Scorched-earth policy: A farm is seized by British troops during the calamitous Anglo-Boer War. The ‘colonial wound’ inflicted during the war became the basis for the justification of apartheid. Picture: WIKIMEDIA
Scorched-earth policy: A farm is seized by British troops during the calamitous Anglo-Boer War. The ‘colonial wound’ inflicted during the war became the basis for the justification of apartheid. Picture: WIKIMEDIA

Theorists speak of the "colonial wound", which does not allow the victims of colonialism to see much good in it — if any at all. Belabouring the metaphor somewhat, apartheid was the scab that grew on the wound, creating an unbearable itch which was removed in 1994.

The recent student uprisings, with all their faults and anti-white racism, at least removed the scab to remind the country that the wound underneath is still gaping and bleeding. It was clearly not enough to treat only the symptom of apartheid, which for white liberals has been a cover-up of their complicity in the exploitation of blacks.

The current demands for land restitution are driven by the pain of this wound — something that is difficult for most whites to understand, even though the forebears of Afrikaans speakers had suffered some of its worst atrocities.

The state is after them, they believe, and wants to destroy the bedrock of their culture — the mythical "plaas". On the other side of the artificial racial divide created by the debate, land is a symbol equally invested by irrationality — which does not make the emotions being cultivated and fed any less real, any less of a political force.

Just how irrational the debate is, is demonstrated by a list of laws circulating on social media and being used in writing about land. In an attempt to show that apartheid/colonialism has been disproportionate in the legal sphere, the many laws used to take land from blacks are compared with the one law that could be used to take land from all South Africans, if the expropriation without compensation bill gets past the Constitutional Court. It is a silly comparison, not because the details are untrue, but because it cherry-picks laws to make a spurious argument based on some sort of purported moral equivalence.

By the time of the 1913 Land Act, the cornerstone law on the list that forbade land ownership by black people in Transvaal and the Free State, the land grabs had been done and dusted, and very little more black land was seized without compensation, albeit by the traumatic methods of forced removals.

In relative terms, much more white land was seized since the 1960s by the state as it pursued its fantasy of becoming the rulers over the set of postcolonies called the homelands. Consolidation of the homelands was the official euphemism for these land grabs, but it destroyed many good farms, broke up families and helped to create the anti-statist, right-wing sentiments of today. But even more obfuscating than these omissions is that the list does not go nearly far enough. It ignores the key category used for land grabs — martial law.

In the 19th century, a model was developed by both Boer and Brit to manage such land grabs: they goaded tribes into rebellion; sent a punitive expedition, subjugated the tribe and forcibly removed them to a "location"; dealt out the land to participants in the expeditionary force; and forced the "natives" into temporary slavery by placing a war debt on their heads that they had to repay through labour.

Somewhere along the line, it was legitimated by martial law, or measures that amounted to it when procedures were overlooked. From the efforts of the Boer republics emerged rural commandos, which enforced confinement of the survivors to farms or locations — later called reserves — through a pass system. This commando system was only disbanded in 2003.

A key aspect needs to be considered if arguments are to be derived for contemporary restitution from this grievous history: most of the "troops" in the punitive expeditions were black.

The Boer republics, especially in the final years of the century, tried to impose a national conscription, but English speakers in the cities baulked. This led to street protests and conscientious objection, even though the city economies were already inflating their margins by exploiting the cheap labour of what were really war refugees. Black people who had grudges against the tribe being subjugated filled the ranks. A version of this model was used to instigate a much more calamitous event, the Anglo-Boer War. It ended in by far the largest and most intense land grab in SA’s history, through martial law.

"Rebel" Boer farms were seized and their inhabitants sent to the century’s first concentration camps, where 40,000 people of all races died. In an orgy of slaughter as part of a scorched-earth campaign decried in the British parliament as using the "methods of barbarism", livestock and improvements were destroyed.

This colonial wound became the basis for the justification of apartheid when the Boer descendants, the Afrikaners, took power in 1948.

The worms in the apple of land restitution are the complicity of black people in land grabs of the past from their brethren, and the fact that whites also suffered

Many former farmers ended up as destitute poor whites in the "blikkiesdorpe" (shanty towns) of the cities, some living side by side with black people. Many others were given back their farms in a gigantic affirmative action programme by the British, which entailed reneging on promises to black tribes to give them some of the land but only if the Afrikaner farmers swore allegiance to the empire — laying more foundation stones for the racial and political divides, and land inequalities, of today.

The worms in the apple of land restitution are the complicity of black people in land grabs of the past from their brethren, and the fact that whites also suffered.

Tit-for-tat restitution cannot be supported on a racialism derived from ethico-historical arguments. The real threat to all is that an omnivorous state driven by corruption, and expropriation without compensation will give it a powerful weapon and diminish a key element in the country’s splendid system of checks and balances: private land ownership.

• Pienaar is a fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study.