The Land Question: a Matter of Honour

Why there will never be common ground

One fire drives out one fire; one nail, one nail;
Rights by rights falter, strengths by strengths do fail.

- Tullus Aufidius, in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

The insurmountable problem in land reform discourse, is not a difference on matters of fact. It is a difference in fundamental values.

The issue goes much deeper than who killed who, or who took what. To even have the debate, we would have to agree on a common sense of justice. And increasingly, black nationalists have no respect or recognition for the hybrid legal system we operate on, based as it is in a combination of English Common Law and Roman-Dutch Civil Law, which settles cases on the basis of evidence and adversarial testimony, pertaining to individuals, and not to collectives.

It has been the basis on which past restitution cases have been settled, but it is now increasingly seen as fundamentally illegitimate - a colonial construct. A significant plurality among the ruling class have placed the spirit of the written constitution a distant second in authority to the exegetical whims of the ruling party’s mandate to complete the National Democratic Revolution. The current constitution’s failure to produce an outcome where few or no white people own any land is the precise criterion on the basis of which it has been publicly challenged.

The competing positions on land reform favouring, as they do, the ideological or ethnic loyalties of the claimants, demonstrate between them that there is no political community in South Africa, no commonwealth, no res publica, only the balance of might. And that balance, while long in stalemate, is tipping however gradually, in only one direction. Though from opposing ends of the conflict, both Koos Malan and Thembeka Ngcukaitobi appear to be in agreement that since power lies in interpretation, transformation is a mere matter of will to implement.

The motivation for extracting further concessions has nothing to do with the welfare of the ordinary people, but with historical narratives and cosmetic statistics. It is a matter of perceived insult, and like an old fashioned duelist, the aggrieved party demands satisfaction. The cohesion of a political commonwealth relies on the capacity for mutual trust and agreement on the moral sense and general interests of the community, at least to a degree tolerable by each significant group under its purview.

But today, one group makes demands of another that will cost them their livelihood and all that remains in practice of their legal rights. And they do so, not for practical reasons of utility, which are subject to the weight of empirical evidence, but out of a sense of collective justice, which is fundamentally incompatible with the moral foundations assumed by the other side. The vast majority are ignorant, ambivalent, apathetic or confused, but the elites are dug in, and it is their grappling for the throne that determines the future of the little people, even under a “democracy”.

Here, only strength will determine whose rights prevail.

Reason is a universal faculty - it is, trivially, to give an account, a description or a justification. But reason is an instrument of the will, and those who clamour for a given position do so because they hold values which are to them sacred and unquestionable. Nobody negotiates over sacred values on the basis of marginal utility. There can be no persuading a person not to pursue the prosecution of a murderer on the basis of the expense of the trial. And to insist that the white race is composed of individuals, is about as convincing a defence to the ears of a black nationalist as if a defendant made the case for his innocence on the basis that the self is an illusion and all things are impermanent.

Because of a failure to recognise this, we have been talking at cross-purposes for generations. The factions currently attempting public debate only maintain the state of negotiation so long as the balance of powers favours the stalemate conditions of the status quo. And in the best case scenario, that status quo can only be provisionally extended.

For conservatives, there are no grounds for dispossession without fair trial. That would be a violation of one’s natural, God-given rights. For the liberals, there are no higher values than practical utility, and so each option is weighed up, between the general policy believed to be the most materially beneficent arrangement for the greatest number on the one hand, and the implacable demands of political enemies on the other, against which, in the name of principle (in truth, from cowardice) they will refuse to fight, if it costs more than legal fees.

For the champions of “transformation”, there are only two moral grounds on which to proceed – communism, and national-socialism. Neither of these principles are sensitive to empirical critique, because they are moral axioms. The lay communists of South Africa believe that perfect material equality enforced by a central authority is a moral imperative before any other issue can be addressed. For the national-socialists, it is a matter of racial dignity, purity, justice, and soil – blut und boden.

The material outcomes are a matter for the poor and desperate to deal with, a matter that seldom concerns those engaging in public debate or decisionmaking. It does not trip for a second the heartbeats of Julius Malema, Cyril Ramaphosa, Kim Heller or anybody else in this stale bun fight whether civil war, mass starvation, or genocide results, because they are well out of reach of the mob. Insulation from cost provides interlocutors with the opportunity to express positions that defy reason.

Radicals believe that, as a criminal class, whites have no right to resist claims against them. To declare that any sector of the population has no rights in the discourse over any given political issue is to declare them without rights in the absolute – to designate them outsiders and enemies; subjects, not citizens. To find such political conditions imposed upon one, is to discover a matter of existential interest to resist the state by any means necessary.

The deadly consequences of communism are so well-trodden that there really is no point in addressing them. But the consequences of national-socialism are presently ignored, because the potential of black people to exhibit its tendencies is treated as inconceivable, under pain of banishment from polite society. But because it is such a simple and brute doctrine, it is intelligible and available to anybody.

