Tuesday 6 March 2018

Complexities of the Stolen Land Debate

A Dutch anti-apartheid poster given to me by the leader of KwaZulu-Natal's Pan-Africanist Congress back in 1993 during a series of interviews in which I sought to destigmatise the PAC and Azapo in the eyes of our then-mostly-white Natal Mercury readership. 

In the wake of last week's landmark vote by the African National Congress (ANC) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in the National Assembly that Section 25 of the Constitution's Bill of Rights be amended to allow for land requisitions without compensation, there has been a flurry of (anti-)social media commentary, mostly from alarmed, propertied whites. 
Well, firstly, seeing as the state already possesses huge landholdings that it hasn't redistributed in more than two decades in power, despite falling well behind its own land-redistribution targets, that apart from for ordinary purposes such as road-building it hasn't expropriated any private land for redistribution in that time, and given that the markets and big capital (notably AgriSA, the representatives of commercial agriculture) reacted with barely a murmur, I suspect the constitutional amendment will prove to be a mere political device intended to reunite the ANC with its disaffected support base, and that it is intended as a dead letter. 
We may, however, see a few isolated, salutary, high-profile expropriations to pacify that base and discipline its perceived "white monopoly capital" enemies. That the two parties that traditionally represented black land rights in South Africa (also known as Azania), the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), and Azanian People's Organisation (Azapo) are declined into insignificance is a pity in my view. I voted PAC in the landmark 1994 all-race elections because I saw the as the only left party that was sufficiently nationwide in its perspectives, revolutionary, and possessed of a burning desire to return stolen land to the black, indigenous, coloured and Indian dispossessed. Today, the PAC has a lone seat in the National Assembly, while Azapo has none, opening the field to the right-populist EFF and, purely opportunistically, the centrist-neoliberal ANC. 
Author Graeme Condrington correctly notes that the amendment to the Constitution would be at least the 15th time that land expropriation laws have been passed in South Africa (though he includes the Glen Grey Act of 1894 before SA existed) - and that they were all aimed at dispossessing people of colour in favour of white settlers. To be honest, I feel the vote last week was really about radicalisation without rationalisation, rather than expropriation without compensation.
Nevertheless, land restitution is complex and emotive (people of colour also dispossessed indigenous people, so it's not merely about white settler colonialism), unaccountably delayed under the ANC, has been distorted by unrealistic expectations (the ability of restituted owners to cohere as viable farming communities - underscored by a lack of financing and skills transfer to emergent farmers), and has been distorted by the bogus claims of black and white fascists / populists / racists (Black First Land First, EFF, AfriForum, AWB etc). The nuances of the debate reminded me of a visit I paid to former PAC president Clarence Makwethu back in 2001, recounted here in my book A Taste of Bitter Almonds.

