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«Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 19, 1, 2001 Land for the Landless: Conflicting Images of Rural and Urban in South Africa’s Land Reform ...»

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Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 19, 1, 2001

Land for the Landless: Conflicting

Images of Rural and Urban in

South Africa’s Land Reform

Programme

Deborah James

South Africa’s land reform programme has been underpinned by ambivalence

about land and what it signifies. One set of discourses and practices shows that

ownership of or access to rural land is a key part of many African families’

well-being and livelihood. But it is only a part: small-scale agriculture in

South — and southern — Africa has been shown over the past decades to have become impossible without inputs from labour migrant remittances. The corollary is that the desire to acquire or retain access to land exists alongside the real or desired capacity to earn money in the urban sector. Land represents a sense of security, identity and history, rather than being just an asset to be used for farming alone. But despite this, land has featured in the assumptions of some policy-makers (and some academic researchers closely associated with them) as a key asset in its own right. Reforming its ownership and redistributing it to poorer sectors of society is thought to provide the key to solving poverty and inequality, and is seen as the starting point in any real debate about redistributing wealth. Ignoring the interplay of rural and urban sources of income and identity, this set of assumptions is one which envisages the worlds of town and country as separate: it reconstitutes Africans either as rural farmers or as urban wage earners. Ironically, there are striking continuities between this discourse and that of apartheid, with its attempts in the 1950s to promote successful African farmers, and in linked attempts to divide urban from rural people through such means as the infamous influx control regulations.

This paper reviews published academic work, policy statements, and case studies of labour migrancy and land reform to illustrate some of the contradictory impulses behind and outcomes of the land reform programme in the new South Africa. It demonstrates that the idea of rural and urban as separate worlds has been strongly entrenched in South Africa’s ‘development discourse’ from long before apartheid’s demise. When one considers the rural/urban dichotomy in the context of South Africa, it is useful to take guidance from Ferguson’s innovative articles (1990, 1992). In these, he recognises the importance not only of local representations of this dichotomy but also of the way it has featured in debates, ISSN 0258-9001 print/ ISSN 1469-9397 online/ 01/010093-17 © 2001 Journal of Contemporary African Studies DOI:10.1080 / 02589000120028193 94 Journal of Contemporary African Studies between state planners, policy-makers and social science researchers, about the projected and desired direction of social change. This paper looks at some of the

interrelations between these two in relation to South Africa’s land reform programme and makes two claims:

· That there has been a reciprocal relationship between broader debates about policy on the one hand and local ideas and practices on the other, but that the form taken by this influence has not always been what one might expect. In particular, the rural/urban dichotomy, used to representing divergent racial identities in the making of apartheid policy about South Africa’s rural areas, has been re-appropriated by local people to mark age, gender and even class divisions between people within particular socio-economic units such as households.

· That there have been significant mismatches between these two arenas of knowledge and practice. In particular, the image produced by this spatial dichotomy has obscured the intimate interdependence between rural and urban as sources not only of income but also of identity. In populist and neo-liberal debates about land reform in the new South Africa, there have been some remarkable continuities with that discourse which informed previous government projections about the future of rural areas. For both, rural and urban appear as separate worlds, with plans to bolster the agricultural sector and to plan for the future of farming being seen as largely unrelated to people’s capacity to earn a living in, or derive a sense of belongingness within, the context of town.

The Regional Setting Recent events in Zimbabwe, in which large numbers of squatters have occupied white farms amidst claims that the freedom struggle will not be over until the country’s land has been redistributed, have raised questions in some observers’ minds about the relevance of these events for South Africa. Although it is recognised that Zimbabwe’s farm occupations have been largely instigated by a regime in crisis and fearing for its survival, the question of whether similar land invasions and outpourings of wrath might occur south of the border, some decades down the line, is a pertinent one. It is particularly so because of the raising of expectations — through media publicity given to government promises of reform and to the relatively few cases where historically-owned land has been returned, through posters calling for land claims to be registered by the cut-off date, and the like. There have also been early warning signs, with officials in the Department of Land Affairs having admitted that they cannot deliver and hence that these expectations will necessarily be thwarted. The similarities between the two countries should not, however, conceal one major difference between them. While Zimbabwe’s economy has been, and remains, a primarily agricultural one, South Africa’s is based on its mineral wealth and on industry. Its white agricultural sector, after a brief period of competition with black peasant farmers, became South Africa: Conflicting Images of Rural & Urban 95 predominant and expanded considerably during the apartheid era — but it was bolstered by a complex set of institutional arrangements and artificial supports such as government-funded loans, marketing boards and co-operatives. In its attempts to secure labour, it competed with urban-based industry in a manner which grew increasingly fierce, but in which the odds were stacked against it, despite government attempts to retain a rural labour force by regulating, for example, the free movement of Africans to the cities through influx control, and labour-recruiting agencies operating in rural areas. Set in the context of this competition between different sectors of the economy, the history and past use of the land whose use is now being reformed has been a complex one. Official apartheid discourse, as discussed below, represented all Africans as having always resided in their ‘tribal homelands’, but the reality is that there were large numbers of rurally-resident families living on white farms where they engaged in a complex juggling act to satisfy farm owners’ demands for labour and to pursue their own activities as cultivators and pastoralists, while also having migrant members at work in town. Smaller numbers lived, independent of farmer control, on freehold farms in white areas which were later to be designated as ‘black spots’, where they engaged in equally diversified combinations of wage- and subsistence-oriented activities across the town/country divide. There had been considerable mobility within country areas even before the onset of apartheid’s massive project of social engineering. But this movement intensified from the 1960s onwards when many evicted labour tenants and forcibly resettled freeholders — and even some people relocating voluntarily — moved into the African homelands, reserves or bantustans. These were not large enough to accommodate the newcomers but had been augmented (albeit insufficiently) by the addition of extra territory, itself purchased from former white owners, which came to be known locally as the ‘Trust’. While for some families the move from white farm to bantustan necessitated the onset of waged work for the first time, many others had had fathers or brothers involved in wage work from long before they moved from the farms where they had resided.





