By Richard Pithouse
In 1652, the year that Jan van Riebeck first stepped on to these shores, Gerrad Winstanley, an English radical, published a pamphlet called The Law of Freedom in a Platform. Three years earlier he had led a land occupation on St. George’s Hill in Surrey. The occupation had aimed, against the growing enclosure of common lands for private profit to insist that “the Earth becomes a Common Treasury again”. It was quickly and violently crushed.
The pamphlet that Winstanley published three years after the occupation of St. George’s Hill argued that land should not be bought and sold and that, when it was, “some shall enjoy great possessions, and others who have done as much or more for to purchase freedom shall have none at all, and be made slaves to their brethren”.
But as English colonialism frequently driven by actual rather than metaphorical enslavement gathered momentum from the seventeenth century onwards, people around the world who sought to hold on to their land and autonomy in defiance of an advancing storm were presented as monstrous – a many headed hydra that needed to be destroyed so that land and labour could be exploited.
Liberal philosophy presented this violent assault on the commons – which ranged from Ireland, to India, Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas, in terms of enlightenment and progress. But from the underside it was often experienced as catastrophe borne on the terror of burning and killing.
This history is our history. But of course here it has been and remains profoundly inflected by race. Today people flying in to Port Elizabeth to travel on to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown will pass one luxury game farm after another. Grahamstown still carries the name of John Graham, the British soldier who drove the Xhosa people off this land, the Zuurveld, between 1811 and 1812 by burning their homes, destroying their crops and killing any man that resisted.
John Cradock, the governor of the Cape Colony, had given Graham his orders. Cradock knew what he was doing. He had crushed anti-colonial rebellions in Ireland and India before being posted to Cape Town. In 1812 he could report to the British cabinet that the inhabitants of the Zuurveld had been forced across the Fish River with ‘a proper degree of terror’. A hundred years later Jan Smuts, speaking at the celebrations held to celebrate the centenary of the founding of Grahamstown, declared, “South Africa was a home for a great white race.”
On the 19th of June the following year the Natives Land Act came into force. In the famous opening lines of his Native Life in South Africa, Sol Plaatje wrote, “Awakening 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”. It was the colonial wars of the previous century that had left Africans with only 7% of the land in the new Union of South Africa. But the Land Act entrenched this dispossession by preventing Africans from buying or renting land from whites, outlawing share-cropping and opening the way to the establishment of ‘reserves’, later known as Bantustans. It became a legal cornerstone of the segregationist project.
The ANC, founded the year before the Land Act was passed, was committed to the restoration of land to Africans. But it was the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU), founded on the docks in Cape Town in 1919 that became a mass movement of rural people. It claimed more than a hundred thousand members by 1927. But like all movements that rise on a tide of millennial fervour it didn’t take care of the details of organisation very well, or work out a viable strategy for achieving its goals, and its hopes were dashed on the unforgiving shores of South African reality.
There have been many rural struggles since then, perhaps most famously the Mpondo Revolt that began in 1960. But there has never been a rural movement, or sustained rural struggles, in the same way that there has been a trade union movement since the 1970s or on-going urban struggles since the 1980s.
When the transition from apartheid happened organised workers won significant gains from the new order in terms of their relationship to both the party and the state as a result of their impressive organisation. And when the ANC sought to return the state to an exclusionary and repressive mode of urban control rooted in the use of violence it confronted significant popular challenges that have blunted some of its more extreme excesses. But the ruling party has not confronted the same challenges in response to its embrace of a capital driven conception of rural development, an ineffective and market led response to the deracialistion of land ownership and an attempt to firm up the power of traditional authority in a manner that reinscribes the former Bantustans as a separate sphere of society in which there is a lesser form of citizenship.
Seetsele Modiri Molema, Plaatje’s first biographer, recalled the “silence of death” that fell over a meeting of African leaders held in Kimberley in 1914 when Plaatje, his voice trembling, explained that the Land Act would impoverish Africans and drive once prosperous people into wage labour. A hundred years later, social death or the idea of a spectral presence are not infrequently mobilised as metaphors to characterise the quality of life in the former Bantustans. This is not a matter of ‘delivery’ or ‘transformation’ taking longer than expected. As Anika Classenens has argued the ANC’s commitment to sustain a separate legal and political regime in the former Bantustans is actively “entrenching the Land Act’s legacy of dispossession and unequal citizenship”.
The ANC likes to suggest that the limits of its record in the countryside are rooted in the constraints imposed by the property clause in the Constitution. This manoeuvre enables it to simultaneously disavow responsibility for its own political choices, which have, in practice, been systemically in support of rural elites, black and white, and to mobilise support for the authoritarian agenda that has developed under Zuma. But the fact is that while the property clause does provide some limits to state action they are far from absolute. It does not, for instance, prevent expropriation.
Some of the sloganeering around the land question signifies little beyond the performance of its own sound and fury. But although there are genuinely complicated questions to be addressed in a country where arable land is in short supply, and in a world where agriculture is being rapidly corporatized, it is also true that overly technical and statist approaches to the land question miss an essential point which is that real change, in the countryside as anywhere else, is fundamentally a question of political will. Political will is usually a consequence of political pressure and political pressure in the interests of subordinated groups usually requires some form of effective organisation or disruption on the part of those groups. Until this is achieved it is difficult to imagine that the crushing weight of history will be lifted from our countryside.
Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. Orginally pubublished by SACSIS