Think!Fest speakers debate the legacy of the Land Act

land debate
By Stephané Meintjes

On the 19th of June 1913 the Natives Land Act was enacted and limited the ownership of land by the indigenous population of South Africa to 7% of the country which was later amended to 13% in 1936. The act prevented the indigenous people from owning land and the vast majority of the inhabitants of South Africa found themselves dislocated from the land of their birth. Sol Plaatje, in a famous quote, proclaimed: “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.” This act formalised centuries of colonial dispossession and became the cornerstone of Apartheid policies which were to follow.

Coinciding with the centenary of the 1913 land act, Think!Fest opened yesterday with a series of talks looking specifically at the Land Act and the legacy thereof. The daylong session opened with a presentation by Dr Ashley Westaway, the manager of the Grahamstown Area & District Development Agency (GADRA) and was followed by Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza, a holder of the NRF Research Chair in Land Reform and Democarcy in South Africa. Associate Professor Kirk Helliker, the Head of the Department of Sociology at Rhodes University, concluded the series of talks which culminated in a debate which saw all three speakers participating in a panel discussion on the centenary of the 1913 Land Act.

Westaway’s presentation Living in the long shadow of the 1913 land act, looked specifically at the influential role of the land act in forming a segregated South Africa. However, Westaway asserted that 20th Century dispossession was relatively insignificant as opposed to 19th century colonial dispossession. He pointed out that this act empowered whites to dominate politically and economically and provided them with cheap labour, often in the form of migrant labour. The act did not only marginalise and dispossess large numbers of citizens but was used as powerful tool for political control. Post 1994 oppression and economic segregation still exist as most inhabitants in former reserves are still excluded from meaningful participation and the minority benefitted substantially whilst the vast majority are still left excluded and exploited. He is of the view that there is no political will on the part of the present government radically to change the apartheid legacy as people caught up in poverty largely subsisting on welfare are dependent and blindly loyal to the hand which feeds them.

The next speaker, Ntsebesa supported this view and is of the view that those individuals who are dissatisfied with the land tenure policies, still vote for the ANC. He referred to the Ugandan scholar, Mamdani, was of the view that after liberation deracialisation does not necessarily lead to democratisation. The dismantlement of the former reserves and later Bantustans should be the priority of the government but instead one sees a perpetuation of old discrimination. Mamdani’s words, according to Ntsebeza, were prophetic and speak volumes. He states that: “Land tenure reform in the former Bantustans remains a pipe dream”. However, he concedes that the South African Constitution could provide some protection in cases where bills which perpetuate Apartheid systems of governance threaten democracy. The ANC led government might also encounter opposition to the undemocratic maintenance of traditional leadership. If the pressure comes from below the ANC will change. Ntsebeza concluded by saying that we should remember that: “People are not as passive as we think they are – there is agency”.

Looking at the relationships between intermediary NGOs and the operation of resistance movements after 1994, Helliker is of the view that the relationship between NGOs and rural struggle movements is highly problematic. Often NGOs tend to be conservative and are more than often perceived not to be revolutionary. Rural people mobilising for economic freedom do not want to be seen to be represented by NGOs. He concedes that some NGOs have been and are sensitive to these very tenuous relationships. Helliker pointed out that the farm demonstrations in the Western Cape were not the result of any organised formation but rather a spontaneous reaction by impoverished and frustrated citizens. Referring to successful rural uprisings in Zimbabwe and North Africa, Helliker did not exclude the possibility of rural liberation in South Africa.

Professor Anthea Garman, Think!Fest Convenor, who chaired the last session, emphasized that the land issue in South Africa is deeply political and central to democracy and citizenship.

Click on the following link to listen to the debate: land act debate

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