Land dominates the contemporary South African discourse. It is the issue on almost every placard and the topic of many articles, rightfully declaring its doomsday potential on our already flagging economy. Land is an emotive issue for many, and has been hijacked by politicians to manipulate and grow their power. Despite this admission that much of the land reform discourse is fabricated by power hungry elites, it is still an issue that isn’t going anywhere. So, we have to deal with it.
South Africa does need to change the way it approaches land. In that way, the callers for land expropriations without compensation (EWC) are right. But their approach is wrong. It is not the system of land reform that is the problem, it is South Africa’s institutions, expectations and ideology.
The proponents of EWC and even the more moderate land redistributionists attack the current South African system of land restitution. They call for an absolute shift of land on a collectivist basis. When groups like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Black First Land First (BLF) call for land reform, they aren’t calling for the victims of forced removals to get their property back, they are calling for more forced removals of white, coloured and Indian property owners in favour of state ownership of land (in the case of the EFF) or the redistribution of land arbitrarily to black citizens.
This is proposed system of redistributive land reform is dangerous and runs counter to the justified system of land restitution for historical crimes.
There were historical crimes
This is not a point that should be under debate. The unjustified theft of land under the 1913 Natives Land Act and post-1948 Apartheid forced removals are heinous cases of state crimes that should be rectified.
This isn’t a sacrifice of liberal principles. In fact, under Robert Nozick’s system of justice, it is a necessary admission to achieve a just and free society under liberal and libertarian values.
Property ownership is only legal and ethical when said property was transferred consensually by a legitimate owner. Forced removals under Apartheid were not legal or ethical. They were heinous state crimes.
A society that takes justice seriously should seek to rectify such past crimes and provide restitution for the victims or descendants of the victims as much as possible.
There are complications. As much as justice in property transfer is important, it is unreasonable to think that we can achieve a perfect system of justice in transfer. History is a process of migration and conquest. No land that humans have touched has avoided changes of ownership through the force of arms, commerce or fraud.
The Vandals of ancient times, known for their empire in Northern Africa and the Mediterranean, are said to have originated in Eastern Europe. Through migration and conquest, they ended up in North Africa. Today, Libyans and Mauritanians probably have some relation to the Vandals, and thus direct European ancestry.
History isn’t a simple binary of bad invader VS good defender. Cases like the betrayal of Piet Retief indicate that. History is a flux. An organic tapestry of people, conflict and agreement. And if one wants to seek justice through a simple binary transfer of land from the oppressor to the oppressed, they are working against the very justice they seek to purport.
Who owned what?
In South Africa, the history of land is more complicated than proponents of EWC will have you believe. This is made even worse by the calls of supporters of EWC like the EFF calling for land reform right up to the point that Jan van Riebeek landed at the Cape. The EFF, in addition to wanting to turn South Africa into a Soviet African state, wants to lie to South Africans and pretend that initial Cape settlement was a process of heinous land seizure. This is not true.
But it goes further. Even referencing the 19th century, EWC proponents accuse many initial farm founders of taking land from natives. But this is unclear. Due to the Mfecane, migration, other conquests and the simple fact that South Africa is a big place, many initial Cape and Boer settlers did actually settle on uninhabited land. Yes, many probably did take land. But we cannot throw legitimate land owners out with the apparent descendants of crooks.
Rhetoric by land reformists is ahistorical and collectivist. It is ignorant of basic South African history and seeks to treat all members of the arbitrary “black race” as legitimate land claimants over South Africa. It is a dangerous approach.
As such, in formulating a rational system of land reform, we must keep certain principles at the forefront of our minds:
Land reform must be on an individual basis
Collectivists treat land reform as black VS white, but this is fundamentally untrue. Individuals are the victims of forced removals and individuals are the beneficiaries of land ownership. Property is owned by individuals and small, concrete groups (such as companies and families). Even if we keep in mind the communal land ownership of some South African tribes (a practice that should be ended as a cultural artefact), we should be seeking land reform based on which individuals, groups or tribes lost which land – not an absolute and arbitrary redistribution of all land to the state or one particular race.