When a black nationalist says he wants “the land”, it is a demand for the exclusive control of all land in South Africa by those of cultural or genetic Bantu lineage. That is, by the descendants of those northern invaders who killed, dispersed, enslaved and dominated the aboriginal inhabitants of most of Africa until the Arab and European settlers took over this function. The principle is entirely arbitrary, recognising distinctions of ownership purely on the basis on whether one’s genetic haplotype first settled land by crossing salt or fresh water, citing the settling of Southern Africa by Europeans as the fundamental cause for redress, not a limited set of actions undertaken by a specific government or set of individuals, except in a symbolic sense.

There are three ways in which this demand can be fulfilled.

First, through the personal control by powerful black elites, who through the state or loyal mobs will appropriate land and property for their personal enjoyment on the basis of patronage and raw power.

Second, through public distribution under state ownership.

Third, one might simply make legal the arbitrary seizure of land by poor blacks. This is already well under way, since the government has a longstanding informal policy of planned land invasions conducted through local branches, either to pressure private property owners to relinquish their lot, or to seize territory from opposition parties. It has also been solidified by the legal precedent set on the 25th of August 2020 by the Western Cape High Court to abolish the common-law right to counter-spoliation, thus making it illegal to clear settlers from your property.

But in practice, all three models necessarily converge on the same ultimate condition. Historically, and for practical purposes, the size of agricultural plots, offices and residential properties are always vastly unequal, both in size and quality. For this reason, the administrative distribution of these properties will always result in the privileging of some at the expense of others, and in any political system, patronage and corruption will play a part in his process.

As visitors to the Soviet Union noted, those who lived in the apartments allotted for the ruling clique were afforded better security, better respect, and their apartments were more spacious and luxurious, than those dull tenements apportioned to the lower classes. But even the level of corruption and inequality in the Soviet Union would be a level green meadow compared to what can be reasonably expected from the braindead and faithless Marxists holding the reins of the National democratic Revolution, as any Zimbabwean can tell you.

In the townships and on the farms, ANC branches run vast, violent protection rackets, where residents are forced to pay informal taxes to live or to conduct business, or to make improvements on their homes. This makes the newly “distributed” properties in reality a system of patriarchal control under the party. And in the case of racketeering, once the settlers have driven the owners of a prized piece of real estate into sale, the police will be sent in to clear them.

But to the faithful national-socialist, these are mere consequences. Many patriotic Zimbabweans will choose to believe a wide variety of unfounded and self-flattering falsehoods to preserve the legitimacy of their core claim – that the land belongs to them, and that it was right to ensure that no impure race held possession of their land. So they tell themselves that the land failed because of some bad apples in government, or some imaginary economic embargo.

Similarly, black-nationalist academics will appeal to successful land reforms in the far East. But comparisons to the American imperial expropriations in occupied Korea and Japan are wildly inappropriate. The landlords who were dispossessed were not farmers, but feudal rentiers of the farmland tended by actual tenants. Consequently the transfer of ownership from the loyalist aristocracy to the peasantry caused minimal disruption, and actually alleviated economic burdens on the agricultural sector. This is a relationship which, for South Africa, only exists between black peasants and chiefs in the former Bantustans. Dispossession of white farmland in South Africa will be to duplicate Zimbabwefication.

In reality, these catastrophes are inevitable. The transfer of land requires some designated owner or caretaker, and as our own legal procedures have demonstrated, claimants for restitution prefer cash, at such an overwhelming rate that there has been no significant shift in the ethnic ownership of agricultural land despite hundreds of thousands of processed claims, and resulted in a march of fallow land across the formerly fertile fields of the Afrikaner terraforming project. AfriForum and the Institute of Race Relations have made these fact-based critiques ad nauseum, to fall on deaf ears.

For the real political players, the favoured narrative is purely deontological. In order to justify the unipolar, monoracial domination of South Africa, black nationalists insist on a conscious mendacity: the concept of “political blackness”, or Bikoism. The idea is simple. All (politically loyal) non-whites are black. Therefore, anything that would supposedly have belonged to any Indian or Coloured belongs to “all of us”. Though in practice, this is very much a “first-among-equals” issue. After all, as the Glenn Snyman case and any prolonged observation of casual black discourse will show, blacks do not consider Coloureds or Indians to be black except for the purpose of temporary political expedience. The Morogoro conference confirmed as much even before then, when it praised them as fine allies and frontline soldiers, but declined to integrate them into the executive – blacks have a special claim to the land and their grievances are special too, and so no other identity group can have input into major decisions unless they are obedient to the majoritarian leadership.

This little three-card monty allows black nationalists to waive the claims of Khoi and San people, Indian and Coloured people (unless it has political utility), and disregard inter-tribal disputes over land, in favour of the despotism of nihilistic and Anglicised black cosmopolitans; a new breed of Afro-Saxons, friendly to international finance and graft, ready to sell their parochial lower-class cousins into servitude and penury for a few luxury vehicles and a glass of champaign.

