not seem to be interested in the urgent need to address it. The proposed solutions will result in endless delays that could take years while people continue to suffer. Mbeki and his foundation seem to be giving an undeserved primacy to the historic positions of the ANC instead of engaging the reasons why land redress has failed within the existing framework.
The document states that the argument advanced by the ANC in its 54th National Conference to expropriate land without compensation ‘communicates the firm statement that the ANC has changed in terms of its character and as such is no longer representative of the people of South Africa.’ What this statement suggests is that any resolution passed by the ANC that is not encapsulated in its historic documents is a deviation from what the organization stands for. This kind of logic is illogical and fallacious. It locks the ANC in a particular past that is unable to speak to the present conditions that the people find themselves in. The ANC is a liberation movement and throughout history it has adapted and transformed its character so that it speaks to the material conditions and the needs of those that it serves.
The document seems to be preoccupied with appeasing white sensibilities and anxieties by constantly reiterating that the ANC is founded on non-racialism and that it belongs to all who live in it black and white. This is might very well be the truth but the constant reiteration of this raises suspicions about the veiled intentions of the document. The document strongly hankers on the non-racialism as if the ANC has always maintained a non-racialist posture. Nothing could be further from the truth. This hankering on ‘non-racialism’ conveniently ignores the fact that when the ANC was founded in 1912 its membership was not opened to all, only what they termed African people were allowed membership and those people were black people. It was only in 1985 that ‘non-Africans’ could participate fully in the decision making processes of the party. Even when the very same Freedom Charter that the document gives reverence to was adopted by the ANC without the participation of white people.
The South African society has a deep history of racial segregation and any attempt to peddle color-blind solutions to the problems that it faces will not suffice. Thabo Mbeki presided over the State as the president of South Africa from 1997 to 2008. During his tenure as president poverty and unemployment increased and this is because of his failure to decidedly transfer the land and wealth to black people who were violently disposed and excluded from economic participation by white people. The land redress program, which did not include land expropriation without compensation was a dismal failure. What this shows is that a non-racial approach to the land question when the access to land is racialized will never be effective. It will not do the people of South Africa any good to sweep under the rug very real differences that racial categories have wrought on South Africa’s society. Years after 1994 South Africa is still decidedly racially stratified and this is a reality that we can ignore by simply claiming that we are benignly ‘non-racial.
A magic wand or a mere pronouncement of non-racialism will not miraculously erase the differences in the distribution of land and the economy of our country. It is only when the land and the wealth have been redistributed that we can begin speaking of ‘non-racialism’ and as equals. The principle of non-racialism must not be used to silence black people who are demanding what rightfully belongs to them, their land without paying for it. If this demand is a betrayal of the principle of non-racialism and the ‘noble historic positions’ of the ANC then so be it. Our people will not escape the poverty they are currently subjected to by being loyal to principles and old documents that have failed to address their reality. The ANC must continue to take its mandate from the people that it leads not foundations and NGO’s that write documents from their posh and comfortable offices.
***Mcebo Dlamini is the former President of the Wits SRC