Land Reform: It’s Time to Undo South Africa

British colonies prior to the formation of the Union of South Africa, in May 1910
British colonies prior to the formation of the Union of South Africa, in May 1910

Written by: Wogan May

South Africa, as we know it today, came about during colonial era consolidation under the British Empire. If we’re going to start tearing it up now, we might as well go all the way.

What’s not shown on that map is the brutal dispossession of the Zulu, Xhosa and other tribes. They lost a series of wars and continue to pay the price for that today.

First, they suffered under a series of oppressive governments that denied the majority of South Africans basic rights.

More recently, the average South African continues to suffer under a corrupt “post-liberation” government that demonstrates open disdain for our most vulnerable.

Patience may finally run out in 2018, and I don’t think any one political party winning the next election will change that.

South Africa’s wounds run deep. In many ways, our conflicts here are not unlike ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. A major (and I mean major) source of tension there is the territorial lines that the British drew.

The colonizers decided where the borders should be, completely ignoring the local tribes and their history. Some nations were split up, others were forced into territories with their rivals. Fights over those territories continue to this day.

There is no law (moral, religious, or otherwise) that says South Africa has to stay the shape it currently is. If we are going to start a process of true redress, then “land reform” is really just the thin end of the wedge. We are really talking about the restoration of identity.

And South Africa has a large mix of those. British, Dutch, Portuguese, Irish and Malay culture came in from the south-west, over the ocean. The Khoisan, Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele and Swazi migrated down from the north.

The years between 1652 and 1910 were littered with expansion, conquest, war, defeat, and the systematic dispossession on both sides. We’ve now ended up here.

There is no reason whatsoever that South Africa has to remain a consolidated territory, or even a single country. There’s precedent for this  —  the sovereign nations of Lesotho and Swaziland, for instance.

We’re a country with 11 distinct cultures that have failed to merge over decades of effort. I think it’s okay to stop trying, frankly. If it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not likely to happen at all.

No matter your point of view on this, the fact remains: The native population of Africa lost a bunch of devastating wars, were subjugated and dispossessed under a colonial government, and in the decades since 1994 nothing of substance has really changed. New faces, same rotten machine.

In my view, the balkanization of South Africa is inevitable.

We may have survived as a country with proper governance, inclusion, representative democracy and economic growth. But that hasn’t happened, and I don’t think this land reform debate will necessarily stop with a few title deed transfers.

The scars are much deeper than that.

As of 2018, South Africa is one of the unhappiest countries in the world. We have a murder rate that parallels actual war zones. We have loudly conflicting tribes, and blood is being shed on all sides.

We may have some of the trappings of democracy, and the (rapidly fading) pretense of being a “rainbow nation”, but in reality, we may as well be at war.

My hope is that this land reform debate extends beyond redress within the current system, and looks into the full history of this country. I hope it ends with the realization that South Africa, being a mix of lots of different cultures and identities, will likely never be able to coalesce into a strong nation.

And that’s okay.

Hopefully, this war finally ends with our own “Treaty of Versailles”, where the land is divided up, reparations are finally calculated, negotiated, and agreed on, so that the actual path towards healing can begin for all of us.

It would mean the death of the rainbow nation, and with any luck, the birth of something much better.

Author: Wogan May is a fourth-generation South African citizen of Irish descent. Technical consultant by day, concerned citizen by night, he spends a lot of time thinking about the future of the country.