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Simplistic land plan will fail

25 March 2018 - 00:00 By MUKONI RATSHITANGA

As an economic good, land is an existential necessity for all citizens. It is critical that the debate on access to land and land tenure is premised on this principle, and not framed in terms that suggest an existential threat to any particular group. In this regard, the Freedom Charter and the constitution provide a helpful guide. Both recognise that "South Africa belongs to all who live in it".
This inclusive approach of our South Africanness is an essential cornerstone on which to build our diverse and historically fractured nation.
Unavoidably in our context, the debate must give due regard to the historical dispossession of black people in general and Africans in particular, and the continuing legacy of this dispossession. On the one hand there is the need to resolve the issue; on the other are the multiple uses of land and the imperative for the sustainable utilisation of this scarce natural resource for the benefit of current and future generations.With respect to the relevance of the past, the present and the future, the constitution is once again instructive. As it says, "We the people ... recognise the injustices of our past," and commit ourselves to "heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights [and] ... Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person."
It is the best platform from which to depart, for there is, after all, a limit to how far one can travel back in history to determine land ownership. A complicating factor is that the prevailing hegemonic legal understanding of land "ownership" as denoting "private ownership" has not always existed throughout our history, nor is it, for that matter, universal.
The decision by the Convention for a Democratic South Africa to use the 1913 Land Act as the starting point for land claims was a practical way of resolving what would have been, in the local and global context in which the negotiations took place, a question of near-impossible complexity.
The constitution is the supreme law of the land and public policy should be consistent with it. And so, the question of practical politics is what the country does, in the context of its historical evolution, to heal the divisions of the past and create a society based on democratic values and social justice.Even at the best of times, land ownership and use will not be the only socioeconomic challenge that a society faces.
It is vital that the land debate is premised on a larger programmatic response to the country's overall socioeconomic challenges - poverty, inequality and unemployment in particular - so that we can, as the constitution enjoins us, create a just society.
Put more directly, we need to pay equal attention to a range of questions, not limited to:
• Economic growth and development, including re-industrialisation that incorporates technological innovation and the advent of the fourth industrial revolution;
• Poverty eradication;
• Job creation;
• Skills development and the quality of tuition at such institutions as the technical vocational education and training colleges; and
• Public and private sector investment in the economy.
There is good reason for this: the structure and production relations of the South African economy and the global theatre in which it operates are multi-sectoral, including the financial, industrial, agricultural and service sectors.
So there are cross-cutting areas of public policy and an avalanche of issues attached to land that all require critical appreciation, balancing, assessment, goal-setting and unapologetic re-thinking.
At present, much of our agricultural land is owned by white commercial and smallholder farmers in whom skills, finance and other resources were invested in the decades after 1913. In contrast, blacks were driven into the reserves - later called Bantustans - where much of the land was not arable, and to the cities as migrant labourers.Despite the draconian influx-control regulations, more and more people flocked to the cities because relative to the Bantustans, and notwithstanding apartheid's racial pyramid social structure, the urban areas held out hope of a relatively decent life. The dream of a better life which urbanisation represents, pushed by the tedium of rural life, is an almost universal phenomenon which historians like the late Eric Hobsbawm have extensively recorded.
The popular phrase: Egoli kwa nyama ayipheli, kuphela amazinyo endoda - There is so much meat in Johannesburg that only your teeth suffer - reflects the romantic image urbanisation came to assume in the popular imagination. It accounts for much of the continuing internal migration to the cities, which has been fuelled by a lack sufficient economic activity in rural areas and the centralisation of the bulk of the civil service in single provincial capitals.
We must examine the post-1994 record of public-sector and private-sector support for the beneficiaries of land restitution in such areas as access to credit and markets, technology, upskilling, and thorny issues such as agricultural subsidies and the politics and economics of seeds.
We need to understand all the factors behind the lukewarm rate of land restitution since 1994 if we are to achieve success, and avoid adding another chapter to the pseudo-science of Afro-pessimism.
Apart from peasant agriculture, the sector is capital-intensive, its commercial component highly skilled and mechanised in a world that is becoming more robotised.
The contribution of agriculture to our GDP is, like other similarly situated economies, decreasing. In 1960, it contributed 10% to GDP. By 2015, it accounted for 2.0%, a logical consequence of industrialisation, diminished investment and much else besides. This notwithstanding, the sector remains a source of food security, employment and foreign exchange.In less than a decade from now, humans will share the roads with driverless vehicles delivering goods and services from one point to the other. The violence between metered taxi, Uber and Taxify drivers is perhaps a scene-setter for the very serious social and political challenges that the fourth industrial revolution holds for many sectors of the economy.
Two years ago, the agricultural and construction equipment manufacturer CNH Industrial unveiled an autonomous, driverless tractor concept that uses sensors and GPS and could theoretically work around the clock. Such a tractor may be on the fields sooner than we think.
Manufacturers are researching the introduction of robotic machines for such farm tasks as precision application of fertiliser, planting, spraying and irrigation. These technologies are estimated to have a global market value of $300-billion (about R3.5-trillion).
This will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the nature of farming, on employment, on land-ownership patterns and on the relationship between the commercial and small-scale farmer. The entire agricultural value chain is already skewed against the farmer in favour of post-production players: agents, industrial processors, packagers, financiers and retailers.
As the tide of internal and trans-border migration grows, we may have to rethink public housing policy. Gauteng and the Western Cape, the country's two main magnets for migration, are particularly vulnerable to residential land scarcity. In this context, it is simply not sustainable to stick with the policy of building individual, separate RDP housing units. Would a high-rise housing policy - with all its faults - not serve the country better in terms of economical land use, ease of providing bulk infrastructure and public services, and reversing apartheid spatial settlement patterns?
Perhaps a lesson today's generation of activists might learn from the "make the economy scream" doctrine of the 1970s is that the expropriation of any economic asset without compensation will have political gains and fallouts, domestically and internationally - more so if the totality of the menu offering lacks the political, intellectual and moral fortitude necessary to sustain a truly transformative agenda.
This is a fact of life for which anyone who proclaims the intention of taking that route - certainly in the manner in which the current discussion is framed - must ready themselves. Ours is a world of cause and effect; for each action, there is logically a reaction.The characteristic and barely veiled swart gevaar agitation of AfriForum, attempts at land invasion by groups of urban landless who might be forgiven for reading the current political discourse as licence to do so, and remarks about visas for South African farmers by Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton are all testimony to the cause-and-effect nature of political decision-making.
Hopefully, the protagonists have assessed the prevailing matrix of local and international political, economic and cultural forces so as to determine what is possible and what is not.
Even if we were to ignore such an assessment, as the present atmosphere surely incites us to, history will undoubtedly still insist on some unequivocal answers.
One of them will be: what burning strategic considerations so influenced the custodians of a Freedom Charter proclaiming, "The land shall be shared among those who work it [and be] ... re-divided among those who work it to banish famine and land hunger," that they ultimately insisted on an approach that effectively says, the land shall be expropriated on grounds of colonial and apartheid history and returned to the blacks who were historically dispossessed of it?
But for the moment, there is an urgent need for the government to formulate a detailed political script - with specific roles and responsibilities and, to use a phrase laced with some authoritarian texture, with clearly defined "bounds of the expressible" - beyond the broad statement of intent to redistribute land without compensation. Out of such a script must surely evolve a broad domestic and international communications strategy.
• Ratshitanga is a regular social and political commentator..

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