Land EWC is no silver bullet to SA’s economic woes. Here’s why.

JOHANNESBURG — As we get closer to the elections (which are expected to happen in May 2019), we can expect politicians to drum up quite a few emotive notes. One of those is land EWC. There’s a lot of confusion around what the ANC’s actual plan is, despite President Cyril Ramaphosa indicating earlier this year that he’d make the terms clearer? Or could a change to the Constitution open the door to blatant disregard for private property rights, sparking off another Zimbabwean/Venezuelan nightmare? Either way, the topic is highly debatable and in this article, C Stephens offers his view on the situation. – Gareth van Zyl

By Chuck Stephens*

Is it historically accurate to say that the land was “stolen” from the black people in South Africa?  This question elicits some interesting responses. For example the Ba Baroa claim that they were here first, and that only a few decades before the whites arrived by sea, the black people arrived overland.  So to their way of thinking, they are the primordial owners, not the black people.

Then the question arises about the historical rights of migrations to settle in new parts of the map.

As a case study, let me mention the Normans.  The “Nor” in this name comes from “Norse”. In other words, they were Scandinavians, from Norway, Denmark, etc.  They are commonly called the Vikings.

For about 150 years, as the Empire of Charlemagne began to shrink and fragment, the Vikings raided what is now England, France and Ireland.  They were sea-farers and their raids got bigger and more brazen as the decades passed. They would sail up rivers like the Seine to Paris or the Thames to London and lay siege to major cities.  They were a force to be reckoned with.

The Franks in what is now France and the Angles in what is now England built river defenses along the banks, to fight the Vikings off. But they kept coming, bigger and more brazen every time. The story of their invasions was recorded by a historian who lived soon after these testing times, called Dudo of Seint Quentin. This was a written history, not an oral one. His sources were people who had been there or who had watched. Eye witness news!
Charlemage’s empire was fragmenting and along the west coast of what is now France was West Frankia. It was constantly harassed by the Vikings. One of the fiercest of the Norsemen was a king called Rollo. A king in West Frankia who was called Charles the Simple made Rollo an offer. He could have a vast area on the north coast (on the south shore of what we now call the English Channel) – if only he would converge his “Normans” there and leave the rest of West Frankia alone. Rollo agreed to this and his “Normen” became the new aristocracy in that region. The serfs and peasants remained Franks.

One proviso stipulated by Charles-the-not-so-Simple was that they must convert to Christianity, the official religion of West Frankia. They did so and that north zone came to be called Normandy. (It was on the Normandy beaches that the allies finally invaded during World War II – on D Day.)  The Normans were essentially Vikings, and they kept encroaching more and more into West Frankia. In 1066 they also crossed the English Channel and invaded England – the Norman invasion.  So French was spoken in England for a few hundred year thereafter, until the end of the Plantaginet regime.

My point is quite straightforward. The British cannot tell the Normans to go back to France. France cannot tell the population of Normandy to go back to Scandinavia, from whence it came. Migrations like this were constant and land was not “stolen” from West Frankia by Rollo. It was agreed to in a treaty between Charles the Simple, a descendant of Charlemagne, and King Rollo of the Norsemen (one of the “sea kings”).

You cannot turn back the clock on migrations. Liberia was an attempt to allow African Americans to return to Africa if they wanted to, after then end of Slavery. But most by far chose to remain in America, in spite of their oppression there.

So giving the land back to the black people is not what Land Reform should be about. Any party that is saying that probably still believes in Santa Claus too.

Land Reform is because of inequality in the present. Not because of the past. Measurements like the Gini Coefficient validate that inequality exists – in the here and now. The extent to which land can and will address this reality can be debated, but it is certainly one strategy among several. It is not the silver bullet, in spite of what some political parties might want you to believe. Farming is hard work, it takes a lot of know-how and it is risky. Factors far beyond your control – like the weather – can determine your success or failure.

When Slavery ended in the USA, there was an expectation that former slaves would go back to the land and succeed as farmers. In fact, many of them chose to sell off their land and to urbanise. Many think that this will happen in South Africa, where already most of those who have succeeded with land claims (distinct from Land Reform) have sold out and moved to town.

The Bible’s strategy to level the playing field is called a Year of Jubilee.  That only came once in 50 years – in other words, once in a lifetime. Whereas the sabbatical year came every seven years, when the land was to lie fallow, to reclaim its nutrients.  (This was before fertiliser was manufactured.) In the Year of Jubilee, those who had become economically marginalised had to be “mainstreamed” – to become economically active again. They were allowed to claim back their lost land and those who had accumulated land and wealth had to release some of it for this economic upheaval to occur.

This is the spirit of “accelerated land reform”. Not turning back the clock and telling the Boers to go back to Holland. That is like Idi Amin telling the Asians to leave Uganda – only to have its economy implode. The Boers have much more than land that South Africa needs to retain.

But at the same time, we have to be wise like Charles the Simple in West Frankia. We have to make room for a new generation, a new wave of owners. This is inevitable, because any of the alternatives are actually worse. There are bigger challenges ahead than whether whites can keep their hegemony on the surface area of the Republic. How big this advantage is can be debated – government does not have accurate statistics that measure this definitively.  So the advantage may be more subjective than objective? More perceived than real? But these raiders are not going away anytime soon, so making space for them only makes sense.

One problem with the “expropriation of land without compensation” is that it is like the question, “How long is a piece of string?” The limits are ambiguous. Will they expropriate some whole farms and leave others intact? Or will they expropriate a percentage of each and every farm? There are different kinds of farming (and forestry) – for example pasture, cultivation and silviculture (i.e. trees). Charles the Simple offered a whole region of West Frankia to the Norse, will expropriation ever reach those proportions?

Livestock faming, land seizures
A worker uses a tractor to lift bails of hay into a truck on the Ehlerskroon farm, outside Delmas in the Mpumalanga province, South Africa on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. A legal battle may be looming over plans by South Africa’s ruling party to change the constitution to make it easier to expropriate land without paying for it, with widely divergent views over the process that needs to be followed. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

The ANC’s answer – that we can trust them with Land Reform – is a bit trite in the face of Eskom, SAA and other state-owned enterprises. Would you trust the party that deployed cadres like Brian Molefe, Tom Moyane and Malusi Gigaba to handle such a historic showdown as a Year of Jubilee? This needs to be a multi-partisan undertaking involving all parties.

Whoever takes on the task must accept that Land Reform is not about turning the clock back and revenging the whites. It is about getting 9.5m unemployed citizens back to work. That is in everyone’s best interests, not just the best interests of one racial group. Because a thriving economy will be good for us all. And in this mix, we have to make space above all for the resurgence of the Ba Baroa.

  • Chuck Stephens writes in his own capacity.