One afternoon in the early 2000s, devastating rains poured down on the Black working class township of Soweto – a historical township best known as the site of the 1976 student uprisings against the apartheid regime. The Mahlatsi family was living in a dilapidated shack, its roof punctuated by holes. The small rented shack was one of several in a small yard, and housed a family of six. The rain penetrated through the holes and soon, the shack was flooded. Everything was drenched in water. When the rain stopped, the damage was immeasurable – school books were destroyed, as were clothes and the little furniture in the shack. But more than this, the little girl who was tasked with salvaging what could be saved from the flooded shack was humiliated beyond measure. That little girl was Malaika Wa Azania, co-author of this article.
This indignity of living in dilapidated shacks is one that is known only too well by millions of South Africans. Landless and disenfranchised, these 3.6 million people, according to statistics by the Socio-economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI), live in shacks in informal settlements. These spaces lack basic infrastructure and are truly expressions of dehumanisation. But this is the life to which many of us are born – a life to which our children will be born if the land question in South Africa is not resolved.
In 2018, the South African parliament voted in its majority in favour of the amendment of Section 25 of the Constitution, to make allowance for land expropriation without compensation. Over the past few months, parliament’s Joint Constitutional Review Committee has been engaged in a series of public hearings in order to give citizens an opportunity to be heard. The hearings, in which both those in favour and against land expropriation, laid bare the historical pain that the native majority in South Africa has suffered as a result of being dispossessed of their land.
The history of South Africa is written in the blood of men and women who fought hard against the violent imposition of colonialism. In 1652 when Dutch colonial administrator Jan van Riebeck set foot on our land, it marked the beginning of untold suffering for Black people who, from that moment onwards, were subjected to the violent dispossession and theft of our land. Two centuries later, British imperialists would join in on the crime, and by the turn of the nineteenth century, Black people had lost their land and been forced into native reserves known as Bantustans.
Bantustans are tribal homelands that were engineered by the apartheid regime in order to keep Black people away from industrial and productive land. These homelands were created along tribal lines, Zululand for Zulu people, Transkei and Ciskei for Xhosa people, Gazankulu for Tsonga people, Bophuthatswana for Tswana people and so on. The aim was not only to segregate Black people and to limit their movement, but to effectively render them stateless since Bantustans, although under the administration of the apartheid government, were not legally considered as part of the Republic of South Africa. While the end of apartheid in 1994 saw the dismantling of these homelands, their legacy continues.
In South Africa today, millions of Black people still live in these former homelands. Because of the separate development that characterised apartheid, these areas are underdeveloped and lacking in some of the most basic infrastructure. They are theatres of structural poverty where Black people continue to suffer immeasurably. At the heart of the renewed commitment by our people for the land question to be resolved, is the recognition that while not the panacea to South Africa's problems, the redistribution of land is certainly imperative.
The struggle for land is perhaps the most fundamental struggle in South Africa. It laid the basis for the formation of former national liberation movements such as the African National Congress, which was established in 1912 to organise and consolidate Black people in their efforts to fight colonialism and land dispossession. Many battles have been fought by Black people against colonial superpowers such as Britain, in an effort to return the land back to its rightful owners. In the post-apartheid dispensation, the democratic government has been backed into a corner by ordinary people who are demanding justice for this historical crime, and it has been left with no option but to place the land question at the centre of national discourse.
Those who stand in opposition to land expropriation without compensation argue that this is a direct violation of their constitutionally enshrined right to private property. They demand that the state pay them a market price for their properties so that the transaction is fair. But proponents of land expropriation without compensation, who believe that the state must take land back from its current owners without paying them for it, argue that the land was violently stolen from their ancestors and should therefore be returned to its rightful owners without the state paying for it. This, they argue, is the only way to meaningfully redress the injustices of the past.
Many, particularly in the White community, have argued that it’s unfair to make them do time for the crimes of their ancestors. They argue that it’s not them who violently stole and dispossessed Black people of their land, but their ancestors. Land expropriation, therefore, should not affect them since they are innocent in the crime. This ahistoric and apolitical argument should be challenged not only because it’s an attempt at historical revisionism, but because it’s expressive of the deeply embedded racism that defines South African society.
This argument is racist precisely because it wants to treat racism as if it’s an individual choice made by White ancestors who died centuries ago. But racism is not about individuals, that’s why even the most progressive White people who were opposed to apartheid enjoyed privileges that were denied to Black people. They had better housing, a better education and many other privileges that were given to them solely on the basis of the colour of their skin. Racism is not individual, it’s systematic. This is why attempts to resolve it should be focused on a systematic approach, one in which the land question is understood not as an attack on White people, but an attack on a system deeply embedded in structural inequalities and uneven development.
Therefore, the question of White guilt in the current struggle for land is not one in which Black people should be invested, even as it finds such prominence in the discourse. The reality of the situation is that colonialism and apartheid are not imagined. They happened and were experienced in particular by Black people who were on the receiving end of the violence and brutality that came with it. This experience can neither be erased nor denied, and the only way to meaningfully acknowledge it is by correcting the injustice as much as possible.
While indeed the current generation of White people in South Africa did not directly steal the land, they are beneficiaries of a historical injustice from which they continue to benefit. It is not an accident of history that patterns of accumulation in our country continue to favour the White minority. If you look at income patterns, education patterns and ownership patterns, you realise that although apartheid is over, its effects continue to shape our society. According to Statistics South Africa, the government statistical agency in South Africa, White people earn five times more than Black people even if they are equally qualified and doing the same job. Furthermore, just over 3.3 percent of Blacks aged between 18 and 29 attended university in 2016, compared to more than 17 percent of Whites.
The face of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and landlessness is Black, while the White minority continues to live in comfort. This perpetuates the crime of dispossession because it deepens the disenfranchisement that already defines Black working-class existence.
Take us for example. We are going Black people who were born and raised in the post-apartheid dispensation that promised a new dawn. However, the legacy of apartheid continues to shape our lives immeasurably. We still pay historical debt in our families and communities, where because we have enjoyed some level of upward mobility, we are obliged to shoulder financial burdens for unemployed and uneducated relatives and friends. And even as we are upward mobile, landlessness affects us in many ways.
For Malaika, the first thing that needed to be done upon being employed was to build a home for the family. Land dispossession meant that for seven decades, my grandmother had no home. Because she had no home, I was born and raised in a shack, an undignified settlement not fit for human habitat. For Kgabo, the impact of apartheid spatiality expressed itself differently. Born and raised in rural Limpopo province, the only way to become upward mobile was to move to the administrative capital, Pretoria, for schooling and employment. This is because the legacy of apartheid, of uneven development and the concentration of wealth in urban White dominated spaces, means that predominantly Black rural areas lack in industry and infrastructure, thus forcing Black people to migrate to cities to sell their labour for survival. The impact of landlessness is therefore very evident even in those of us who are young and did not directly experience apartheid.
For us, the resolution of the land question is not simply economic. Land is not just a commodity that must be reduced to market fundamentalism. Land expropriation is, above all, a question of justice and dignity. It is not in our interest to make anyone feel guilty – our interest is only to right the wrongs of the past by seeking justice in order that South Africa can begin a journey of genuine reconciliation and sustainable social cohesion. While this country belongs to all who live in it, justice must be done though the heavens may fall.