MyNews24: Land also cultural for white people

Jan Gerber’s article "What white people need to understand about The Land" implies that because white farmers speaking at the land hearings do not speak of cultural and historical ties to land but merely emphasise economic arguments, white connections to land are not as significant or deep as black people who speak passionately about historical and cultural ties to land.

From research for my Master’s thesis into traditional agrarian systems, and the connections between culture and land in Pondoland, I would agree that many black people residing in traditional communities certainly do have strong cultural connections to land, although this is not necessarily the case with long-time urbanised black people.

In traditional African culture (and many other indigenous cultures) land is considered a communal resource – a commons. This does not mean, though, that allocation of land in communal areas is a free for all land grab, nor does it mean the rights of individual use or family tenure are not recognised.

Where traditional systems still function well (and in many areas these are compromised) land allocation and land use is strictly regulated by traditional custom. Permission to use a plot of land for a particular purpose, e.g. to build a house or grow crops, is granted to households or individuals by Inkosi, the village headman or local chief. Often (but not always) permission for land is only granted once the community has been consulted and have granted their collective approval.

Once approval is granted, that household or individual has customary title, recognised by the whole community, to that piece of land, as long as they use the land for the agreed purpose. This use can be inter-generational and inheritable, passed on to next of kin through multiple generations. The use only falls away should the household cease to use the land for an extended period of time so that the land falls into neglect. In such a case the local Inkosi would be entitled to grant that land to somebody else in the community.

Amongst ethical Inkosi there is no arbitrary deprivation of land granted to households or individuals, although some Inkosi are known to succumb to bribery and corruption or political manipulation, ceding land to mining companies, for example, without communal approval.

In traditional African culture, the concept of ikhaya, or home, is also deep and almost spiritual. iKhaya is not just a physical dwelling, it is a concept of place through which people are linked to their spiritual ancestors and their identity and history. Umuntu, a fully functioning, whole person, is part of an integrated community and the family of humanity through which the past, present and future are connected. So yes, the pathos at lost identity connected to lost land at the land hearings does reflect this cultural connection.

But Gerber’s assumption that because white farmers talk primarily about the economic importance of land means they do not have cultural and historical ties to land is questionable. My husband’s family has resided on our farm for six generations, since 1860, and we are by no means unique in our district.

To us this land is also memories, and generations of history and family connections, and many other things too, as it is for many other family farmers.

That white farmers do not emphasis historical or cultural ties to land does not mean they don't exist, but rather their emphasis on the economics of farming highlights the fear they will be left destitute if expropriation without compensation becomes reality.

Family farms are not just land, they are family businesses and the family livelihood and family inheritances. Because farmers tend to reinvest profits in their farms, inter-generational family wealth is tied up with the land. It may take years, even generations, of skills and development passed down from father to son or daughter to create a profitable farm.

Amongst many black land dwellers, where the trend is for migration to towns and cities for job opportunities, land is often no longer a primary source of family income as it is for white commercial farmers, although black families still often maintain a rural ikhaya for cultural reasons, as a connection to a historical sense of place and community.

And some do farm as a primary or secondary source of income. Although most, though not all, young black rural people I interviewed for my research (even those with ample access to land) said they would far rather have jobs that paid a reliable income than farm, which was perceived as being a difficult, precarious and low status way to make a living. Older generations though, still hankered after agriculture as a means of livelihood.

Cultural differences aside, my observation of the land hearings is that at its core the issue is quite prosaic, despite certain politicians and opportunists wanting to frame the issue as a racial issue and using the opportunity to scapegoat white farmers for government failures of the land restitution process.

Rather, those who have secure access to land, whether through title deeds or secure customary title, are outspokenly opposed to expropriation without compensation. This opposition runs across all races. Traditional leaders have condemned expropriation without compensation precisely because it will undermine customary land rights and tenure and make some communities, such as those along the Wild Coast opposed to titanium mining, more vulnerable to expropriation by political or capitalist elites.

On the other hand, those who don’t have access to land, or see it as an opportunity to acquire more free land, approve of expropriation without compensation. The irony is that if the Constitution is amended to allow for expropriation without compensation without strict limits and guidelines, everyone’s security of land tenure will be undermined.

For when the political winds of change blow, as they are want to do, what will then prevent the new land owners being re-expropriated to suit the whims of a new crop of political elites? 

- Valerie Payn has a Master’s Degree in Sustainable Development Planning and Management (cum laude) and comes from a long line of family farmers.