The Land Redistribution Conference at the University of the Western Cape last week was a chance to take the pulse of the politico-academic elite. On both days the introductory greeting was ‘comrade’.
Several MPs showed face, among whom the UDM’s Mncedisi Filtane spoke most. In the Constitutional Review Committee last year, Filtane said he was fed up and ‘we can go back to war if need be. That’s basically where you have sent me from now onwards.’ Though his laugh is big and frequently used at the conference his ideas and style of addressing those he disagrees with are not much changed.
Thoko Didiza, who is likely to chair the Bill of Rights amendment process, arrived on day two and was swarmed by admirers. Didiza was careful in her pronouncements to stay technical. She spoke up for centralized government in all its ‘multiplicity’ in a vague reminder of who is still in charge.
The limelight shone on Ruth Hall, UWC’s star professor, who was chosen to sit on the president’s committee of advisors on land reform. Hall went straight to the president’s committee after the conference.
By day two, Hall was admirably clear in her summation of the conference. It was ‘remarkable’, she said, that ‘we haven’t really been discussing Expropriation without Compensation’. A remark that remained shockingly true.
How is it exactly that a conference on land reform can take place at this juncture without any real discussion of EWC?
In part, this was done by breaking the conference in three, to match three commissioned papers. The first two papers were by relative moderates who might have spoken out clearly against EWC, or to the costs of EWC, were they not preoccupied with punting their own alternatives.
The third proposal came from chairperson of Oxfam South Africa and NGO-prince Mazibuko Jara. Jara’s was the radical approach. His group offered the clearest answer to Hall’s opening question – how should land for redistribution be identified and acquired? In a word, ‘occupation’. One participant wondered: ‘How do we organize self-organizing public occupation?’ The chair responded: ‘Just move onto land and get on with it. Land invasions.’ When one person railed against ‘verkrampte boere’, the chair nodded in agreement: ‘We need aggressive implementation’. The EFF policy for years.
In a country obsessed with social identities, here is something to note. The loudest voices in support of the occupation strategy came in the following race-accent combinations, white-Afrikaans, white-Dutch, and the chair, black-American. Once again, it should be no surprise, race was no proxy for fundamental values.
Special mention for clarity goes to Marc Wegerif, a University of Pretoria lecturer (formerly with Oxfam) who spoke enthusiastically about land redistribution beneficiaries receiving ‘non-transferable’ rights to their land. That means beneficiaries would not be able to sell their land or mortgage it. This is perfectly consistent with much of the thinking on land reform to come out of UWC, but few have the courage to say so unambiguously.
Special mention also goes to Tracey Ledger, who is a research associate at Wits and an NGO consultant. Ledger explained that the ‘solidarity’ economy Jara advocates – something between Afrikaburn’s gift economy and Stalinism – can be seen in spaza-shop price-fixing which, she says, is standard practice.
Anyone who is familiar with GG Alcock’s work on Kasinomicks would find this laughable as it is well demonstrated that spazas are often extremely competitive businesses that can run prices down below supermarket charges despite the latter’s advantage in economies of scale. But even supposing it were true – if you heard that the stores you buy food from were involved in price-fixing, would you warm to that kind of ‘solidarity’?
Once occupation and invasion were established as the name of the game the point that ‘we might need a little violence’ was raised. The refinement offered was that only violence against black people and black women deserved ‘focus’. It was like being in Ramaphosa’s world in the US where it was not worth acknowledging a single murdered farmer.
The group ended with the head of AgriSA Dan Kriek standing up to say that he personally never let his farm-workers out when there was lightning. This was in reference to the recent Upington case where four workers were struck dead in a field, which, according to the group, demanded immediate retaliatory ‘occupation’ and, calmly put, ‘we need a revolution’.
Kriek added: ‘80% [of farmers] make 20% of food, so with that then we can do drastic things. No, not drastic things – but we can make faster progress.’
It seemed Kriek was reaffirming a point made earlier by Ben Cousins, another UWC land fundi. Cousins argued (roughly summarised) that if the 20% of farmers making 80% of the food were left untouched then the weaker 80% of farmers could be replaced without much harm to food security.
Asked about this in private later, Kriek demurred. He explained that he actually meant the opposite to Cousins, in premise and conclusion. He was adamant that this was a misunderstanding. He will surely be less ambiguous next time. Likewise, perhaps Kriek will mention the injustice of EWC, too.
EWC went undiscussed because its opponents kept mum and its proponents take it for granted that even changing the constitution on that account would not be enough. What was really needed was for the police to take the side of ‘voluntary’ land invaders against property owners.
A few outbursts aside, the general tone was terribly polite, similar to some ‘Mexican standoffs’. Cool and calm, even casual, with jokes and long dry patches. Yet dreadful to the bone.
For the conference to be so superficially cool that EWC did not even have to be debated has required a parliamentary process that in the words of economist Azar Jammine ‘in one fell swoop destroyed whatever hope there was of a surge in capital investment that might resurrect sustainable economic growth’. The economy is throttled, the intelligentsia is well oiled.
Gabriel Crouse is the George F D Palmer Financial Journalist Trust Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).