Modern Feudalism in South Africa

The irony of the conflict over land in South Africa is lost to most of its combatants. While pontiffs fabricate stats on white ownership of land, establishing ‘white monopoly capital’ as a bogeyman, they always tend to ignore that approximately 17 million South Africans still...

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The irony of the conflict over land in South Africa is lost to most of its combatants. While pontiffs fabricate stats on white ownership of land, establishing ‘white monopoly capital’ as a bogeyman, they always tend to ignore that approximately 17 million South Africans still inhabit an artefact of Apartheid – the vestiges of the homeland system – without any meaningful guarantees of land tenure, despite constitutional promises.

While no longer called ‘homelands,’ areas deemed as traditional tribal land is still held by traditional leadership as pseudo-communal land. Officially, the state holds the land in trust. After 2003, traditional leaders gained de facto ownership of the land as they could act in court as if they held ownership.

Why is it that in an effort to destroy all that Apartheid established and represented, post-1994 South Africa still actively defends one of Apartheid’s primary creations?

Apartheid was not just a system of controlling movement, it was a political system that sought to force the secession of racial groups. The creation and enforcement of homelands allowed population groups to be controlled, so as to better work towards Apartheid’s grand social engineering schemes. The impoverishment of many homelands through a myriad of means also guaranteed that a migrant labour force would be at the disposal of the mines and other industries.

So-called ‘traditional’ leaders were just representatives of the Apartheid state. They indirectly ruled their constituents in the National Party’s stead, so as to keep everyone regimented and line their own pockets. The homelands were crucial to this enrichment and power. The Nats were perfectly willing to empower a few individuals to govern the plebs. Indirect rule was common colonial practice, and local rulers loved it. So much so that when the democratic elections threatened the homeland autonomy of Bophutswana, its president actively opposed the notion.

This opposition was not a principled stand for the independence of Bophutswana, which very few people actually supported, but a desperate clinging to a fiefdom. For, like the barons of medieval Europe, the homelands are, even today, fiefdoms.

Under feudalism, peasants don’t own the land. A lord owns the land, called a fiefdom (or fief), and allows people to use it at his whim. But whims are fickle. It is a habit of South Africans to rely on the benevolence of the ruler of the day, but as the Zuma regime hopefully has taught us, we cannot rely on the good nature of those in office. We need a system that guarantees good behaviour and effective governance as best as possible, regardless of the man or woman in charge.

Today, the homelands are still governed by customary leaders, who rule by whims falsely called ‘customary law.’ This is even glorified by some, calling it ‘living customary law’. Families and individuals with some sort of ethnic claim to the homelands are expected to be allowed to inhabit it and work it, but this isn’t profound land ownership. This is serfdom, whereby poor South Africans live by the whims of a ruler, chosen not by mandate but by lineage and arbitrary customary law.

If we are to take our democracy seriously at all, we cannot abide such a regressive and repressive system.

Land reform advocates are partly right about one thing – land is important. What they tend to get wrong is why land is important. Land isn’t some get-rich-quick solution. It is an asset that needs to be utilised properly to allow for capital accumulation. This can only happen if the residents truly own the land they work on. Without ownership of this land, they are merely tenants who are at the whim of traditional leaders.

For all my misgivings with the Democratic Alliance (DA) at least they are fighting for genuine land tenure where it matters. The Free Market Foundation (FMF) have also been leading the charge for meaningful land reform with its Khaya Lam (My Home) Land Reform Project. It is not enough to have a house – what matters is that the people truly own that house as a private entity that they can use as an investment, as an asset, collateral for debt, a place to develop. Without private ownership of land, investment will not happen. The tragedy of the commons strikes, as no one wants to put resources and labour into something they could lose at any moment.

While we live alongside feudalism today, tolerating it because of the lies of cultural entrepreneurs, we also risk entrenching it further. Groups like Black First, Land First (BLF) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) preach that they want to give land to the people, but their ‘people’ is a vague synonym for ‘the state.’ These Stalinist-wannabes don’t care about the true upliftment of the population. They merely want to attain complete control of all land in South Africa so they can use it to enrich themselves and guarantee their power. Citizens become peasants when they cannot own land.

The virtue of private land ownership summarised

  • Encourages investment by the owners.
  • Overcomes the tragedy of the commons, whereby people won’t develop land due to no guarantees that they will benefit.
  • Can be used as an asset to gain credit, sell for a profit, turn into a business, and other gateways to wealth-making.

Going forward

We can no longer abide ‘culture’ being used as a guise to impoverish the population, or ‘restitution’ as an emotional case to justify totalitarianism. For real and substantive positive change, we need to abolish the South African feudal system.

Communal land is useless land. In fact, the term ‘communal’ is a misnomer, as the real owner is the ruler who can choose at whim who can use what. Even under cases of benevolent leadership, this system of feudalism damages the citizenry.

Without meaningful private ownership of land, there can be no development, and no economic upliftment.

Instead of knee jerk retribution, we should be looking to abolish the last vestiges of Apartheid.

With the homelands abolished, these areas can finally be allowed to prosper. With that prosperity will come employment, capital accumulation, new urbanisation in new cities (which will relax the pressure on our currently-overpopulated city-centres). All this is possible if we stop clinging to a destructive system of sentiment and allow South Africa to enter the 21st century.

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  1. David_de_Jong Reply

    The primary and most important aspect of home ownership is security of tenure.

  2. Gillian Benade Reply

    Well said.

  3. Spyti K Reply

    The maintenance of the feudal system in South Africa by the ANC is not so much to maintain or promote a certain economic or racial agenda, but a political one, since people generally tend to become more politically mobile (i.e. likely to vote for a different political party from election to election) as they move up the LSM ladder. We can therefore conclude that the ANC is keeping the feudal system in place in order to pretty much secure its traditional rural support base and its tenure in Government. Anyone who lives in close proximity to these fiefdoms will tell you stories about the election-time intimidation that residents face and it’s basically a case of “vote ANC or pack your bags” and I find it incredibly sad to think that democracy is yet to reach almost a third of our population.

  4. Dirk Scheepers Reply

    Well written.

    For interest’s sake, do you have any reference to support this sentence?

    “This opposition was not a principled stand for the independence of Bophutswana, which very few people actually supported, but a desperate clinging to a fiefdom.”

    Was there a poll, vote or general consensus that independence was not supported by the people? I’m doing some research on the politics of that period. Thanks.

    1. Zaggeta Reply

      Hi Dirk,

      Apologies for the late response. I thought I had sent a reply, but seems something glitched.

      The opposition to independence is an inference based on widespread labour unrest and political protests in favour of incorporating Bop into South Africa.

      I haven’t read this in detail, but it may contain the info you need:

      1. James Groenewald Reply

        In my opinion, one cannot derive a proper inference from or of any event during that time without first reading “People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa” by Anthea Jeffery.

  5. James Groenewald Reply

    Re “So-called ‘traditional’ leaders were just representatives of the Apartheid state.”
    I beg to differ. The genesis of the homeland system, and apartheid for that matter, might stem back to Cecil John Rhodes and the Glen Gray Act, but there is an unbroken line of black kingships and traditional titles from before 1894 until now. They bear equal responsibility for the state they are in.

    If one accepts Rhodes’ population estimates and predicted population growth at that time, and see it in the light of the ±50% population growth since 1994, then this country’s problems are due to the classical Malthusian trap – exponential population growth combined with linear economic growth.
    Colonialism and Apartheid as reasons for our current problems are red herrings, and failure to address the real problem can only lead to further catastrophe.

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