A hundred years ago, the Natives’ Land Act was passed in South Africa. The implications of this far-reaching legislation are still felt today. This was discussed at the important Land, Race and Nation Conference held in Cape Town recently. As part of this, the People’s Assembly, representing a network of small-scale farmers, workers and urban dwellers, issued a Declaration.
It opens: “Nearly twenty years after the end of apartheid, the 1913 Natives’ Land Act continues to haunt the South African countryside. The land question, which was so central to the struggle against apartheid, remains unresolved”.
The Declaration argues for a “comprehensive land and agrarian transformation”. They note that:
“Only limited mobilisation and organisation around land has taken place since the end of apartheid. Struggles have been isolated and sporadic. But only mass mobilisation and sustained organisation will lead to meaningful land and agrarian transformation. We can no longer wait for the government. Action needs to be taken now. We will take action….These struggles must be based on a new imagination that is based on a total re-configuration of South Africa, re-connecting the urban and rural areas and breaking down the racialised apartheid countryside
Among 27 different demands, the Declaration identifies several major priorities. The echoes with the Zimbabwe experience are very clear. These include an approach to ‘land occupation’, defined as “a legitimate form of land reform”. The Declaration goes on to demand that ”we not be criminalised when we occupy land to build homes and to grow food for ourselves”. Further, in relation to ‘land acquisition’, the Declaration demands that “land reform be fast-tracked to enable black people to get access to land and also to change the land ownership patterns. Scrap the willing buyer, willing seller approach, to allow people to access land. There must be expropriation of suitable land for land reform purposes”. And in relation to ‘land redistribution’, the Declaration argues that there must be “a transparent way of government informing everyone about public participation, including in identifying land and identifying who should get it. We need information about land in our areas; we are sick of being sent from pillar to post… We want to be part of policy formulation and decision-making about acquisition, expropriation without compensation, and the creation of land reform projects in our areas”.
The Declaration continues through a series of demands to argue for subdivision, security of tenure, effective land governance, research support and so on, all towards a vision of food sovereignty. It concludes: “Now we are organising. Our movements are growing. We are organising across urban and rural divides. …We are not going to go away”.
Of course there have been attempts to forge a social movement around land and landlessness before in South Africa. But the earlier Landless People’s Movement faltered, and other civil society attempts have foundered on internal disputes and lack of organisational capacity. Is this different? Just maybe. This time there has been an active attempt to forge alliances between rural and urban social movements, and make links between workers and farmers. Only with such a wider alliance, in the context of South Africa’s fractured politics, can political traction really be achieved.
The future is of course uncertain, the current consensus in South Africa fragile. South Africa is of course not the same as Zimbabwe. But as Brazil and Turkey have found in recent weeks, the transition to an ‘emerging economy’, a ‘rising power’ can carry with it unexpected political unrest, with discontents unearthed, inequalities exposed, and past injustices revealed, even in a seemingly booming economic context (although less so in South Africa these days). Who knows, but the racial inequalities of land use and ownership, the violent inheritance of apartheid, may yet act as the flashpoint for South Africa, making the alliances formed and the demands made by the People’s Assembly 100 years after the Natives’ Land Act especially important.