The long arc of history bends towards restitution – Dave Harris

The long arc of history bends towards land restitution

I’ve taken the liberties with Martin Luther King’s famous quote “The arc of history
is long, but it bends toward justice…”, but I’m sure he’ll forgive

Every developing and developed country has initiated
major land reform in varying degrees to move away from the oppressive feudal
systems that created landless peasants out of the majority that almost
invariably ended in bloody revolutions. Here in South Africa however, we have an
even more poisonous history of land grabs that were sanctioned initially by
colonialism, then imperialism, followed by apartheid – one of the greatest
crimes against humanity. Today, a more insidious form of land grab, unbridled
gentrification of certain parts of our country, that has gained momentum since
our liberation in 1994.

The Problem
A groundswell of support from our youth are now demanding economic liberation in
their lifetimes!
This is hardly surprising given the stark socioeconomic disparity along racial lines
that’s seemed to have worsened in the last decade. The visible component of this
disparity is that whites still control the major part of our economy with white
men dominating corporate boards since they occupy over 91% of CEO positions, and balk at government
affirmative-action initiatives. The invisible component meanwhile is not
immediately obvious, but much worse, since true land ownership can be easily be
masked by holding companies, fronting entities etc.
human history, land ownership has been the single biggest generator of wealth in
western style governments and leveraged as a mechanism to pass down wealth from
generation to generation. Furthermore, in the western tradition, governments
made use of awarding and controlling land use rights to expand the power of the
state. In Africa the land grab began with the tide of colonialism that swept over the entire African
continent as colonial powers plundered the vast natural resources of the
indigenous populations. This went on for centuries and is still continuing in
various incarnations under the guise of “free trade”. In SA however, this
problem was further exacerbated by apartheid’s draconian laws that dispossessed
blacks from over 90% of their lands.
The economic
significance of land ownership can be better understood by this incident in the
Americas. When black slaves in the US were freed in January, 1865 they were
promised 40 acres and a mule – the idea was to provide arable land to enable
former slaves to be self-sufficient. The very least they could do to atone for
slavery. When the presiding US President Lincoln was assassinated a few months
later in April 1865, this promise was immediately revoked! This underscores the
value placed on land ownership.
The Causes
Centuries of
conflict over land began when colonialists first arrived on our shores but got
progressively worse with each regime culminating in an orgy of land grabs during
apartheid. Since our liberation, all attempts to correct this through negotiated
land reform has had almost negligible success and simply touched just the tip of
the iceberg. Meanwhile our mainstream media, who are supposedly acting in the
public interest have been strangely silent on this crucial issue for
“The Native Lands Act of 1912 prohibited the establishment of
new farming operations, sharecropping, or cash rentals by blacks outside of the
reserves, which made up only 7.7% of the country’s area. Inside the, reserves an
artificial form of “traditional” tenure with maximum holding sizes and
restrictions on land, transactions was imposed. Subsequent policies of “black
spot removal” transferred the large majority of, black farmers who had
legitimately owned land outside the reserves into the homelands where tenure,
restrictions, high population density, and lack of capital and market access
made commercial agriculture, virtually impossible. Labor laws that discriminated
against blacks in favor of white workers and generous, capital subsidies
contributed to successive evictions of large parts of the black population from
white, farms, where they had been employed as labor tenants and farm workers
(Binswanger and Deininger, 1993).”
The destruction and generations of suffering that these laws wrought on black
communities, is the real evil of apartheid!
1. Not only were 80% of the population pushed onto 8% of the land that whites did not want,
but black farmers where further destabilized inside these reserves as
2. The Native Lands Act of 1912 was only repealed in 1993, just one year before our
liberation! More damning evidence that whites were not prepared to give an inch
until they were forced to.
3. For almost a century, the massive land grab by the whites were “legitimized” by
these inhumane laws. Since our liberation, more rules (e.g. willing
buyer-willing seller) and more bureaucracy (e.g. Land Claims Commission) have
been injected into the process slowing down land redistribution even
The Group Areas Act of 1950, lay the foundation
for a systematic ethnic cleansing by apartheid government in order to speed up the land
grabs. Since these “mixed areas” were a thorn in the side of the apartheid
regime’s false ideology of “apart-ness” and “group identity”, these
forced removals also ripped apart the
social fabric of settled communities for generations and caused untold pain and
suffering for millions of African. Coloureds and Indians. Many of the South
Africa’s freedom fighters that spearheaded the resistance came from these mixed
communities like Seapoint, Sophiatown,
District Six
, Cato Manor, South End and countless other undocumented, untold stories of
pain and suffering brought on by forced removals. The destabilization and destruction of these mixed
communities also sought to quash any pockets of resistance to apartheid’s grand
plans. Another apartheid tactic was to utilize vast swaths of lands as buffer
zones to keep races separated and as a means of militarily controlling these
townships and in the case of uprisings.
This Act alone resulted in the wholesale expropriation of prime real estate across the entire country and
displaced communities were pushed out to outlying areas far from the cities or
desirable locations. More destructive however, was the resulting instability
endured by millions of Africans, Coloureds and Indians for many generations, who
lived in a constant state of limbo, waiting for the order to move out when
alternative housing became available in one the numerous apartheid ghettos that
were largely pits of poverty, crime, gangs, drugs etc. and lawlessness since the
old established communities, with well defined social hierarchies that had
