In my most recent article, published as a Working Paper earlier this week on the PLAAS website, I approach the South African land question from a somewhat different angle to that usually taken in our research reports.

Instead of looking at the realities of South Africa’s agrarian structure and the dynamics of rural livelihoods, and using that as the basis of an argument about how land reform could be made to work, I take a step back and look at the politics of the debate itself:  What are we really talking about when we talk about land? What are the assumptions on which contending views depend? How do people reason about land reform?  What is their understanding of social change, of politics, and of the nature of  government?

The impetus for this paper arose out of my reflections on the the conference on  Resolving the Land Question  that we  (that’s PLAAS and our partners at Fort Hare and Rhodes University) organised at the University of the Western Cape in February 2019. This conference was an attempt to intervene in the emotionally charged debate raging at that time about proposals for ‘Land Expropriation without Compensation’ by focusing on the concrete, practical, technical policy choices involved in the redistribution of agricultural land: to create a space for calm and reasoned debate about real-world choices,  and by so doing make ‘policy sense’ out of contentious politics.

Those were our intentions.  In practice, the Resolving The Land Question conference turned out to be  both an interesting and a frustrating affair. Frustrating, because few new insights or breakthroughs materialized,  and we probably did not succeed in making much of an impact on the deliberations of the Presidential Panel on Land Reform that  was in the process of finalising its report at time.  But it was also interesting, because it provided such a clear example of the ‘stuckness’ of the South African land debate, and how difficult it actually can be to make ‘policy sense’ out of the land debate.   What could we learn from the experience? I wrote the Working Paper as part of a process of ‘thinking aloud’ about what I had seen at the conference, and reflecting on what it could teach us about the state of the land debate in South Africa.

My purpose in the paper, in other words, was to look at the discourse of the South African land debate: to investigate, not the complex realities of the agrarian landscape itself or how to transform it, but at the structures of assumption on which contending visions for land reform are based, and the lenses people use when arguing about it. I suspected that taking a step back in this way might help explain why the land question is so terribly intractable, and why people seem to be constantly talking past one another. And  I had a growring suspicion that underneath the disagreements about land there are also some other, deeper, perhaps even more fundamental differences:  not only  about the ‘class character’ or ‘pro-poor’ content of  land reform (which is what we are usually concerned about at PLAAS) but also about the way we understand the nature of South African society and the process of social change.

Essentially, the paper makes four central points that I think are useful for understanding what is at stake in the land reform debate.

What is the question?

First, I argue that the debate on land expropriation involves much more than disagreements about the desirability of  paying compensation, or even  between competing visions of the direction and purpose of land redistribution.  We are not in a situation where differing groups are trying to agree on how to resolve a shared problem. Rather, there is no shared sense of what the problem is in the first place, and whose role it is to solve it:

  • First, there are those who seek to define the land question as essentially a policy matter: an issue that requires the resolution of numerous complex and technical questions pertaining to the functioning of the South African agricultural economy and the  nature of rural livelihoods, and that therefore require a process of technocratic decision making—either by a suitably competent state, or via appropriately designed market mechanisms.
  • Second, there are those who see the land question as creating the opportunity and need for a process of mass mobilization and democratic transformation driven by the landless poor themselves, in order to create a more inclusive, sustainable and just agrarian order.
  • And third, there are those who are actually not that interested in agrarian matters at all, but for whom land functions mostly as a symbol and metaphor,  as a living instance of the legacy of violent colonial settlement, and as a rallying cry to inspire a project of radical black, nationalist mobilisation.

In a way, the question is not simply who should own the land, but also who owns the land question—and who gets to set the terms for the debate.

Technocratic deliberation and populist reason

Secondly, in this contest, one of the starkest issues is the disjuncture between the very different forms of political reason deployed by the different participants in the debate: there are two completely divergent ways of talking about politics, each with its own distinctive discursive character and ground rules.

  • On the one hand, there is the discourse of technocratic political policy deliberation. This is a distinct form of political reason with a long and contested history.  For our purposes what matters is that it is a form of deliberation typically used when participants want to to diminish the chances of outcomes or conclusions simply being pre-determined by ideological preconceptions or by political or institutional interests.  In the spaces of technical policy deliberation, discussion is based on the the implicit assumption that at least in principle, the answers to the social problems facing participants are not self-evidently clear, and that differences are to be resolved by some kind of rule-based, open-ended, reflexive process of reasoning.  Second, in the history of modern government, the possibility for this kind of deliberative discussion has tended to require some degree of  closure.  There is tight control over who is allowed to take part, and what kinds of evidence will count as valid.   This does not necessarily mean it is inherently undemocratic (ways can be created for stakeholders to participate in making decisions about issues that affect them) but it does mean it is not a particularly adversarial process. Above all, the aim is to find consensus, or enough agreement so that the participants can agree to go forward.
  • On the other hand, there is the discourse of populist mobilisation in the public sphere. ‘Populism’ has a bad name these days (partly because the term is often mis-applied to political movements that are simply chauvinist, racist or nationalist).  In the paper, I use the term to denote a specific form of political organising that tries to link together a wide range of initially divergent forms of political discontent into a broad popular alliance, creating a growing chasm between the institutionalised apparatus of government on the one hand, and ‘the people’ on the other.  Instead of seeking to create consensus and agreement, this is a style of discourse and practice that seeks to create political divides, and to prevent the absorption and co-optation of demands from below through mechanisms of policy accommodation.  This leads to a very different way of talking about land:  the purpose is precisely not to ‘resolve’ the land question. To focus on the literal contents of ‘populist’ demand is to miss the point: in a sense the disruptive power of popular discourse is precisely that its demands can’t be met under the current institutional and political conditions, setting the stage for deep transformation and revolution.

