What is land?, or ‘the land’, arde (Afrikkans), umhlaba (Zulu)?
Land is dirt spread over rocks. A lot of dirt spread over a lot of rocks. that is what we start with, but it is hardly what makes ‘the land’ the issue that it is.
In South Africa, like Zimbabwe, and like Kenya in the 1950s with the Kikuyu land and cultural revitalisation movement known as Mau Mau, is one of the biggest political issues today. Two ideas are prominent in this context: the idea that land was ’taken from the blacks’ by ’The Whites’, and that it is the source of great wealth that can only accrue to the person (or persons) who own it.
This has implied that there must be ‘restitution’ of land to its ‘original’ owners before there can be peace and justice in ‘the land’, and that such restitution will provide a better living to some, or even to all. At least, it is believed, it will provide a better living to those whose land has been ‘restored’ to them. This has not proved to be the case.
In most cases of land restitution that I have been aware or, involved in (as a consultant for the claimant communities) or heard about, the farms that have been restored have failed if they were viable and working farms, or have simply returned to bush, with all infrastructure now lost to neglect, decay, and in many cases deliberate theft. Theft has been committed by parts of the “communities’ to whom the land has been restored, by the White farmers who have lost their or sold their land in the process, or by opportunistic other criminals.
In many cases, land has been ‘restored’ through a number of legal, government sponsored channels to multiple families. Often a great deal of land is involved. Many of the recipients have been more or less opportunistic collections of people who signed up for the claim. They are often led by a single ‘leader’ who sponsors the claim, signs up ‘community members’ and shepherds the deal through the process. But let’s leve aside for now the question of whether or not these collections of claimants are ‘real’ communities (or real ‘communities’), or simply chancers.
The point I want to make is that all but a few of these farms have failed almost immediately, or within a few years of restitution. And I want to advance some ideas about why this has happened.
The first point is that the process and rationale for land restitution has rested on a number of fallacies. This is what I call the Land Fallacy, although it consists of a number of related fallacies about the nature of farming, of ‘the land’ and about the nature of community and ownership.
In many cases that I have had first-had experience, members of the claimant communities truly believe that if they own the land that money will flow into the pockets as it did into the previous White Farmers (Boer’s) pocket. this will happen automatically, without effort on their part. The land will create money as a bank account draws interest: its just (apparently) happens. This is partly the result of the ‘struggle ideology’ which is stil prevalent today. People are made to believe that ‘the farmer’ has money simply because he sits on the land. This is believed by rural labourers and the rural and small-town unemployed. It seems like an entirely reasonable belief, under the circumstances. It is also believed, however, by those who make policy, and they have no excuse for this. Or, that at least seems to be the case. Collections of people--often represented as ’The People’-- are “given” free land and led to believe that they will suddenly be wealthy.
When this does not happen, they complain of poor ‘service delivery’ (meaning they are not receiving money), and burn down the local ANC offices or harass any of the ANC party officials that they can find. (But they are very scarce.)
Government abandons the ‘successful claimants’ to this joint fantasy. REasons are given by the pundits. Chief among these reasons is that ‘knowledge’ has not ‘been transferred’ to the claimants from teh farmers. Second, government admits that it has not invested in the ongoing viability of the new black farmers. Third, it is argued that black farmers and land owners don’t have the ‘capacity’, the knowledge or ‘know-how’ to manage the farms.
In fact, all of these claims are fallacies, like the central fallacy of the ‘land question’. the central fallacy is that the land itself has intrinsic economic value. It does not. the fallacy of the explanations for failure are based on failures to observe the reality on the ground.
First, the purported knowledge that farmers have is not ‘transferrable’. ‘Mentoring’, ‘training programmes’, and explicit instruction of new black owners by older white farmers has also failed. Second, it is likely that it would require vast investment--as this is currently being done in small measure--to actually make these farms work under new black ownership. This is NOT because new black owners do not have the knowledge. indeed, they already have most if not all of the knowledge that is required to run the farms. This is one of the reasons that ‘knoweldge transfer’ and ‘training’ does not work: they already know the stuff.
in short, it is not a stranglehold on knowledge of farming by white farmers, nor the ignorance of new black farmers, nor the levels of investment.
The reasons for failure are complexly structural. Again, in short, what makes South African farms work is embedded in social networks of many generation’s duration, in economic networks and personal habits, even in what Bourdieu called 'the habitus’--embodied and tacit cultural systems. It is embedded in ecologies that have emerged over centuries. It is often invisible, intangible, implicit knowledge that is shared but nevertheless secret, or inexplicit and inexplicable to the farmers themselves. It is embedded in what we call ‘culture’ and ‘social structure’.
This does not mean it cannot change, but it will not change under the current political orders and policies which guarantee failure and stasis.
But this is for the next blog.