My latest journal article (‘Without the Blanket of the Land: agrarian change and biopolitics in post–Apartheid South Africa’) is out at last, available now in the latest issue of the Journal of Peasant Studies. (You can access it here: a great issue, by the way, with thoughtful and important contributions on the current state of agrarian Marxism from a range of international scholars).
It’s been quite a while in the writing — the central ideas it tries to express crystallized for me listening to Antjie Krog read aloud St J Page Yako’s bitter poem The Contraction and Enclosure of the Land at the PLAAS commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1913 land act at the University of the Western Cape on 19 June 2013. In that poem, Yako likens the fencing-in of the land that resulted from ‘Betterment’ and Apartheid homeland policies to the folding up of a blanket that had previously afforded protection and shelter but is now not even big enough to stretch out on. Yako furthermore links the loss of the land to black South Africans’ unwilling incorporation into a social order defined by the centrality of money. ‘Our girls‘ he says ‘Will have their lobola paid with paper, / Coins that come and go.’ For Krog, Yako’s poem was making an essentially moral point: about the way the loss of the land undermined the specific ethical relations between people that were central to Xhosa culture. Krog is probably correct, but I think the poem also raises much more general questions about the wider social and political implications of land loss. If the ‘blanket of the land’ is lost, what takes its place? How do we understand the new social order that has enfolded the landless poor in South Africa instead? To what extent is inclusion in the formal economy and the social systems of the modern state able to support meaningful forms of political belonging?
Exploring those thoughts, I found that a number of other scholars had been there before; so in the end I think the paper became more of an exercise in connecting the dots than in original theorising.
At the same time, there seemed to be some things left to say worth saying.
One of my central purposes in writing the paper was to try to escape the ‘agrarian ghetto’ to which so much public discourse about land in South Africa seems to be confined: firstly, in the tendency to conceive of the problematic of landlessness (and the policy of land reform) mainly as an agricultural and a rural one; and secondly in the tendency for land loss, its consequences, and solutions for it still to be framed within an essentially backward-looking, nostalgic lens: as if the idea is not only to ‘return’ the land but to ‘return to’ it: as if the point of land reform is to reconstitute the authentic forms of community that have been lost and destroyed as a result of Apartheid dispossession and capitalist transformation.
A proper understanding of the implications of land loss and land dispossession, I believe, needs to be able to transcend the false dichotomy between ‘rural and ‘urban’ — the tendency to see them as distinct, disjunct worlds — on which so much of Apartheid ideology was built (and which the workings of South African capitalism has done so much to undermine!) Much of the argument in the article is aimed at showing the deep linkages between the path of South Africa’s agrarian transition and the problems at the heart of South Africa’s present-day socio-political order more broadly: the content and boundaries of the distributional regime, and the nature and definition of citizenship and political belonging. While the origins of South Africa’s agrarian crisis certainly lay in the rural areas, I argue, its outcomes lie in the townships and cities, and in the marginalised economic landscapes (‘post-agrarian and post industrial’ as I keep saying) created by Apartheid planning and post-Apartheid economic growth. Here South Africa’s landless poor people exist in a limbo between rural subsistence and urban survival; straddling the rural and the urban worlds, reliant on both, but able to prosper from neither.
The questions posed by this situation go far beyond those of agricultural production or even economic survival: if people are no longer to be enfolded in the encompassing blanket of an agrarian order, what kind of political belonging is possible at all? My rather pessimistic conclusion is that our current situation is confined by two central limitations. Firstly, the path of economic growth and agro-food restructuring since the 1970s means that no easy solution based on a return to agrarian forms of production is possible: as John Sender memorably put it, there is no ‘weapon of mass production in the countryside.’ The concentration of power in the hands of supermarket retailers, agrochemical companies, food processors and financial services and logistics companies means that primary producers have very little leverage in the system. (Unfortunately, Sender’s own exploration of these issues is still too much influenced by his tendency to see a sharp dichotomy between ‘backward’ peasant and subsistence producers and ‘dynamic’ commercial agriculture; this causes him to miss the point that commercial agriculture has a pretty dreadful track record in livelihood creation as well.) Secondly, the attempt to create forms of biopolitical incorporation — either through employment in the non-farm economy or through the provision of social services and public goods — has largely failed. Large numbers of South Africans find themselves surplus to the requirements of the core economy, and the state has not succeeded in creating forms of government that can meaningfully include ‘each and all’ in South Africa as a political community. And in the context of this failure of incorporation, new forms of contentious politics arise; discourses and narratives that are not only premised on demands for more radical forms of change, but that question the very basis of South African political coexistence as such.
That’s a grim conclusion, but not an overly pessimistic one. For one thing, land reform can still make a useful contribution — but only if policymakers abandon their current obsession with restructuring commercial agriculture. Using land reform to create a new class of medium-to-large scale black capitalist farmers is sure to end in disaster. Firstly, because macro-economic conditions make success almost impossible, and secondly because it will make absolutely no difference to inequality, poverty, or the situation of the landless poor. But land reform aimed at addressing the needs of smallholder and subsistence farmers and providing tenure security to people in communal areas, township settlements and the informal economy can make a difference: not by creating magical paths to prosperity, but by supporting social safety networks, broadening and diversifying livelihood portfolios, and ameliorating the terms of adverse incorporation into the mainstream economy. (And, needless to say, land reform of this kind can only work as part of a bigger portfolio of pro-poor policies that allow people to participate to their advantage in South Africa’s urban and rural economy. But that’s another story).
Secondly, while the JPS article does not explore this point, it seems to me that democratic visions of political belonging — visions that are based on an inclusive definition of citizenship, horizontal relationships of solidarity, and shared visions of equitable change and transformation — still have a lot to offer. Much of the political ferment taking shape around the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa and the struggle to end political gangsterism and state capture pivot on attempts to define and contest the content of such visions— and, I should add, on the question of whether they are possible at all. There is much to argue about. It is clear that a ‘thin’ liberalism premised simply on ‘colour blind’ non-racialism and a hope for ‘win-win’ solutions is dead in the water. But none of the ready-made alternatives that are on offer seem to offer a clear way forward either — or even to have much to do with reality.
So, we are in uncertain territory. The political order that was put in place at the end of Apartheid will either slide into dysfunction and ruin (indeed, it is well on the way there already) or we’ll have to make something up, and find a way to invigorate South African democracy. What that looks like, I am not sure. But I have one suspicion: whatever workable answers are found will not be based in nostalgia for what has gone — whether for the imagined authenticity of an agrarian past, or for the lost opportunities of a social-democratic dream that never made landfall on these shores in any case.