Patrick Malambile on a piece of land that was used to grow tomatoes on Craig Gowan farm outside Cookhouse. The farming project failed as the developer disappeared. Picture: Brian Witbooi/Weekend Post
Patrick Malambile on a piece of land that was used to grow tomatoes on Craig Gowan farm outside Cookhouse. The farming project failed as the developer disappeared. Picture: Brian Witbooi/Weekend Post

To understand the land question SA is grappling with, you must understand the ANC’s history. There is considerable context behind the ANC’s resolution on land expropriation, passed last year at Nasrec in the hours after Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president of a weakened party.

Even at the time, in late December, the resolution was so controversial that ANC members were caught on video nearly coming to fisticuffs over it. It is entirely unclear if Ramaphosa was in favour of the ANC resolution on land.

But either way, as the newly elected president, he had been dealt the hand and had to play the cards.

Of course, this land issue wasn’t the first decision to split the party. As Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the ANC has a long and chequered history. Like any party, it has been racked by division, but its early leaders had a strong commitment to principle and were clear about values.

In 1912, Sol Plaatje played a key role in the founding of the SA Native National Congress (SANNC), which would become the ANC in 1923. He was its first secretary-general and was part of a small mission-educated black intelligentsia and deeply opposed to narrow tribalism. The first president of the SANNC, John Dube, was a minister and educator (it is said that after Nelson Mandela cast his vote in 1994, he visited the grave of Dube and said simply, "Mission accomplished"), while Pixley ka Isaka Seme, a lawyer, is regarded as the founder of the congress.

Plaatje’s own life provides lessons not only in activism but, more importantly, in leadership. His war diary, written between 1899 and 1900, is the only account by a black person of the siege of Mafeking during the SA War. (He acted as a court interpreter during the war.)

He spoke at least eight languages and is considered one of the country’s great public intellectuals. Drawn to journalism, Plaatje established the first Setswana-English weekly newspaper in 1901. His 1916 book, Native Life in South Africa, provided an in-depth insight into the country after the passage of the 1913 Natives Land Act, an assault on the rights of black South Africans. The opening lines are as powerful as they are relevant today: "Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the SA native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth."

In 1919 Plaatje took part in a meeting with then British prime minister David Lloyd George regarding the land question — all with no resolution.

When Enoch Godongwana, chair of the ANC’s economic transformation committee, announced expropriation without compensation at Nasrec, he seemed a reluctant messenger.

It was the final day of a conference that seemed unending. Godongwana labelled it a "contentious issue" and said the resolution had a condition: that it be enforced sustainably. "This means it must not impact on agricultural production, food security and other sectors of the economy," he said.

He added that even those who wanted land expropriation without compensation agreed that it should be achieved sustainably.

This message was echoed in Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address in February, when he said that the rule of law must prevail and no Zimbabwe-style land grabs would be tolerated.

Soon afterwards, the ANC caucus in parliament supported a motion introduced by the EFF to move expeditiously towards a compensation-free expropriation regime for land reform.

The measure was passed comfortably, and is now being considered by parliament’s constitutional review committee.

The problem is that while the ANC cogitates, citizens are agitating. Land has become a proxy for all manner of socioeconomic delivery issues. And, with tensions high, the country has already seen its fair share of "land occupations" in recent months. Those occupations predictably turn violent when the police attempt to remove those who have staked out plots of land and put up structures on land they do not own. Before long, protesters resort to burning — an act that has become a leitmotif and a way to get the attention of those in power.

These protests show how difficult it is for the ANC to manage the expectations created from the Nasrec resolution, as well as some of EFF leader Julius Malema’s more irresponsible comments, such as "If you see a beautiful piece of land, take it".

It’s a situation difficult to deal with because if someone is poor and desperate, waiting is a luxury. The problem is made worse by the fact that protesters may not necessarily be on housing lists: in some cases, they jumped the queue because the authorities had to find quick solutions to defuse the protests; or they have illegally staked out land and continue living there.

Situations such as these are patently unfair, and have created anger in communities. It is an issue due, largely, to inaction by the state.

The cruel reality is that even after the parliamentary process is completed and the ANC has made its final decision, there will still be no quick fixes.

As former president Kgalema Motlanthe pointed out at the ANC land summit, there are all kinds of obstacles to proper land reform — not least dealing with the thorny issue of the Ingonyama Trust and the chiefs who own large tracts of land on which rural communities are dependent.

But the state’s capacity to manage land redistribution is anything but evident, as most of its best-laid plans have fallen victim to corruption and maladministration. The question is: will any of this change in Ramaphosa’s "new dawn"?

At the moment, the minister of rural development & land reform is Maite Nkoana-Mashabane — probably not the brightest star in cabinet anyway, but someone who has also been left an almighty mess by her predecessor, Gugile Nkwinti.

Ramaphosa has called the land issue the "challenge of a generation". He is right, but the ANC has thus far been negligent in its handling of it. Land is now a major challenge, but so is housing and rapid urbanisation.

Sometimes the call for land is a proxy for housing and employment opportunities, and the real task is to translate all of these demands into a workable policy. So, simultaneously, the ANC must create jobs, alleviate poverty and accelerate housing — all while pursuing the land agenda. It’s a tough task — especially for a party that has shown a tendency towards sloganeering and appealing to the "quick fix" in recent years. Already, many cities and towns are locked in conflict on the back of these easy promises. And this is no way to live — not for the poor and excluded and not for anyone else.

Given the divisions and policy confusion the land issue has caused in the ANC, it is easy to conclude that the party has moved far from its intellectual roots. The Jacob Zuma years were characterised by a dangerous anti-intellectualism, and the presidency became an empty shell. The ANC’s so-called battle of ideas became a battle of factions.

In the wake of the "Ramaphosa renewal" and his attempts to right the multiple wrongs of the Zuma years, one might ask: what would Plaatje and others have done, given the same challenges?

As the ANC has muddled along, business, civil society and the media have tried to steer the national conversation in a more constructive direction. Pravin Gordhan, after he was axed as finance minister by Zuma, said he was still hopeful about our collective ability to self-correct and push for proper conversations that will bring about meaningful transformation.

Let’s hope so. Already, Ramaphosa has shown some signs that he is willing to provide this sort of leadership.

In mid-April, he attended the Commonwealth heads of government meeting, yet chose to cut his trip short because of violent protests in the North West. Mahikeng was closed off as a result of those protests, as demonstrations against Supra Mahumapelo’s premiership reached fever pitch.

The reasons behind that protest were varied: poor service delivery, and corruption and tender fraud for which citizens were blaming Mahumapelo. Eventually, he quit.

By cutting short his UK trip to attend to these issues back home, Ramaphosa displayed the sort of leadership we hadn’t seen in years.

This illustrates that it is not an easy matter to deal with divisions in your own party while trying to attract investment and fix the economy.

Time will tell whether Ramaphosa has the same force of character and leadership quality as Plaatje, and whether that will allow him to shape the land discussion in a way that enhances the country, rather than diminishes it.

This is an edited extract of February’s new book, Turning and Turning: Exploring the Complexities of SA’s Democracy