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Ownership Of Land Is Viewed Through The Lens Of Amnesia

By Richard Raber, TNB Guest Contributor

Race, Place and Land Reform

Appearing in headlines across the globe have been calls for the Australian government to rescue downtrodden white South African farmers fleeing an imagined genocide by fast-tracking visa processes. As I have alluded to previously, race continues to reassert itself in shaping our political prioritisation as well as popular discussion.

The perceived dislocation of white comfort from the centre of society is framed by reactionaries in fatalistic terms while little is discussed popularly of systemic violence against communities of colour. Michael Bueckert correctly frames the deployment of white-genocide mythologies by reactionaries elsewhere as reflective not of realities in South Africa but racist anxieties in the face of migration domestically.

The dissemination of this hysteria has only been encouraged following the announcement that attempts will be made to create a constitutional provision enabling expropriation of land without compensation. The aim is to correct historical dispossession. This has fostered a white reaction of feeling placeless or lacking an economic or cultural space to occupy if such restitutions were to be implemented.

Coming to the forefront now are the fault lines of Rainbowism, chiefly that the concept created a situation in which “…the symbolic nation may ‘belong’ to all, but its land does not.” Land reform and other forms of equity-building are necessary to combat extraordinary rates of inequity. Amid continued inequity, racial anxieties and resulting myths take to the forefront while the violence of poverty is sidelined and normalised.

Little attention has been paid to Lumko Mkhethwa, a five-year-old who lost her life after falling into a pit latrine toilet just years after the tragic and entirely preventable death of Michael Komape, who faced the same fate. This is an opportunity for South Africa to reassert itself as a moral leader if a new understanding of inclusion is crafted and the recognition of all life as valuable instilled.

Reactions to the recent calls for appropriation without compensation often invoke selective understandings of land rights, as property rights for the properties are emphasised while the right to property is minimised; those with the least recourse, such as evicted rural women or farm workers, receive little international attention. Accordingly, claims or ownership of land is viewed through the lens of amnesia. Present arrangements are conceived of as just and not to be touched; the past is just that, pastand we ought to move forward.

This fails to address the continued legacies of the past while recentring settlerhood as the lens through which to view the present. 

Unfortunately, this story is transnational. In my country of birth, Canada, amnesias persist in our treating of stolen land as unceded territory.

Understandably, dispossession and the rendering of it invisible or undeserving of reparation is incredibly painful for those directly confronted by its continued legacies. Niigaan Sinclair highlights the pain and frustration of reconciliation without extensive land reform or reparations as well as the depth of settler apologetics:

“He says sorry for everything. That he regrets things have turned out this way. That he hopes your people and his people can reconcile. That a new relationship is possible.

You ask for your home back. To share at the very least.

‘I’m not that sorry,’ he says, walking away.”


Implementation and Compromise

Steven Friedman correctly argues that the salience and polarisation surrounding the land debate is less about the Constitution and more about defining and realising dignity and equality one generation into democracy. Friedman shares the concern that elites will come together to craft a compromise that alleviates immediate political pressure but ultimately fails to address historic inequity.

In this vein, mechanisms ought to be created to prevent schemes that formally recognise reparative land distribution while ignoring the spirit of equity. For instance, oversight must be applied to ensure the beneficiaries of redistributed land hold it not simply in name and practice, that those who might attempt to coerce or bribe beneficiaries into serving as owner in name only be held accountable.

If the result of current calls for land reform is a compromise negotiated by and for elites, one must ask to what extent the most excluded, such as farmworkers, are able to shape and benefit from whatever procedures emerge.

Another potential issue may be the emergence of speculation and consolidation. In a context of polarisation with the prospect for expedited white flight, the issue of artificially decreased farm prices and consolidation emerges. The present would be an ideal time for elite opportunists to capitalise on instability in the pursuit of further enrichment.


An Opportunity for Redefinition

As land reform (and the fault lines of Rainbowism) continues to dominate national dialogue (while its worst elements filter internationally), now is an ideal time for South Africa to re-emerge as a global leader. Inequity and injustice, though more acute in some places, know no boundaries. Beginning by consulting the most excluded, larger issues of fairness, belonging and dignity may be redefined.

This requires the mobilisation of legitimate grievances against inequity and corruption towards a cultural and social innovation that in recognising the common value of all life places the last, first.

This demands exhaustive creative multitasking, an ability to both recognise the persistence of race in organising present economic, representational and moral inequities while beginning to imagine a world beyond race.

 

About Richard:
Richard Raber is a Canadian-born writer and researcher based in New York. His work has previously been featured by platforms including Open Democracy, Daily Maverick, Huffington Post, Ricochet, Rabble, New Politics, and Thought Leader. He is also Co-Founder of Good Things Come in Threes Media. Richard holds degrees from the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation as well as the University of Winnipeg. He can be found on Twitter @RaberRichard

This piece was first published here by Huffington Post South Africa.

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