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The only thing – land

Dec 27 2017 06:42
Mandi Smallhorne

“DO YOU mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, that Tara, that land, doesn’t mean anything to you? Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin’ for, worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for, because it’s the only thing that lasts.” (Gerald O’Hara, Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell)

I once tried to reread Gone With The Wind as an adult, as someone who had gone through the States of Emergency in South Africa, and who’d read I Write What I Like and Go Tell It On The Mountain, and I just couldn’t.

I’d been a young teenager when I first read the book; rereading it with eyes opened to the evil of slavery turned the whole thing on its head. But I never forgot that quote, the impassioned speech of a bull-headed, hard-drinking Irishman who had grabbed his piece of earth in the American South, when it had been denied him in his home country by British colonisers: “Most of the Irish countryside was owned by an English and Anglo-Irish hereditary ruling class.”

The Irish have a good memory for past wrongs. In the 1990s, when I visited the UK as a side-trip from a conference in Europe, I stayed for a few days with a third-cousin-once-removed (or something) whom I’d never met before.

One day, he rolled a cigarette (his fingers were a mellow nicotine colour from decades of roll-your-owns) and proceeded to tell me about William of Orange: “He took his army and he went through Ireland like a dose of salts, rapin’, rampagin’ and pillagin’!” I had to consciously close my mouth as I realised these wrongs were more than 300 years old…

When it’s been taken from your people, no matter how many hundreds of years ago, land is a potent symbol, not just political but spiritual, personal, a distillation of identity. I doubt that any of the many politicians who have jumped on the land bandwagon in this country really believe that handing out land to all and sundry will solve the problems of hunger and poverty in South Africa, but they understand its power, its emotional force, its tugging at the heart-strings; land is the only thing “worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for”.

The government has signally failed for the last two decades to meet its own targets for land redistribution (“…only around 10% of commercial farmland has been redistributed or restored to black South Africans in the 23 years since formal apartheid ended”, wrote Ben Cousins and Ruth Hall in November this year); so now we get a resolution at the ANC Elective Conference to clear the way for land expropriation without compensation.

Cue hoogs indignation from white South Africans. If it didn’t bore me so much to see such clichéd and utterly predictable comments spewed all over social media, I’d make myself a bucket of popcorn and settle down to watch the show. But it does, so let me put a few of my own thoughts out there:

An ANC resolution has got you so worked up, srsly? The ANC is notorious for making resolutions that it doesn’t keep.

“…there are a number of critical resolutions that have long missed their desired deadlines and are only good in theory,” wrote Bafana Nzimande in a pre-conference article, going on to quote political analyst Dumisani Hlophe: “A groundbreaking resolution might be adopted by the party but implementation might be delayed by party members in senior government because that resolution was pushed by another camp.”

But this time, argue some, the pressure will be on: the EFF will push for this resolution to be implemented. Really? I’m not so sure. One of the EFF’s major USPs (unique selling points) is the land issue: will the party really jam on the pressure, or does it want to be able to say, in the run-up to Election 2019, “Check it out! The ANC didn’t even BEGIN to get the land back!”

And then there’s the legal argument: I think there’s so much legal mileage in this one that constitutional lawyers will have their stockbrokers on speed dial, so they can offload their earnings all the way from resolution to final implementation.

When it comes to implementation, we do need to be concerned about the viability of land to create a sustainable livelihood for the recipients. What was prime farmland might no longer be so desirable in the near future. In 2017 research, scientists found that across Limpopo, Gauteng and Mpumalanga, “There has been a decrease in average amount of rainfall and an increase in mean temperature across the provinces,” which has made it harder to farm.

While South Africa has 121.9 million hectares of land, only “13% of South Africa’s surface area can be used for crop production. High-potential arable land comprises only 22% of the total arable land”. This area will likely shrink in the future as rainfall reduces by as much as 30%, and the quality of soil is affected by salts (due to increased evaporation) and other factors.

Who’s doing the work to ensure that redistributed land has a productive future under the lash of climate change? Settling people on land that can no longer produce to meet the need would only turbocharge hunger and poverty in this country.

  • Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own.

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