Land reform a just measure

Land ownership is rarely free from political or historical origins or privilege says Ismail Lagardien. Stock photo
Land ownership is rarely free from political or historical origins or privilege says Ismail Lagardien. Stock photo

At times of policy uncertainty, particularly now that we are in the hustings, the one thing that is clear is that land reform will happen.

Whether it happens as expropriation without compensation, which implies anything from violent rapine to wilful occupation, or whether it will be done within established or an amended legal framework, land reform is inevitable.

While we can be relatively sure that our homes will be safe, it is difficult to make the claim that everything will be just fine, generally speaking.

We are a terribly violent and cruel society.

We are reminded of this almost daily by stories of buses and taxis – and the people inside – being set alight, and any number of murders, rape, child abuse and general lawlessness.

This happens in formal and informal settlements, in cities and in rural areas. Nobody is unaffected by crime and personal violence in South Africa.

For as long as the state drives land reform – believing, as I do, that the state will adhere to the constitution and Bill of Rights – my sense is that it will unfold relatively peacefully.

This does not mean there will not be resistance from families who have owned land for decades or from people who would prefer to simply take whatever they can as part of land reform.

One way of thinking about land reform, as ordinary law-abiding citizens, is to dissociate it from the economy and conceive of it as justice and the reversal of mass, often violent displacement across history.

This may be easier said than done.

Land ownership is rarely free from political or historical origins or privilege.

There are no prizes for remembering that private landownership was a precursor to the industrial revolution with the enclosures of 15th century Britain.

At the time, people who worked on commonly held land for subsistence were displaced and the rich were effectively handed vast tracts of land for agricultural production.

The new owners would, then, employ as labourers the very people they had displaced.

This practice of creating parcels of land for privileged people was extended to Britain’s settler colonies from North America, across southern Africa to Australia.

In the settler colonies dispossession of indigenous people, and the distribution of land to European settlers were driven by racism and the belief in myths like manifest destiny.

This was the belief that Europeans had a God-given right to expand their own versions of democracy and capitalism across North America.

In the “new world”, settler colonialists in North America, who unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1776 – not unlike Rhodesia in 1965 – forcibly moved indigenous people off the land, using laws like the 1830 Indian Removal Act, to make room for white settlers.

By 1862, the Homestead Act gave millions of acres of land on which indigenous Americans lived, to white settlers.

In Australia, settler colonialists moved indigenous people off their traditional lands in the 18th and 19th century, and placed them in “reservations”. Aboriginal Australians challenged land occupation for decades.

Only by the late 20th century, through laws like the Aboriginal Land Act, were some of the indigenous claims addressed.

For Australia’s aboriginal people, the struggle for their land continues.

When Europeans settled in South Africa, very many of them were given land by colonial powers, or they occupied land by something resembling divine fiat.

For instance, there were instances where, much like manifest destiny drove occupation of indigenous land in North America, settlers, notably the English settlers of 1820, insisted on a God-given right to colonise and cultivate any and all land they found.

In the winter of 1820, there arrived an English reverend, William Shaw, of the Great Queen Street Wesleyan Chapel in London, who presented a holy sanction for settler colonialism.

On a visit to Bethelsdorp he professed, much like Europeans in north America, the “civilising mission” of Christianity.

He explained that indigenous people and the land were in a “wild and untutored state”, and that the Europeans were obliged to civilise and cultivate both.

A year after his arrival in the Eastern Cape, Shaw wrote: “Within one year, desert places have been taken possession of by a multitude of men, the beasts of the field have very generally retreated to make room for them, houses have arisen, and villages spring into existence as if by magic”.

It is safe to say there was no magic involved.

The land was taken, its occupants were displaced and this process set in motion centuries of vertically segmented privilege in all settler colonies.

Land reform in South Africa will not make sense, economically.

It will be done on the basis of justice, and not by notions like “the rationality of economic agents”, or “market efficiency”, nor by Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” tie-dyed in the aura of science, a veritable fig leaf for legitimise existing systems of ownership and use of land.

We may want to get used to this idea.