The Land Question in Black and White

South Africa has a checkered history. Quite literally, perhaps, because nowhere in the world has the division of space been so strictly defined by black and white. However, those spatial divisions are neither equal nor equitable nor was the process by which they came to be just or fair. These divisions, unjust as they are, continue to define patterns of South African wealth and land ownership.

A just and equitable redistribution of land and wealth has been slow and ineffective. The reasons behind the slow pace of redistribution are as numerous as they are complicated. A tame government policy, a lack of serious financial investment in robust land reform, unwillingness on the part of sellers, an inundated Land Claims Commissioner, and excessive pricing are among these reasons.

But as complicated and as numerous as the reasons for not transforming are, failure to transform carries with it the risk of tying our very survival to the unjust patterns that presently define South African wealth distribution.

One area in which this risk is apparent is to our national food security. But understanding the full extent of this risk requires a picture of our current land distribution patterns.

It is estimated that 67% of South African Land is predominantly ‘white’ commercial agricultural land; 15% is ‘black’ communal land; 8% is urban; and 10% is state-owned land which includes, parks, hospitals and conservation areas.

Because 95% of ‘white’ South Africans reside in urban areas, the reality is that 5% of the population group that makes up about 8% of the country, effectively owns and occupies 67% of its total area. This agricultural land in turn produces 95% of our total agricultural output.

This arrangement is manifestly unjust, but our own food security is somewhat dependent on the relative stability of this state of injustice. Our dependence on the stability of the status quo will only grow as the effects of climate change become more extreme and as water and arable land become scarcer. This reality should, if anything, only make land reform more urgent.

At this point in the conversation, opponents of land reform will usually point to Zimbabwe to discourage it. To this I would only argue that judging the merits of a thing by its worst possible example would mean that we should have closed all stock exchanges after 1929, closed all banks after 2008 and should probably stop Americans from voting after this year.

Change in patterns of land distribution must happen and as a function of justice, the church must support it. It was Pope Pius XI who said “To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is labouring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice.” (In the 40th Year para 58)

The necessary change has to be cautious and must adequately equip those who receive agricultural land to utilise it in a responsible and sustainable way, both in terms of skill and financial support. But caution must not excuse undue delay.

Mr Iswamo Kapalu

Iswamo Kapalu is a young South African of Zambian origin. He holds an LLB from the University of the Witwatersrand and currently works as a researcher, writer and social justice advocate at the Jesuit Institute.
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