The land question & the perils of magical thinking

RW Johnson writes that at the root of the EWC debate is an insatiable symbolic hunger

The decision by the ANC to back expropriation without compensation (EWC) has occasioned a tremendous gale of comment. Ramaphosa seems to have gone along with this demand at the ANC’s Nasrec conference simply because he feared that being on the losing side of that debate might cost him the Presidency. Now he faces the fact that a very large stone has been thrown into the pool and he cannot control all the ripples.

Even the Australian government now considers our farmers to be victims. Ramaphosa is trying hard to deflect the storm by (unfairly) blaming AfriForum and by talking earnestly about nice white farmers who really want land reform. But his problems will not stop there. In his SONA address he said he wanted to hold a conference of international investors to encourage investment in South Africa.

It is difficult to see how such a conference can get beyond item one, viz. EWC. And while Ramaphosa has, quite rightly, lit upon agriculture as an industry with tremendous potential for job creation, EWC has made agriculture uninvestable. Investors might start by asking Mr. Ramaphosa how he would feel about his own farm suffering EWC...

The myth of government support

Ramaphosa has said that the key thing to understand is why 90% of farms handed over as a result of land reform have failed. But this is a predictable debate. What happens next is that we are told that the failure of new African farmers has resulted from a failure of government support and back-up. Everyone then reverently agrees that Such Back-Up Must Happen.

This ignores both the fact that most land claimants want the money, not the farm, and also ignores the many cases where farms have been handed over to whole communities. Nowhere in the world has communal farming succeeded so one may as well accept that land handed over to communities will end up, at best, as subsistence farming. To believe anything else is just magical thinking.

This leaves the case of the ideal type small black farmers. Such people very seldom have any agricultural education and nor do they have the capital to afford the equipment they need or to tide them over through a bad year. Nowadays modern farmers have granaries computer controlled for temperature and humidity, rely on sophisticated irrigation equipment which requires careful maintenance and carefully monitor the futures markets before deciding what to plant. Farming is now a sophisticated and highly capitalised business. Being a keen amateur farmer, even an experienced former farm worker, is just not enough.

The idea that government support will ever be enough to make the difference is ridiculous. For a start, ours is not an efficacious government given to providing help to far-flung individuals in remote locations. Our departments of land and agriculture are full of eager ideologues happy to draw up unworkable legislation, but they are extremely short of anything amounting to practical help. But, above all, farmers are alone on their farms at least 98% of the time.

They rely only on their families and their workers and they all have to learn from the start that they will sink or swim on their own. That is just in the nature of things. The best they can hope for is that they may have some well-established farming neighbours willing to give them advice and lend them equipment.

Ask any of them how they got through bad harvests, droughts, cattle diseases, poaching or farm attacks and they’ll tell you they got through only by their own determined efforts. There was no government help. So, the whole discussion of “government support” is a dead end.

Land as symbolism

By far the most important contribution to the land debate came from Mr. Tshepo Diale in a letter to Business Day on March 12. It is worth quoting it in extenso:

“The reason the land debate generates such heat is that for black South Africans land is a symbol of far more than an expanse of soil. For most people it has nothing to do with is about much more than just reorganising ownership patterns. It is also about history and inequality and even, among some, a need to have the white minority “put in its place” to make them feel the pain the majority has felt for so long.

Historically, the demand by the blacks for the return of the land meant the return of the country to its people, which is why it was directed not only at ownership of farms but at minority control of the economy and society by a few. This is why EWC has become a rallying cry for people who have no interest in farming but who are angry that a quarter of a century of democracy has not ended white privilege. It symbolizes a much broader demand for change.”

And there you have it. All the intricate arguments about how to deal with the loans owed to the banks by farmers, how to assess the value of buildings and equipment, how EWC would affect food security – etcetera – are irrelevant. This is about symbolism, not practicalities. Not even about agriculture or farming at all. The people who rammed this motion through the ANC conference have no more idea of how to deal with any of those arguments than does the EFF, who started this ball rolling. It may seem crazy – indeed it is – to come up with a proposal which could cut off one’s own food supply, but that is just a measure of the power of this symbolism.