So in practice, land reform is really a process of transferring ownership of the land and its profits from funny-looking pale natives to funny-looking pale foreigners and an informal and unaccountable pyramid of violent parasites. Nor is there a single pure communist who cares very much about the details. For white communists, it is an unforgivable sin to distrust even the most bloodthirsty of African leaders, and so they will offer no criticism. For black communists, life is expendable in the name of the revolution, and whether the survivors who enter utopia are black or white is immaterial.

Black people who are in favour of the restitution of the land do not care about consequences or complications. Theirs is a pure matter of honour. It is a matter of dignity and pride. They demand satisfaction, like an old Regency aristocrat throwing down his glove and whipping out his dueling pistol. The reality of such a confrontation is that it requires us to fight. There is no chance of them backing down and claiming us as their own unless we relinquish every single legal and natural right unto the arbitrary exercise of power demanded by the angrier elements of the ruling classes.

For the rest of us, consequences are a matter of existential importance.

The class of administrators who would have us hand over our property are people who, let the record show, cannot be trusted with the grocery money – how are we supposed to trust them with our lifesbread? This is like demanding that we kneel and stare into the barrel of a loaded gun, held by one who regards us as morally negligible, until the whims of its wielder’s wounded ego are satisfied. As Stephen Carson shows, such an arrangement always results in the firing of the bullet – the confiscation of property rights, especially along ethnic lines, invariably results in genocide or ethnic cleansing.

Otto Pohl’s research into the actions taken by Soviet Russia against ethnic Germans and other troublesome ethnic minorities in the Red Russian Empire demonstrate a gratuitous and cruel destruction of the lives of millions, segregation, employment bars, concentration camps, starvation, and constant assault, justified by reference to a collective racial guilt, and a deliberate conflation of race and class privilege – ethnic kulaks, necessarily liquidated for the sake of the revolution.

So it is not only African national-socialists who resort to this form of cruelty. It may seem in poor taste to refer to Nazi Germany, a tiresome cliché in political dialogue, but they did use racial quotas to remove Jews from powerful institutions, and they did confiscate their property. Some might say it is an inappropriate comparison. But even the learned advocates of land reform, like Lwazi Lushaba and Mcebo Dlamini, fantasise about Hitlerism. What is seldom referenced is the specific timing of the march to the ashes.

Kristallnacht only occurred in 1938, five years into Hitler’s rule, and eight years into his presence on the political scene, by which time, the Jewish minority still had a higher average material wealth than the average German, and the Jewish population itself was split on support for the Nazis right up until he seized power, with a social movement for the support of German Nationalism among German-speaking Jews led by Max Naumann. Before the dictatorship, the norms of the corrupt and freewheeling libertine Weimar Republic were already in rapid decline, and Germany had been a violent and chaotic society since the end of the War.

The dispossession of the Jews occurred because the soil and the material wealth of Germany were seen to belong by right exclusively to the German race, and the Jews were believed to have acquired their wealth by exploiting the conditions of hyperinflation to seize German assets at firesale prices with foreign currency, and additionally to have caused that very hyperinflation by subjugating the nation punitive war debts through a conflict instigated by international finance. Rwanda already took most of the property of Tutsis and barred them from office and senior management via quota system for 30 years before they decided to butcher them once and for all, and justified this by describing them as foreign invaders from Ethiopia and tools of colonial oppression.

Would the truth of any of these narratives matter to the survivors of the tropical butchery or the gas chambers? Did it matter to the perpetrators? The evil of these crimes would be no less severe if the pretexts were true.

But as the cheerleaders for this new dispensation are keen to remind us, they do not need to ask permission to indulge their ancient right. And emblematic of this intent is the speech of Cyril Ramaphosa on the 16 of December 2019, even more so than his frog-boiling remarks. Once this was the Day of the Vow, recognising the prayer which consecrated a battle against the Zulu king who slaughtered Voortrekkers and their families fleeing British rule, while unarmed and under his protection, after they had fulfilled a quest for him for which they were promised land. It has since become the Day of Reconciliation, promising the universal recognition of equal rights for all under the protection of the constitution.

On said day, Ramaphosa chose to call Dingane’s men freedom fighters. The moral basis of his leadership, declared on this most sacred and symbolic of days, is the right to murder those who deal in good faith, because their presence constitutes an impurity. Furthermore, this is the most moderate black leader in South Africa, as far as the land question goes. And so there can be no reasoning. Each compromise in good faith is a forestalling of an eventual betrayal, and every call for transformation is a cry for blood.

The present system, of individual claims settled in a court of law, is the only just and moral mechanism for land restitution. If the calls for radical transformation do not fall silent, only fire will speak.