Nomads didn’t own land
If there was absolutely no indication of land ownership of a particular piece of land (including structures, deeds, guards, cattle…etc) then that land has no claimant. This is especially important to keep in mind in the age of exploration, where settlers begun claiming land abroad.
Many decry the early Cape settlers for taking land. But who were they taking land from? There were no structures or man-made indicators to establish ownership in the parts of the Cape that were initially settled.
That was because many of the Cape natives were nomads. They didn’t claim or own land because they were constantly on the move. And as such, they don’t have a claim to land. They don’t own the places they stopped for rests and they don’t own the routes they took. If one does not indicate ownership in some way, through development or broadcast, then they have no claim.
Otherwise, history would become a morass of land claims that would destroy human civilisation. It may seem unfair to some – but this is an undeniable principle. If you want to claim land, you must explicitly claim it.
Tenants don’t have land claims
If you are renting property or being granted tenancy by a property owner, you have no claim on that land. We must stop this nonsense entitlement whereby farm workers think they have a right to ownership of a farm because their grandparents worked on it.
Do I have a claim over a B&B because I rented a room for a few nights? No. And the length of my stay has nothing to do with it. What matters is the agreement between tenant and property owner. Tenancy does not grant any sort of ownership, just residency rights with the possibility of legal eviction.
As controversial as some may find it: farmers have a right to evict tenants on their farm. So do any land lord. And those tenants have no right to claim that they have a legal or ethical right to own that property.
Claimants are rational actors
One of the failures of land reform, EWC supporters and trendy lefties love to spout, is that many land claimants choose the money over land. They see this as a failure of the system. To add to the entitled cesspool, this ideological rhetoric tends to convince many claimants that they can take the money and the land.
This all stems from a culture of entitlement and patronisation of land claimants by EWC supporters. EWC supporters consider many black South Africans as babies, that must be coddled and controlled for their own good. This is an offensive and downright abhorrent position by many of the left in South Africa and the world.
Poor South Africans are not babies. They are adults and have a right to make their own decisions – for good and ill. People can and should give advice and education, but the decision to take the money rather than the land as restitution for past crimes is ultimately up to the land claimant – and we must respect that.
Collectives don’t own countries (especially if the country didn’t exist)
Finally, collectives don’t own countries, especially when said country didn’t even exist yet. When EWC supporters say that black people own all of South Africa, they are acting as if South Africa is some sort of inherent property of nature. It is not. It is a political structure being formed in 1910.
Just because Nguni settlers settled in north eastern South Africa doesn’t give them a claim to all of South Africa in the same way that KhoiSan natives living in the Cape doesn’t give them rights to all of South Africa. First, South Africa didn’t exist, and second, countries aren’t property. They’re geographical locales tied into political structures. They are a collection of properties, at best.
The idea that a group can claim an entire land mass because they inhabited a portion of it is absurd, and this notion should be adamantly condemned whenever it is mentioned.
If supporters of expropriation refuse to adopt a rational system of land reform under the aforementioned principles and the inalienable principle of consensual and concrete land transfer, then EWC supporters are revealing their real agenda. Not restitution. Not justice. But hate, racism and revenge.
Meaningful land reform must respect property rights. It must return land to the rightful owners, that can prove ownership. It must not arbitrarily redistribute land based on melanin levels or, more likely, the whims of a bureaucrat.
In conclusion, we must also remember that land isn’t as important as we may think it is. It isn’t the path to prosperity. It isn’t the path to addressing inequality, for all that’s worth. It is a romantic issue in South Africa. One that is more culturally important than it is for addressing South Africa’s real problems of poverty, unemployment, crime and rampant entitlement.
And as romantic as land is for many South Africans, is it really worth destroying our country over?
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