The universality of nativism

Which is not too surprising. What lies behind the current wave of populism in developed countries but the very same nativism? The Brexiteers’ slogan was “Take back our country” but it applies even better to Trump’s almost wholly white supporters, keen to see the back of America’s first black president, eager to keep out Hispanic immigrants and alarmed at the thought that whites will soon be a minority there.

Undoubtedly the same slogan would be endorsed by Marine Le Pen and the tough anti-immigrant governments of Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. It was too, the angry cry of the Northern League and the Five Star Movement in Italy’s recent election, both indignantly calling for the deportation of the large numbers of unwanted African immigrants. The fact is that this is an almost universal sentiment in any country settled by large numbers of Others.

What has to be grasped about the argument presented by Mr Diale is that the hunger represented by the symbolism of land is quite literally insatiable. If, after all, the aim is to put the white minority “in its place” and make it feel pain, then this would mean creating conditions in which whites all left the country. Even if that happened, one suspects many of the same feelings would continue for some time.

Symbolic hunger and magical thinking

Note, too, the expectation that a quarter century of democracy ought to have “ended white privilege”. This gets to the nub of a key problem. When Africans see that whites remain economically better off as a group, they tend to see this as purely a matter of inherited apartheid-era privilege. White individuals themselves are keenly aware that they have usually worked hard for their money, often studying for many years and slowly making their way without any help from affirmative action or BEE. Whatever success they enjoy they feel they have earned. They indignantly point out that they did not acquire property by taking it from anyone but by working many years to pay off a bond. To which the answer is, in effect, yes but this is our country and yet you are better off than us which is not fair.

The whole point of what Mr Diale so perceptively writes is that almost all the discussion occasioned by the EWC debate is irrelevant and otiose. What we are talking about is an insatiable symbolic hunger. This hunger is a psychological state and the idea that returning land to the majority can put an end to that state is merely wishful; magical thinking in fact. One can already perceive this in the way the government deliberately mis-represents the figures on what proportion of the land is owned by blacks by leaving out both state-owned land and communally-owned land. Clearly, the wish is to perpetuate the symbolic sense of dispossession and victimhood. EWC has been dreamt up as a sort of magic bullet which can achieve the desired goal, the blessed relief from that symbolic hunger. Of course it can’t, but that is what magical thinking is all about.

If one looks at the history of African nationalism across the continent, one sees that this is a common theme. Such regimes originated in a large act of nativist assertion to achieve the nirvana of uhuru. In a few cases – Botswana, Ivory Coast, Mauritius – development occurred along orthodox capitalist lines but in the vast majority of cases some form of “African socialism” or “scientific socialism” was attempted. These regimes all failed and as their failure became more manifest there was an increasing resort to magical thinking.

Everything could be transformed by Nkrumah’s Dawn Broadcast; or by Sekou Toure’s little red book; or by ujamaa or Zaireanization; or by throwing out all the whites or Asians; or by nationalizing the mines; by invading all the white farms; or simply by staging a military coup which, equally magically, would end all corruption. All of these remedies only made matters worse – just as EWC, if implemented, would make South Africa’s problems enormously worse.

What has happened in the end is that all that these states have shown the truth of Adam Smith’s maxim that “There is a great deal of ruin in a country”. Typically, these countries have descended into chaos or war or simply into a state of bombed-out poverty, from which they slowly pick themselves up, usually with the help of institutions and an economy which are merely the ghosts of what once was – think of the DRC after Mobutu, Zimbabwe after Mugabe, Uganda after Amin and Obote. Magical thinking then stops and citizens eke out their lot concerned mainly with survival.

So the real question for South Africa is whether it too needs to go through such dreadful travail in order to put a stop to magical thinking. We are unlikely to get an answer to this until the 2019 elections are behind us. Until then, at least, Ramaphosa has decided to go along with the obvious nonsense of EWC. If he then wins the decisive majority which now seems possible he will have to choose whether to continue to court popularity with this will o’ the wisp or whether he will endeavour to lead his countrymen away from magical thinking.

RW Johnson