CAPE, 25 AUGUST 2001

Marc Pradervand and I have driven through Queenstown and
continued for about 20 minutes beyond the town before turning
right along a rutted farm road that leads into a line of low hills to the
east of the town. I am searching for the smallholding of former PAC
president Clarence Makwetu – because in the sort of twist of irony
that seems quintessentially New South African, the former leader of
the party most supportive of radical land redistribution to the black
majority has found his own retirement plot the subject of a land claim
by a dispossessed community.
We drive past what appears to be a former white-owned farmhouse,
fallen into disrepair under the former Transkei administration; with
its rusted roof, holed fly-screens and sprawling laundry and children
it evokes the poor white farms of the American Dust Bowl during
the 1930s depression, but the residents are black. Passing this farm,
I drive down into a dry river drift and then climb the other side past
sparse stands of large, spiny-bowled agave plants, their spindly poles
standing high against the spring sky. The dirt road twists, becoming
more of a double-tyre track, and climbs into a shallow depression in
the hills where we come across Makwetu’s residence, a stolid square
blockhouse of a home, built in unforgiving frontier style as part home,
part fortress. Embracing the house to the south-west are a lush field of
mealies, a shed and several old tractors. Basic and unprepossessing,
it is nevertheless the modest dream home of many peasants, with a
proper pitched corrugated iron roof and separate kitchen, bathroom,
living room and bedrooms.
I park the car and we are met by a pleasant middle-aged woman
of a doughty bearing that seems to echo the simplicity of the place.
She introduces herself as Makwetu’s daughter Maureen. No,
unfortunately, her father is in town running errands at the moment,
but we can come back in about two hours and we will find him at
home. She tells me she is 39, and that she and her father have been
living on the farm since 1993. ‘We built the house ourselves; there
were only trees when we came here,’ she says proudly.
I drive back to town and we grab a bite to eat at a local takeaway.
Then, when the time is right, we return along the track to the
Makwetu homestead. As promised by his daughter, Makwetu is at
home this time, but he is distinctly displeased to find two whiteys
darkening his doorstep. It is most likely that other than encounters
with apartheid era Security Branch cops, his interactions with my
people have been rare, and often fraught with contestation over the
PAC’s revolutionary land-to-the-blacks campaigns, not to mention
the terrorist actions of its feared armed wing, Apla. Nevertheless,
the grey- haired man with the deeply lined mouth, and the erect
bearing of a patriarch accustomed to commanding respect, is
constrained by the ingrained politeness of his generation to at least
allow the enemy to cross his threshold.
We sit in the gloom of his square living room, the furniture
carefully preserved as in so many poor homes by tailored coverings of
heavy plastic, the only acquiesence to decoration being the large and
stern portraits of deceased Africanist leaders such as Robert Sobukwe
that deign to acknowledge our pale presence from the high-ceilinged
walls. My enthusiasm for the PAC and its policies is brushed aside
by a deeply suspicious Makwetu, who clearly fears we are plotting to
besmirch his party’s good name in the vein of the usual mainstream
press calumnies because we are there to interview him about the land
claim on his little farm.
Provincial land claims commissioner Tozi Gwanya has confirmed
to me that that two groups of people – about 400 residents who
were labour tenants on white-owned farms, and the 10 000-strong
Amatshatshu tribe – have lodged land claims to the Gwatyu Farms
area, east of Queenstown. The district includes the small farm to
which Makwetu has retired. The land redistribution policies of the
PAC, of which Makwetu was president between 1990 and 1996, made
headlines last month when PAC councillor Daniel Ngwenya was
involved in selling plots to the homeless in an ill-fated land grab at
Bredell, east of Johannesburg. So Makwetu is, unsurprisingly, on his
guard. Gwanya has said that Makwetu appears to own the farm he
lives on, ‘but there is no evidence that he paid Matanzima. The claims
are all under investigation at this stage.’
Julius Nokwaza, aged 56, the spokesman for the Gwatyu
community, has explained to me that after the Transkei homeland
was consolidated in 1976, the white farmers under whom his family
had worked moved away. He said the community tilled the land
until 1980, when Transkei strongman and head of the bantustan
‘government’ Kaiser Matanzima subdivided the farms, installed
many of his henchmen as tenant farmers and evicted most of the
residents, relocating them to the purpose-built town of Thembani.
‘We want to stay here. We want to own these farms and be given the
title deeds,’ Nokwaza said, adding that people who had moved to
Thembani wanted to return home. He said Makwetu had been ‘given
the farm by Matanzima in 1980 or 1981’, and that the claimants felt
that tenant farmers like Makwetu should not be allowed to occupy
or buy the farms, which all had claims on them.
Chief Mncedisi Gungubele, who leads the Amatshatshu tribe, told
me he believed that Makwetu, who lives within walking distance of
the chief’s home, was leasing the farm. The chief confirmed that his
tribe was claiming all the Gwatyu Farms land, but added, ‘No one
will be kicked out.’
Another neighbour of Makwetu, 42-year-old Phumelele Msila,
told us, ‘Makwetu got his farm from K.D. [Kaiser] Matanzima.’
Gwanya has suggested that Matanzima was trying to curry favour
with the PAC and the ANC at the time, by making farms available to
the liberation organisations’ leaders.
I put all of this to Makwetu, but he refuses to discuss his occupancy
of the farm, although he says he is aware of ‘speculation about claims
on my land’. ‘But I’m here legally; I signed papers,’ he tells us. I had
had a silly notion of making a quip, if Makwetu offered us tea, about
‘One Settler, Two Sugars’, in echo of the PAC’s notorious ‘One Settler,
One Bullet’ slogan, but his hospitality does not extend that far. He
declines to pose for a photograph, and the interview is over.