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Land question still haunts South Africa

Date Released: Fri, 1 March 2013 10:59 +0200

“The South African state is clearly not pursuing any radical restructuring of the countryside. Historically and globally mobilisation and organisation are usually required ahead of radical land reform. At some stage there has got to be a dramatic break,” said Head of Department of Sociology, Professor Kirk Helliker.


He presented his thoughts on ‘Reproducing White Commercial Farms in South Africa’ by drawing parallels between the state of agrarian reform 19 years after democracy in Zimbabwe and South Africa.


Prof Helliker said he cannot help but be concerned at the lack of action in this regard in South Africa.


“We are at the same point in South Africa where Zimbabwe was just before the extensive land reform started in Zimbabwe in 2000 and there is very little to indicate that efforts are being made to address the situation.


“The white commercial farming sector remains a powerful force in relation to farm workers and the state. I find it quite disturbing that the spacialised disposition of land ownership hasn’t changed significantly since 1994,” he said.


Providing an overview of white commercial farming in contemporary South Africa and focusing on the `land question´ and the `labour question´, both of which are crucial for any serious thinking about rural transformation.


Prof Helliker emphasised that the white commercial agricultural sector, which dominates vast portions of the South African countryside, is neither static nor uniform, and that change can occur at any time.


Drawing on firsthand experience of the political climate in Zimbabwe in 1999, 19 years after independence and months before the infamous farm occupations started.

Prof Helliker said he is concerned about a lack of land movements aimed at addressing the inequalities in land ownership and a glaring omission of land reform policy at government level.


Referring to a failure of the National Development Plan (NDP), unveiled by the South African state in 2012, to offer any significant restructuring of the agrarian economy, he said the plan speaks about a mix of small-scale and commercial farming and an "emphasis on smallholder farmers where possible"; but is heavily weighted towards commercial farming and ongoing integration into the global economy.

Having witnessed the radicalisation of the Zimbabwean state in the 1990s against imperialism while he lived in a ZANUPF stronghold, Prof Helliker said that socio-political change does not necessarily happen in a linear and organised way, as demonstrated in some ways by the Arab Spring.


“Yes, sometimes change happens in a cumulative and progressive way, leading to a saturation point where the balance tilts and change happens, but change can also happen more spontaneously and seemingly out of nowhere,” he said.


While the agrarian sector is thought to have experienced almost total liberalisation and state deregulation in the post-apartheid period, Prof Helliker noted that the neo-liberalising trend highlighted should be understood as a process of re-regulation rather than de-regulation.


This is because, since 1994, along with acts of `de-regulation´, a range of social protectionist (`state regulation´) measures have been put in place, notably labour legislation, which seemingly are in tension with the liberalisation trend.


“Overall, the post-apartheid state has followed a contradictory path of socio-economic change as has been manifested in the agrarian sector. Like its predecessor, the current state remains trapped discursively within a productivist conception of agricultural production and food security, despite policy pronouncements to the contrary,” Prof Helliker said.


This continuity in agrarian processes is evident from the ongoing racialised socio-spatial character of the South African countryside (effectively white South Africa and black former Bantustans) and the considerable power of agricultural capital vis-à-vis the state and the rural proletariat.


As a result, the commercial agricultural sector, albeit in new forms, has been reproduced and even consolidated, he said. “This is at the expense of any significant agrarian change based on historical redress and a post-productivist future.”

Story and photo by Sarah-Jane Bradfield