Thuli Madonsela. Picture: REUTERS
Thuli Madonsela. Picture: REUTERS

The proverb "Hope does not kill" has universal resonance. Without hope we have no strength to carry on, and people risk turning on each other — a Lord of the Flies scenario.

So it is fantastic to see South Africans riding on the pedestal of hope again, if I may borrow from President Thabo Mbeki’s address on taking over from the first democratic president of SA, Nelson Mandela, in 1999.

Today, one of the pillars of hope for historically disadvantaged people centres on the ANC’s much-hyped promise to confiscate land without compensation, which some believe is their way out of extreme poverty and inequality.

But, putting aside the rule of law and other complex implications of expropriation, is that promise real or an illusion?

What about the likes of Palesa Mosa — who was arrested as a 13-year-old pupil in 1976 for being an activist for freedom, then jailed, tortured, and robbed of an education? Will the expropriation of land improve her life socially and economically? Will her child, who can’t go to university because national student financial aid funding is restricted to public universities, get those funds?

Mosa is a potent symbol of those left behind. I met her on June 16 last year, at her former place of incarceration, the women’s jail at Constitution Hill. Today, she works there, selling cheap cosmetics.

Having told her story at the Thuma Intergenerational Democracy Dialogue (#Demologue), Mosa said she feels betrayed. Some days she goes to bed without food when she hasn’t been able to make any sales. With tears in her eyes, she said: "We fought for freedom but only got democracy. We are not free. Poverty is the new pass."

We fought for freedom but only got democracy. We are not free. Poverty is the new pass
Palesa Mosa

The participants applauded approvingly. You and I know that democracy should incorporate freedom — but that’s not how many who are left behind feel.

The land promise reminds me of a fable my mother told me when I was young. A poor family in a village where people were dying due to famine and a bitterly cold winter decided to travel back to the wife’s native village at her suggestion. Her selling point was that there, "kudliwa imbuthuma" — that is, the people eat "imbuthuma".

Fuelled by hope, the starving family made the great trek. When they got there, the wife’s family welcomed them into a warm room with a big fire at the centre. They waited for ages. Eventually, the husband asked when the "mbuthuma" would be served. He was then told that the "mbuthuma" was the fire; the village had no food.

I’m not entirely sure what I was meant to learn from the story, but what I took away was that hope carries us through adversity — but hope premised on an illusion can be exceptionally dangerous.

Back to land: talking of expropriation without compensation buys government time and, maybe, votes from those looking for a way out of poverty and inequality.

Tardy pace

It’s not debatable that land restitution must be expedited. But is the constitution to blame for the tardy pace? Section 25 currently requires fair compensation — the test for which incorporates how the land was acquired originally.

But it’s not true that the block to land reform is due to the lack of constitutional authority to expropriate land without compensation. The reality is that government has failed to implement section 25, and failed to align the law with the constitution. As it stands, the state expropriates land, including from historically disadvantaged communities, for public purposes such as roads, but not for restitution.

In that context, is it a meaningful promise for the ruling party to focus simply on acquiring land, without laying out a comprehensive socioeconomic inclusion strategy? Or is it simply a distraction? Could the land promise be the proverbial "mbuthuma" or even worse for the likes of Mosa?

If it is the latter, what happens when the people discover they have been left behind? What happens when, five years later, Mosa and her daughter’s potential has still not been freed and her life improved? After all, as the UN Global Compact puts it, none of us can claim to enjoy sustainable peace and development as long as there is injustice somewhere.

Madonsela is chair of social justice at Stellenbosch University and founder of the Thuma Foundation