All who live in it

Thoughts on Inequality, Biopolitics and Democracy

Category: land reform

‘Without the Blanket of the Land’ (New Journal Article)

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).

jps-coverIt’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 toit: 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.

Land Reform and the ‘National Question’ in South Africa

Former President Thabo Mbeki. Photo from Gallo Images.

The debate about the expropriation of white owned land without compensation is about much more than the method of land reform. It is also a debate about the place of the constitution in our democracy, and what it means to be a South African. Most importantly, it requires us to think again about how we deal with the legacy of colonialism.

This has become especially clear in the aftermath of the publication of the Mbeki Foundation memorandum about ‘Land Expropriation without Compensation’ and the responses to it from within the African National Congress. Most of the comments in the media have focused on the Foundation’s assertion that the ANC appears to have lost touch with its commitment to ‘non-racial’ politics.  South African liberals had a field day, relishing what appeared to be the spectacle of the ousted President (if it was indeed he who wrote the memo) chastising the movement that had rejected him.

Mr Gigaba.

Mbeki’s opponents within the ANC soon had the opportunity to do some chastising in return. In a riposte published in the City Press, for instance, ANC NEC member Malusi Gigaba roundly rejected the Foundation’s ‘pamphlet,’ suggesting that it did not take seriously the economic plight of black people, and that it focused on ‘minority fears’ instead of legitimate ‘majority grievances’. Instead of the ANC’s vision of radical economic transformation, Gigaba argued, the Mbeki Foundation was suggesting that black people should ‘merely be content with civil rights’.  Furthermore, Gigaba argued, the ‘pamphlet’ committed the grievous error of confusing mere matters of method with questions of purpose and principle. Expropriation without compensation is merely a tactic in service of what should be the real issue: radical land reform in favour of the black majority.

It seems to me that both Gigaba and the liberals’ reading of the Mbeki Foundation memorandum are incorrect.

The memorandum’s argument is about much more than the legacy of non-racialism.  It is an argument about the economic underpinnings of South African democracy. Its argument concerns not only the ‘racial’ character of land reform and nation-building, but also what Marxists would call its class character:  will it merely be a vehicle for elite enrichment, or can it genuinely serve the needs of the poor and marginalised?

The core of the Mbeki Foundation memo consists of a long and detailed (some would say pedantic) discussion of the connection between the politics of land reform and the nature of the ‘national democratic revolution’, all couched in the distinctive and highly specialised jargon of ‘Congress discourse’.  Many of the subtleties would probably be lost on those of us not deeply schooled in the niceties of ‘colonialism of a special type’ and ‘two-stage revolutions,’ and the ANC’s supposed historic mission as a revolutionary ‘parliament of the oppressed’. 

But the central argument is quite clear. The memo argues that while the need for land reform arises from the injustice of colonial conquest and land dispossession, this injustice needs to be rectified through a progressive process of economic transformation, inclusive development and democratic change. In a rather pointed passage, the Foundation argues that it is, for example, not enough for a liberation movement to kick out the colonial power and replace it with a military dictatorship ruling in the name of ‘the people’.   Formal independence is not enough.  Real freedom depends on a democratic resolution of the national question.    Genuine liberation for the formerly colonised requires a democratic, accountable government committed to serving the interests of the people as a whole, and able to create economic policies that will benefit the many, not the few.

According to the view espoused by the Foundation, land reform in service of the interests of South Africa’s millions of poor and marginalised black people is indeed important – but it can only work if it is aligned with a democratic approach to ‘the national question.’ Land reform is not an end in itself; rather, it needs to be in service of inclusive, broad-based economic growth.

Consider the contrast with Gigaba’s vision.  In the terms of his argument, the purpose of land reform is simply the restoration of the status quo ante: putting the land back in the hands of ‘the black majority’ who were dispossessed under colonialism. As the Mbeki Foundation memo points out, this approach to the land question carefully skirts any mention of the class dimension.  Who should benefit from land reform?   ‘The black majority’.  But who represents this black majority?  Who precisely should be targeted, and how? Within the terms of Gigaba’s argument, that is a silly question.  Any black person, no matter how rich, is a legitimate beneficiary of land reform.  The ‘class content’ of land reform does not matter.

At the heart of this disagreement are two deeply different approaches to the national question.  Both approaches begin with a recognition of the injustice of colonialism and the need to create a just postcolonial order.  The question is: what is the nature of this postcolonial society?   The ANC’s traditional answer used to be that South Africa belongs to all who live in it.  In place of an order based on marks of ethnic, religious, linguistic or racial belonging, a new civil and legal order would need to be created based on values of justice and equality.   The nation is thus a political community, based on the legal fact of citizenship, a joint commitment to democratic values, and a shared determination to undo the injustices of the past. In this vision, race and identity clearly still matter.

Within this view, the  material and spiritual legacy of Apartheid cannot be denied. (This is what sets the Mbeki Foundation’s view apart from orthodox liberalism. It is not an argument for being content with civil liberties.  Rather, it is an argument that participation in a rule-based democratic order should be used as a vehicle for equitable change.)   This vision of South African identity is not colour blind. But  (and this is the crucial point) your racial or ethnic identity is not the basis of your worth as a citizen.

What is at stake here is the principle of the ultimate entitlement of every citizen — regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation — to dignity and equal treatment under the law.   Although the memorandum does not say it in so many words, one of the things it makes clear is that the really important aspect of Section 25 of our Constitution is not whether or not it allows compensation to be set at zero. Rather, what matters are those three little words ‘just and equitable’:  the promise that everyone in our country, no matter who or what they are, are entitled to equal and fair treatment under the law.

Gigaba’s vision is very different. While he argues that his view of land reform does not involve a rejection of the Freedom Charter’s inclusive vision, this appears to be lip service.  In this picture, the South African nation is not a political community held together by a shared, if painful history, and a commitment to transformation.  Rather the real South Africans, the ones who matter, are the black majority — ‘Africans in particular.’ They are the ones who really belong here. In this view, ensuring ‘total emancipation’ through land reform is seen as the precondition for non-racialism.  Give us our land first, this argument goes, and then we can talk about who has which rights.

It is tempting to simply choose sides here.  But history shows that this issue is too important for that.

On the one hand, while Gigaba’s arguments may be politically and emotionally appealing, they leave too much out.  The track record of nationalist regimes in the postcolonial world is a sorry one.  All too often, the Gigabas and Shivambus of the world have enriched themselves at the expense of the poor and used their contempt for ‘mere civil liberties’ to trample the democratic rights of the people in whose name they govern.   The unfolding saga of the State Capture enquiry shows just how easy it is for opportunistic politicians to dress like revolutionaries and eat like capitalists.

But, if truth be told, the track record of liberal democracy in the last thirty years has not been much better.  The proponents of the Third Way at home and abroad have suggested that we could ‘make markets work for the poor’, enlisting free-market policy frameworks in service of goals of broad-based development.  Today, living in the aftershock of the 2008 meltdown, with austerity biting down everywhere while the world’s richest people just get richer, that doesn’t sound very convincing either. Those of us who believe that constitutionally entrenched democratic rights and equality under law are an essential part of ensuring racial justice in South Africa need to find better economic answers soon.

And land reform for the poor —  land reform for small farmers, land reform that doesn’t just deepen the hold of corporate power in our food system, land reform that makes a direct contribution to the tenure security and livelihoods of our most marginalised rural and urban citizens —  is a good place to start.

The original version of this article was originally published by the Daily Maverick.  It is shared here with their kind permission.

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