This, I argue, is what is happening in the public discourse around land expropriation in South Africa. The point of the demand for land expropriation without  compensation is not to present it as a resolution to some real-world technical problem with land reform policy (e.g. the cost) – in fact, the evidence strongly  suggests that  it  is highly unlikely to make land reform any easier or cheaper. Rather, the point lies in the way it polarises  the debate.  In the context of the rigorously policed discourses of ‘non-racialism’ and the ‘rainbow nation’, the discourse around land expropriation provides a vehicle for talking about race in a more disruptive way.  As I have argued elsewhere, it is a discourse, not about who should own or farm the land, but about whose country this is :  the descendants of those who were dispossessed of land through the violence of colonial conqest, or of those who settled on it?  As such, it is an attempt to call into question the inclusive character of our constitution and the  vision of South Africa as a country that belongs to ‘all who live in it’.

These are emotive issues, and understandably so. But they cannot be avoided.  The questions about the legitimacy and the boundaries of the South African political community being asked by the black nationalists in the EFF, the ANC and the now defunct BLF, will not go away. They are worth debating. But they must be met head-on in their own right, and recognized as questions that are ultimately not about land, but about citizenship, identity and political belonging.

Can government govern?

My third point concerns the challenges standing in the way of any ‘policy’  resolution of the land question.   One of the most interesting issues emerging from a close reading of the three keynote policy papers  discussed at the conference is the deeply divergent pictures they present of  the nature of South African society, the process of change, and the role of the state in the land reform project.

Here, there seem to be surprising similarities between the vision of land reform advocated by Mazibuko Jara’s ‘radical’ keynote on agrarian transformation (which advocates a broad, populist, emancipatory movement of the landless poor) and  Nick Vink and Johann Kirsten’s  ‘conservative’ paper (which argues for a radically decentralised land reform process driven by local stakeholders in district councils, protected from the threat of government interference). While in many ways diametrically opposed, both these visions of land reform share a deep skepticism and mistrust of the state. This mistrust, while well-founded, leads to dangerous and unrealistic proposals: the vision of decentralised, market-oriented land reform Vink and Kirsten proposed at the conference seems guaranteed to lead to land reform as window-dressing, controlled and directed by local elites; while Jara’s vision of a mass movement built around land reform from below appears to me to be mostly wishful thinking, and fails to confront the divided, fragmented, and weak state of the social movements (such as they are) of the landless poor.

These visions stand in stark contrast to Michael Aliber’s keynote paper, which set out ‘realistic’ proposals for land reform aimed, neither at a total transformation nor at mere ‘window dressing’, but at supporting poor people’s livelihoods within the current agrarian order. This proposal has much to recommend it for policy wonks, being based on a careful consideration of the realities of the agro-food system as it currently exists, and the lessons of experience from the land reform programme since 1994. Strikingly, while it acknowledges the importance of community participation and of markets, it also gives a central role to the state.  In fact, it is quite clear from the Aliber’s argument that the prospects of delivering land to smallholders in a way that supports inclusive growth depends greatly on a subtle and pragmatic art of technocratic government, carefully managing the trade-offs between the interests of different groups and nimbly deploying the slender resources of a fragile and overstretched state.

But attractive though this vision is of a benevolent, adept and nimble state, prudently deploying its resources to implement a realistic land reform project under challenging conditions, this too seems to be wishful thinking.  For it depends on a vision of a state that can actually engage in this kind of sensible, informed bio-political calculation.   This is not a capacity the South Africa currently has. Quite aside from the rapacious criminality and looting coming to light in the ongoing revelations about state capture, the reality is that the apparatus of the state is at present deeply dysfunctional, rudderless, poorly managed; beset, in fact by a crisis of governability within government.

What about land reform?

These reflections lead me to some dispiriting, but perhaps also useful conclusions.  For one thing, it seems to me that the current impasse about ‘actually existing’ land reform is likely to continue.  Important as the pro-poor redistribution of agricultural land might be, I don’t think it is likely to occur.  The functioning state required to implement it simply does not exist; and in any case, the present ANC government, bewitched  by technocratic dreams of ‘new cities’ and ‘bullet trains’ and entirely devoted to a project of elite enrichment, does not have the appetite or the interest in devising a land reform programme that can benefit marginalized smallholders.

That is a pipe dream.  Land reform in my view needs have humbler, more urgent priorities.  First, it needs to be oriented towards preventing the daylight robbery currently being planned in South Africa’s former homelands, where  unelected traditional leaders and mining companies are trying to get their hands on land under customary tenure. Second, we need to create forms of tenure  and land administration that can support pluri-active livelihoods in the de-agrarianised zones of South Africa’s shantytowns, rural slums and peri-urban settlements.

Ultimately, however, it seems to me that all the roads of argument lead me back to the question of the nature of the South African state.  We can do whatever we like about rural livelihoods on the ground, but if we do not have a capable, democratic state, we do not have a country.  And if we want to have a functioning state,  we may need to revisit the ways we have thought, until now,  about the nature, purpose and functioning of what, in the good old days, we used to call the people’s government.

But that’s an argument for another day.