“The land question” is seldom a question. Typically it is a slew of dogmas and myths as tenacious as they are erroneous. Virtually every supposed fact about land in South Africa is not just wrong, but so far off the mark as to make the adoption of sound policies virtually impossible.
We all know – do we not? – that black land dispossession started precisely 100 years ago with the 1913 Natives Land Act, that blacks had 13% of the land until 1994, that land is economically important, that landless people are condemned to destitution, that current land policy is to redistribute 30% of South Africa’s land to blacks, that apartheid land policy ended in 1994 when blacks were given full “upgraded” land title, that whites own most South African land, that black housing is RDP housing, that black commercial agriculture is a disastrous failure, and so on.
We also know that things changed profoundly in 1994, especially regarding “the land question”. Yet, as we shall see, these axioms are all largely or completely false, and, when it comes to land, plus Ã§a change, plus c’est la mÃªme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same).
In the emotional land discourse, nefarious motives and ideological agendas tend to be read into whatever corrective facts are cited. Basic facts are perceived, usually with justification, as being political, even racist, rather than informative. Point out, for instance, that land dispossession started long before 1913, or that many blacks who lost land after 1913 have been denied restitution since 1994, and you are advancing a “black” agenda. Note, on the other hand, that “settlers” acquired much land by treaty rather than coercion, or that some blacks were themselves settlers (from the North) who seized the land of truly indigenous blacks, and you are an anti-transformation racist.
Few issues are as bedevilled by the hard-wired inclination to see issues of race in black and white, in both senses of the term. A binary imperative seems to drive us into adopting one of two sides when things are seldom that simple.
Since the land debate is construed as a binary black-white matter (pun intended), it is hard to find references to land in the context of other population groups. How many well-informed South Africans are even vaguely aware of the tenure under which Coloureds and Asians lived historically or live today, or how much land was “set aside” for their occupation? What, if any, future did apartheid envisage for them? What proportion of land do they have now, and is it included in the white or black estimates?