Think!Fest: Land of the Free?

This year's Think!Fest features a series of panel discussions and debates that grapple with some of the burning issues on the country’s agenda. Photo: Supplied.

In recent years, the struggle for land reform has shattered the façade of Tata’s paper-mache rainbow. It has ripped off the band-aid that 1994 plastered over centuries of dispossession, exploitation and disenfranchisement that has rendered South Africa one of the most unequal societies on the planet.

Through an enthralling analysis, Glenn Farred – representing the African Foundation for Rural Advancement (AFRA) – unpacks the complexities surrounding what has become perhaps the most contentious issue in our young, stuttering democracy. As tensions rise and conflicts deepen, Farred questions the efficacy of deepening divisions in the hope of effecting genuine social change.

“If you allow it to become a crisis,” he asserts, “it becomes a weapon you can manoeuvre. Strawmen erupt in every direction – you distract everybody.”

Indeed, the #GiveBackTheLand campaign, whilst opening a vital dialogue in post-Apartheid South Africa, has served in many ways to deepen divides and hinder attempts at effective reform. As Farred questions: “We want to create such hysteria that expropriating land becomes self-evident, but what land, and to who?”

He adds that the failures of the ambiguity of the movement’s aims are fundamentally rooted in a negation of the very people it concerns. Posing the question, “What does it mean to exist?”, Farred highlights the crux of the struggle for land reform – farm dwellers, unregistered and disenfranchised through inept, stagnant governance, being denied their very existence – as full citizens participating in society.

For example, in 2001, labour tenant Baba Mshengu lodged a claim for ownership of five hectares of land on which his family had resided for generations – which, according to legislation, should have been approved “forthwith.” 16 years later, the claim of Mshengu,   who is now 103-years-old, has still not been processed. The implications of this are staggering: Mshengu has not been allowed to build a home for his family who are residing in a hut of mud and clay that has now collapsed.

Upon being invited to speak at the presentation, Mshengu responded: “I’m tired of speaking. I’m done. I would just like to die in dignity, alongside my mother and my wife.”

AFRA is pioneering a different approach to effecting actual redress: hard data analysis to drive tangible policy change. Currently, the organisation is conducting a study documenting farm dwellers in KwaZulu-Natal, enabling them to be rendered visible by GPS pinpointing unregistered households on farms in that province.

The importance of affirming the voices of the voiceless cannot be understated; in fact, it can be considered the very foundation of a truly democratic society. In the words of educator Paulo Freire: “To affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free, and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality, is a farce.”

Furthermore, the data being collected by AFRA highlights the dire situation of farm dwellers in South Africa, finding that each household was occupied by 9,4 people on average compared to Stats SA’s findings of 3,3 inhabitants per household nationally.

Promisingly, strides are being made in the wine-making industry to address and atone for the centuries of violence perpetuated against black bodies at the hands of colonial powers. Tracey Randle, speaking on her experience as a historian at Soms-Delta wine estate, has played a vital role in the transformation of a vineyard established at the behest of the Dutch East India Company (DEIC)in 1690. When the estate was purchased in 2001, 91 workers were living in 15 households, one of which was missing an exterior wall, whilst the others occupying converted animal stalls.

In collaboration with the farm owners, Randle has been influential in unearthing the personal histories of three centuries of slaves and forced labourers on the wine estate, curating a memorial, transforming the living conditions of workers and implementing programmes that provide access to education, healthcare, and sports and recreation.

While these may be small steps in the struggle to achieve tangible, national land reform, programmes such as Farred and Randle’s point to a way forward that could actually heal the ever-deepening scars of post-Apartheid South Africa. Through constructive discourse, it challenges the stagnant waters of bureaucracy that continues to negate the lives of millions in our beloved ineptocracy.

By Yasthiel Devraj