The template on which South African industrial capitalism was built has remained unchanged since the late 19th century.
Addressing a mining lekgotla in 2016, former president Kgalema Motlhanthe said, inter alia: “Sadly, mining has remained a prisoner of its apartheid past in its core element of cheap labour, sourced through a migrant’s punishing annual work cycle and the social evils associated with that cycle. No amount of employment equity plans and empowerment transactions have ventured to tamper with this ...”
The migrant labour system is inextricably intertwined with the land question and racist policies denying Africans access to the land.
The pioneer South African socialist and feminist, Olive Schreiner, in her book Thoughts on South Africa, captured the central historic challenge facing modern South Africa beautifully:
“South African unity is a condition the practical necessity for which is daily and hourly forced upon us by the common needs of life; it is the only path open to us. For this unity all great men born in South Africa during the next century will be compelled directly and indirectly to labour; it is this unity which must precede the production of anything great and beautiful by our people as a whole; neither art, nor science, nor literature, nor statecraft will flourish among us as long as we remain in our unorganised form.
“It is the attainment of this unity which constitutes the problem of South Africa. How, from our political states and our discordant races, can a great, a healthy and an organised nation be formed?”
By the cunning of reason, progressive intellectuals located in the national liberation movements and in the organisations of the black proletariat became the most consistent proponents of Schreiner’s vision by unequivocally embracing the multicultural, multilingual, multiracial, multifaith society that is the principal outcome of a century of economic development.
For a century, successive white governments tried to unscramble that historic omelette. Consequently, a vital dimension of liberation history is the striving of that progressive intelligentsia, the majority of whom were/are black, to either realise the full potential of South African capitalism or to move beyond it in the direction of a postcapitalist society.
Historically, by building a liberation alliance, the ANC aspired to represent all the people of South Africa. But it would be childish to pretend that that objective has been attained. ANC support continues to be predominantly African.
In contrast, all the white-led parties that have governed, or aspired to govern, never concealed that they were pursuing the sectional interests of the white minority. The 1905 Native Laws Commission made it explicit that the law would be used to strip the Africans of their land. The racist government did not disguise that the purpose of the 1946 Asiatic Land Tenure Act was to exclude Indian traders from the central business district so as to advantage white business. The brutal destruction of District Six, too, was explicitly explained as the ethnic cleansing of the city centre.
Though still in gestation, the Thabo Mbeki Foundation pamphlet addresses an issue central to the struggle for freedom and democracy: the land question. There is continuity and change in the ANC’s policy positions on land because they evolved over time.
The African Bill of Rights, adopted in 1923, spoke in terms of the abolition of the 1913 Land Act and the untrammeled right of all South Africans to buy and sell land anywhere in the country. In The Africans’ Claims, a document adopted in 1943, the land question features in clauses 6 and 7 as:
“Recognition of the sanctity or inviolability of the home as a right of every family, and the prohibition of police raids on citizens in their homes for tax or liquor or other purposes”; and
“The right to own, buy, hire or lease and occupy land and all other forms of immovable as well as movable property, and the repeal of restrictions on this right in the Native Land Act, the Native Trust and Land Act, the Natives (Urban Areas) Act and the Natives Laws Amendment Act.”
The Freedom Charter says: “The land shall be shared amongst those who work it.”
The ANC’s Strategy and Tactics document, adopted at the Morogoro Conference, held in Tanzania in 1969, elaborated on the meaning of that clause of the Freedom Charter thus:
“The bulk of the land in our country is in the hands of land barons, absentee landlords, big companies and state capitalist enterprises. The land must be taken away from exclusive European control and from these groupings, and divided among small farmers, peasants and the landless of all races who do not exploit the labour of others.”
The Marxist-inspired left of the liberation movement, with which former president Thabo Mbeki was personally associated, was consistently tougher in its policy prescriptions for solving the land question. In 1928, the Communist Party of SA’s (CPSA) political programme, calling for a black republic, explicitly stated:
“South Africa is a British dominion of a colonial type. The country was seized by violence by foreign exploiters, the land expropriated from the natives, who were met by a policy of extermination in the first stages of colonisation, and conditions of semi-slavery established for the overwhelming majority of the native masses. It is necessary to tell the native masses that, in the face of existing political and economic discrimination against the natives and ruthless oppression of them by the white oppressors, the Comintern slogan of a native republic means restoration of the land to the landless and land-poor population.”
During the 1930s, the CPSA and other Marxist formations spoke of the land question as the national question.
In a letter which the Communist International addressed to the CPSA in 1932, we read: “The Communist Party of SA must understand that the struggle for national liberation is inseparable from the struggle for land … The main slogan of action around which the whole struggle for land must be centred, is the slogan for the confiscation of the land of the European landlords.”
The SACP’s document, titled The Road to South African Freedom and adopted in 1962, stated the matter more sharply:
“From the time of the first white settlement, established by the Dutch East India Company 300 years ago, the pattern was set for the ruthless colonial exploitation of the non-white peoples of our country, the expropriation of their lands and the enforced harnessing of their labour power.”
“Millions of agricultural labourers and labour tenants are employed on white-owned farms throughout the country. These are the most exploited workers in South Africa. They work without any protection from labour laws, from dawn to sunset, at hard and exhausting labour, for wretchedly low wages.”
Liberation organisations outside the ANC alliance, such as the Unity Movement (UMSA), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), are unlikely to have differed fundamentally with these propositions.
Urban land was rarely addressed in these policies. The solutions emanating from the ANC and SACP (shared by virtually all the liberation formations) envisaged the seizure of agricultural land for the benefit of the landless, small farmers and peasants.
In 1928, the CPSA prescribed confiscating the farms of white landlords and land barons.
The ANC’s 1969 Strategy and Tactics document virtually adopts the same position and calls for the creation of a stratum of farmers, who employ only family labour. There is no reference to compensation, though it is not excluded.
The Thabo Mbeki Foundation pamphlet’s assertion that the ANC has never spoken of expropriation without compensation is untrue, or at best, overstated.
An important consideration is the status, position and future of workers in the agricultural sector. Most are employed by agri-business corporations on big farms. Thousands of others are employed as seasonal workers. There are also labour tenants. Bear in mind that every one of the big farms they work on is linked to a grave historic injustice, in many instances an injustice inflicted on the immediate ancestors of these workers; that in many instances generations have laboured on these farms for low pay and in degrading working conditions. It is an open secret that for decades white farmers flogged and otherwise abused African and coloured agricultural workers.
One Western Cape wine farmer arrived at a creative solution by adapting the Freedom Charter’s fourth clause to his large estate. Retaining one half of the farm for himself and his family, he unbundled the second as a cooperative owned by the workers. An imaginative way of sharing the land among those who work it.
Rather than drawing lessons from such resourceful initiatives, the Mbeki foundation pamphlet prefers repeating fears that are out of step even with the views of AgriSA, as recently expressed by its deputy executive director, Christo van der Rheede. Regrettably, the sound suggestions it finally does make are devalued by what precedes them.
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