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Published On: Mon, Aug 15th, 2016

Land the Joker in SA coalition pack of cards

PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe found himself under siege 17-odd years ago by his own people. War veterans, many of them youngsters who had not fought in the chimurenga, occupied the farms of cabinet ministers and demanded levies to make up for their failure to gain from the spoils of the Congolese war of 1998.

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Mugabe paid them off, starting Zimbabwe’s slide to bankruptcy. And then he called their bluff. When they threatened to occupy white farmland, they were told to go ahead. When they did, Mugabe moulded their nostalgic passion into an instrument to retain power and transformed himself from a guarantor of white farming for the sake of national prosperity to a born-again revolutionary.

Today President Jacob Zuma finds himself in a situation with many similarities. His supporters are unhappy with him; he is a liability, even though most in his party won’t say so out loud. He is the butt of jokes the world over; protesters treat him with contempt.

The ANC got a symbolic hiding in the local government elections. Although it still has almost double the votes of its next rival, analysts are talking about a slippery slope if it fails to retain power in key cities following coalition talks. They point to the large stayaway vote, people the ANC will have to woo back into the fold.

The conventional wisdom is that they stayed away because of Zuma, but this is far from certain. Equally possible is that they did so for similar reasons that drove their neighbours to vote for the EFF — the lack of a rather hazy “economic freedom”.

There has not necessarily been an upsurge in the rediscovery of lost democratic values. It could easily have been the mere manifestation of a politics of envy, of being excluded from patronage systems.

If this is the case, these two chunks of voters form a bloc with similar susceptibilities to persuasion of a specific sort. Step forward EFF leader Julius Malema with his demand for the expropriation of land without compensation.

Until now, land has been acknowledged for what it is, an emotive issue, unable to provide the basis for economic transformation. Few South Africans want to farm and there is plenty of land and help available for black citizens who want to do so.

BUT ever since Thabo Mbeki’s term of office, and since the euphoria of 1990s, post Cold War globalism and economic boom years evaporated to leave humankind as fractious as ever, SA has seen a steady racialisation that reached boiling point in 2016. Now the call is no longer for soil in which to grow something to eat, it is about restoring black dignity.

We must understand the deep well-spring of this demand. The colonial land grabs during what was the most violent time in SA’s history, the last quarter of the 19th century, devastated hundreds of communities and laid the foundations of the unequal society we have now.

Most people, had they the knowledge, would be able to draw a direct line between their current status and some calamity during those wars of dispossession. So “land” really is reliable shorthand for the indignity of subjection of one’s forebears at gunpoint and turning them into labourers.

But the problem with history is that it is so cruel. It offers few consolations other than knowledge of it. Much has been written already why simple tit-for-tat restitution is unfeasible, but one can advance one argument further, a demographic one.

It would already be very hard to determine what land belonged to what forebear, with all the clashing claims being made; it would be impossible to find a formula for their offspring, when these have grown tenfold, as they roughly have.

Drawing from history would be far more fruitful if one looked at the circumstances around the 1913 Land Act, in what was an especial annus horribilis in the story of black subjugation.

And the thing to grasp is that this cornerstone of our current dispensation was not motivated by land reform and was no exercise in more land grabbing, as is clear from the writings of still the best journalist SA has ever had, Sol Plaatje.

By 1913, and after the British government had gone back on its promises to black tribes during the Anglo-Boer War, black ownership of land was minimal, at about 6% of the total area, and only a minuscule amount was in private hands. But the architects of the law, Afrikaner war hero Christiaan de Wet and rightwinger Piet Grobler, were exercised by the threat they saw in the nascent black bourgeoisie, founded mainly on sharecropping.

The system, although basically unfair, was productive for all and characterised by its racial harmony. A white farmer could sit back and let his land be cultivated by a black family, which kept half the proceeds. Plaatje describes the affectionate relations between black and white, and how a sizeable fraction of agricultural output was provided by black sharecroppers.

This was anathema to the racial supremacists De Wet and Grobler. They used the few attempts by sharecropper families to buy land to whip up a hysteria among politicians over blacks swamping the land, but their real target was the prospering sharecroppers. Almost surreptitiously they sneaked in the infamous clause that in effect forbade the presence on farms of black people other than as wage earners.

Plaatje movingly describes how black families were thrown off their land overnight by officials, and also how this came as a surprise to many white farmers, who saw it as an absurdity. Some threatened to gather commandos to keep officials away from their land; the government had to put on extensive road shows to explain how they were supposed to get by without their sharecroppers.

It took another 100 years before a new black bourgeoisie could be said to have been established, through the mostly astute use of affirmative action policies. This time there is no sharecropping and no need for acreage; the economic system has evolved to run on home ownership. As Statistics SA’s Household Survey shows, 78% of families now live in formal housing, growing from 8.6-million in 2002 to 12.6-million in 2015. About 30% of South African homeowners have a second home, compared with 4% for Europe.

Against such a background it is unlikely that there is much land hunger among the majority. But while the EFF must be disappointed with its share of the vote, it has a mandate of sorts that Malema can play with. And in a similar vein as Grobler and De Wet, hyping up the land issue in the opposite direction — that too little land has been seized from white hands — can supply the mechanism with which to build a bridge with the ANC and gain power that is disproportionate to his party’s 8%.

MALEMA’s dilemma in the coalition talks is his well-recorded hatred for Zuma, an Oedipal thing rooted in the trauma of expulsion from the party that used to be his heart and soul. But his mandate is not strong enough for his demand to stick that Zuma be removed. And the ANC is not going to rid itself of Zuma.

On the other hand, Malema has shown that he has a great capacity for unscrupulous volte-face and that he is egomaniacal enough to contradict the wishes of sections of his own supporters.

Zuma is on record about his belief in broad brush-stroke land reform, having encouraged traditional leaders to stake their pre-1913, pre-bourgeois land claims. Land reform does have a resonance in the ANC’s new power base, the rural areas.

Both leaders can do with a common narrative around an issue that looks important enough to transcend personal animosities. Both have, in their own way, expressed their appreciation of Mugabe’s land transfer dynamics, and if Zuma has one skill it is in melding opposites, as he did with peace talks in Burundi.

Real land expropriation could easily segue into a revival of revolutionary zeal, papering over the cracks of Malema’s weak mandate and Zuma’s unpopularity.

Quite apart from the damage to agriculture and food security that Mugabe-style power politics could cause, it would sideline the new bourgeoisie as land reform in 1913 did, and have ANC politics revert to an ideological revanchism that will continue to rely on the cultivation of broad-based black racism to be sustainable.

The smart thing for the EFF seems to be to enter into coalitions with the DA, and there is a promising window of opportunity when it comes to dealing out municipal land, setting a national precedent. Indeed, in the event of a set of DA-EFF coalitions, what happens in this area could have great implications for SA’s future.

But it is wishful thinking that in the near future such coalitions won’t come under severe pressure from ANC ideological wheelers and dealers, still kindred spirits with the EFF. And the land card will remain the Joker in the pack. – Business Day