existed for generations, were suddenly obliterated.
Thus the grand theft of apartheid intensified.
These days however, a silent gentrification of the Western Cape is currently underway since 1994,
under the influence of the Democratic Alliance. This YouTube clip on the Rogues of Cape Town or Tourism is stepping on us
highlights one aspect of the tragedy caused by gentrification
in Cape Town and surrounding cities. Property in Cape Town in now beyond the
reach of over 99% of local Africans, Coloureds and Indians. This is just the tip
of the iceberg, since this phenomenon is prevalent throughout the Western Cape.
The old money from the spoils of apartheid is now protected under the guise of
capitalism and free markets by the government in the Western Cape seeking to
turn the City of Cape Town into a “model city” for South Africa through the
marginalization of blacks to prove their “white efficiency” in governance -
again, more flawed thinking from a political party that was once closely aligned
with the old National Party.
The Results
South Africa now has greatest per capita racial economic disparity in Africa, and quite possibly in
the entire world! So its no surprise that the latest UN-HABITAT
shows South African cities topping the list of most unequal cities in
the world.
The economics of centuries of artificially created land shortage coupled with the the bureaucratic morass
of arcane, complex rules, regulations and documentation has taken its toll. To
add insult to injury, this embarrassing situation is made worse by the fact that
the historic grand theft of land now has to be redressed by the victims paying
the perpetrators for land restitution! This has taken the form of an outlandish
and totally failed strategy of “willing buyer, willing seller” – a cruel joke
which has resulted in the entire democratization of land redistribution coming
almost to a grinding halt! At this rate real land reform may only be feasible at
the end of the century – 2099!
For many centuries before
1994, white owned farms were heavily subsidized by successive regimes in an
attempt to expand its reach and control into the rural areas. This trend has
striking similarities to the how American colonizers grabbed most of Mexico and Native American Indian Lands (compared to the early tribes
that roamed the east and west) until the days of the
brutal frontier expansion into what was commonly referred to as the “Wild West”
where the word genocide was not even conceived yet.
The townships, locations,
homelands etc. were usually located in lands that whites did not desire or was
conveniently located to facilitate a migrant labor pool that usually involved
long commutes. The artificial shortage of land created by these laws also
resulted in inflated home prices in some of the “wealthier” black neighborhoods. After our
liberation, the repeal of these laws resulted in another property bubble as
blacks were finally allowed to spread into other areas. In an obscene act of
double-dipping, whites largely in control of the private real estate economy,
stacked the deck and further capitalized on this frenzied property bubble by
selling off their homes at exorbitant prices since banks, in cahoots with
wealthy real estate investors, suddenly became lax in their usually strict
lending policies. This widened the vast
socioeconomic disparity along racial lines since whites were in the prime
position to capitalize on generations of property ownership.
Where to now?
Well it all depends…
When the youth of South Africa now demand “Economic liberation in our lifetime”, the mainstream media
controlled by our powerful media cartel – a relic of the old apartheid
propaganda machine, are quick to label it a “land grab” instead of what it
actually is in reality, LAND RESTITUTION. Strange that
our media elite never exposes the obscene land grabs during apartheid or nobody
is stepping forward to relinquish some of their ill-gotten
With youth unemployment at stratospheric levels and a world wide recession that is still ravaging countries
across the world, South African youth need to be empowered to spark that
entrepreneurial flame and become more self-sufficient. Land ownership is be one
way help our youth move towards greater self-sufficiency. There are many novel
ways to leverage our natural resources and sustain our economy e.g. subsistence agriculture (similar to densely populated villages
in China and India), eco-friendly housing – much of which is already an intrinsic part of
African culture, ecotourism – allows tourists to get a real taste of South
Africa away from those sterile five-star hotels etc. This will enable our
younger generation to participate in building real wealth and creating family
owned businesses that could be handed down to future
It’s imperative that the beneficiaries of apartheid’s great land grab now engage honestly and
expeditiously with the government in a good faith attempt to bring about true
land reform or face even dire consequences.
The time already squandered since 1994 by legal wrangling, political games, finger pointing, and delay
tactics were shortsighted and will certainly result in a even more disadvantaged
negotiating position for current apartheid landowners. Claiming the sky is
falling because of land restitution, blaming the
government, denying that apartheid’s land grabs were illegal,
equating farming to a rocket science that blacks are incapable of, or simply
saying that blacks cannot be trusted with farming land, are all insulting and
grossly demeaning to millions of blacks who have borne the brunt of apartheid’s
evil for generations. On the other hand, acknowledging the current mess and the need for immediate action is a
prerequisite to honest negotiations. As many astute observers,
analysts and historians have pointed out repeatedly to the beneficiaries of
apartheid, that this time around, time is not on their side.

One response to this post.

  1. Insightful conclusions! Tutu’s wealth tax has been in the news again. I’m not sure the wealth tax is what South Africa is looking for. De Klerk may be right, it brings back racism and it may not bring about any lasting positive change.

    The TRC did not bring about justice or restitution and may just have a delayed a bloody revolution. Day by day people are becoming more and more irate that their lives have not improved. This applies to all people. The fear may be driving support for vocal revolutionaries with violent rhetoric. The wealth tax seems to be little more than symbolic, only temporarily stemming the tide that may only be abated by justice and restitution.


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