The ‘hunger’ for land is nothing more than (lack of) service delivery of housing
No other issue in South Africa is discussed or postulated upon more than the land issue. Now that the ANC is hellbent on expropriating land without compensation, intellectuals, journalists, and institutions theorise about what that would look like.
Karl Kemp took a different approach. Whereas he admits that he wanted to write a book about farm murders, in its stead, he wrote a book about land reform. Armed with a notebook, the author trekked the length and breadth of this nation, performing that forgotten art of simply speaking to people and relaying their stories.
The stories are many and varied – from the shacks and slums of the Western Cape to the dusty platinum mines of the North West and the urban fringes of Gauteng. The stories follow a common theme – the hunger for land is a hunger for housing.
Take Oom Sydney’s story, a coloured, grizzled 85-year-old farmer-based close to Lawley in the Vaal Triangle. Oom Sydney has been on his farm for 45 years. Initially accepted and integrated into a white farming community at the time, shacks now surround his farm. Oom Sidney is caught in the eternal struggle of coloured farmers in the area – they do not have title deeds to their land but are never bothered by the state to pay rent. Any attempts to obtain title deeds or certainty of tenure are rebuffed with the usual state incompetence. On official documentation, his farm is defined as “National Government” land and is thus targeted by syndicates. All the cows have been stolen; his fields are filled with holes, and shacks arise like phoenixes every night. He had to use his shotgun to protect his life and possessions and protect his dwindling supplies with force and deception.
The squatters are a mix of foreigner and locals, often from the surrounding townships. Land plots are ‘sold’ by corrupt ex-cops or civil servants for a few thousand rands, who often see land grabs as an economic investment. Many suspected land grabbers are taxi owners and business owners who use the land as a scheme to enrich themselves. By becoming landlords and doling out land to desperate people, these grabbers make millions of rands. In one example, a local businessman sold 15 000 plots of land for R1500 each – a profit of R35 million rand.
As Richard ‘Bricks’ Moloto in Orange Farm says:
“After 1994, black people took over the government and were supposed to start building a certain standard, equalising the development with the suburbs … but the ANC government is continuing with township-style development. After twenty-five years of democracy! This is not a problem created by the white people after twenty-five years.”
The goal is to sell the plots, swell the number of people living in the plots and petition the local government to provide sanitation, water, electricity and roads. This is often done through service delivery protests or protests of a more violent nature.
In Durban, we are introduced to Abahlali, an apolitical movement that preaches a pure form of Marxism. Its leader, S’bu Zikode, has survived numerous assassination attempts, one notable by the State Security Agency. Whereas Zikode states that they don’t actively occupy land on behalf of their 71 000 members, should land be occupied, they tell the squatting community to adhere to strict communist doctrine and rules. Abahlali’s ambition is to create autonomous settlements. Several references are of interest, like the fact that Abahlali’s squatter camps are clean and orderly. ‘Shacks’ have tiled floors, and community halls are built for functions. Abahlali retained one of the biggest law firms in the country to prevent evictions from the municipalities. Citizens of an Abahlali settlement commented that the violence and intimidation ended when the organization came to assist. As with previous characters, Abahlali sees the ANC as their primary opponent but refuse to engage in political games – their sole interest is building ‘autonomous settlements’.
Further peculiarities are presented, such as the fact that the National Party built thousands of houses between 1951 and 1966, particularly for urban squatters. The township of Daveyton is an example of this scheme. The National Party failed to understand that their social engineering would have drastic consequences down the line. The Nats did not build houses in an altruistic sense; the planned townships were designed to deepen segregationist ideals of apartheid. This meant that residents of the townships were not given title deeds but offered lease agreements. The ever increasing rentals lead to the famous rental boycotts in the 1980s, which hastened the entire segregationist experiment’s demise.
Throughout the book, the stories and characters left me with a deep sense of cynicism for the entire ambit of ‘land reform’. What is being sold and what is happening, in reality, exists in different universes.
A deeply incompetent state took it upon itself to house millions of people. Based on that incentive, unscrupulous intermediaries target state land for invaders to occupy and create shantytowns. State land is essential as the state rarely fights back, while private landowners do. On the peri-urban fringes of most cities in South Africa, some desperate foreigners and locals try to eke out a living in poverty, working on an ad hoc basis for daily bread.
There is no arc; there is no villain or hero – it’s all merely incompetence, desperate and sad.
The grabbers are not the chest-thumping army of the EFF or paid ANC acolytes with a strategy – they’re merely confidence tricksters who prey on the poor and desperate. While other grabbers use their ideology to justify their behaviour and their aims. Tribal chiefs wield great power but use it to impoverish their subjects. The original sin is simply a political slogan. The actual sin is that the ‘thirst for land’ is nothing more than a failure to provide housing by a state who has plundered the resources required to do so.
Promised Land is a critical book, a snapshot of a failed state and the repercussions it has on citizens whose aspirations have been crushed by the consequences of failure.