Official Discourse on Town and Country In industrialising areas of Africa, to represent people as being at a particular point of the rural/urban continuum has been an enterprise which is highly ideologically charged. The depiction of [Zambian] Copperbelt African workers as primarily ‘tribal’ or as ‘target workers’, for example, has been shown by Ferguson (1990:617) to be related to colonial settler fear, whereas a later view — exemplified by Gluckman’s famous statement that “an African miner is a miner” — which saw African workers on the Copperbelt as assimilated and urbanised, derived from a liberal argument developed in opposition to settler conservatism.

Both positions owed more to the political and ideological predispositions of those who held them than to the orientations of the Africans in question.

96 Journal of Contemporary African Studies In South Africa, representations of urbanness — or its lack — have been similarly loaded. Apartheid’s planners, in their attempts to envisage and legitimate a way of controlling the flux of African movement to the cities, used spatial forms of identification. From an official point of view, defining people as being ‘from another place’ was the basis for denying their political inclusion and rights of common citizenship, as Ashforth (1990:129) shows in his analysis of the discourse used in the series of official government commissions which investigated the ‘Native Question’ from the early decades of the twentieth century onwards.

While some of the earlier commissions addressing this question were inclined to deal with the unprecedented influx of people by planning to provide sanitised and separated housing in town, the definitive Tomlinson Commission of 1955 laid out the apartheid government’s new political vision by concentrating on the rural areas. According to this, there would be alternative citizenship for the African majority because they ‘belonged’ elsewhere — within ethnically defined cultural units with specific territorial bases, the heartlands of the reserves. Thus did the Commission remap “the social landscape according to a whole new conception of the innate relationship of people to place” (ibid:158).

Rather than concentrating on finding ways to integrate African labourers into the urban economy as some earlier policies had done, this was a perspective focused on the rural ‘home’ areas to which, it was claimed, these people really belonged.

As part of this focus, a plan was authored for the agricultural development of these areas through creating a viable small- to medium-farm economy. But this particular commission’s recommendations — involving social engineering on an even grander scale than apartheid’s implementers were later to accomplish — were never carried out. In its insistence upon the need to develop these areas as part of a master plan of divided citizenship, its report revealed itself as a manifestation of apartheid ideology rather than as a blueprint for workable rural development (Ashforth 1990:177-8).

But it left its ideological stamp on the bureaucratic mind, and also, as I argue here, on the way in which apartheid’s opponents, some of whom are now in government, think about and plan for the future of those who live in the rural areas. Its notion that South Africa’s African population has its rightful dwelling-place and political home in the rural areas — and in particular the rural ‘heartland’ of each ethnic reserve or bantustan — was drawn upon and perfected by subsequent commissions whose recommendations were implemented in varying degrees (such as those led by Wiehahn and Rieckert) in their attempts to entrench the division between those Africans legally residing in cities and the excluded — rural — majority. The politically-charged nature of its insistence on the rural nature of the African population can also be discerned in the writings of those opposed to this viewpoint. As in Ferguson’s discussion of the Copperbelt, the scholarship which tended to stress the possibilities for integration — and to emphasise the proletarian and/or urban nature and future — of the African population, was that written in a liberal/radical tradition.2 Adopting a similar perspecSouth Africa: Conflicting Images of Rural & Urban 97 tive, anthropological writings emphasised the inextricable intertwining of rural and urban sources of livelihood — and later of identity. But the insistence that rural and urban are separate worlds has remained, and has now found expression in debates and contestations which have occurred since 1994, both within and beyond the policy arena, about a series of issues with an apparently rural focus — and in particular about the aims and intended outcomes of land reform, how to end rural impoverishment by providing employment, and the like.

It is not only in the corridors of power and influence that the impact of such discourses has been felt. Nor has the direction of influence been entirely one-way.

Whether policy has been directly informed or only indirectly influenced by them, the recommendations made by government commissions were based on the collection of large amounts of evidence from African chiefs, their subjects, and various other spokesmen. Tomlinson was particularly thorough in this respect, having gathered 69 volumes of material (Ashforth 1990:150). That African migrant labourers and their dependants have developed a self-image as people rooted in the countryside rather than having any fundamental connection to town is borne out by numerous accounts. It is likely that this image has not only been shaped by but has also shaped the discourse of policy-makers and those in government. To some extent, then, the perception of the two worlds as separate and discrete, having been constructed through a process of reciprocal interaction, is shared by actors at both village and government level. Both have an ambiguous attitude about acknowledging the interactions between these worlds.

Rural-Urban Continuities in South African Studies One strand of scholarship in southern African social studies, informed by an E.P.



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