Thursday, 8 December 2011

land occupations


Issued by the Food Sovereignty Campaign
December 2011
For the white owners of South Africa’s farm lands, land occupations evoke the fear and loathing of social collapse and historical retribution that form as much part of their heritage as their claim to more than 80% of the arable land of the country. But for the black dispossessed, land occupations are becoming increasingly important, both as a last resort in the struggle for survival, and as the next step in the effort to build a winning movement for pro-poor social change. In November 2011 there were two cases of land occupations within the same week reported on In KwaZulu/Natal on 30 October 2011, members of the Mpumuza community took over land outside Hilton saying ‘we are tired of seeing black people oppressed,’ and outside Mthatha in the Eastern Cape around the same time another group occupied land belonging to the United Reformed Church claiming that the land ‘was taken by force and grabbed by missionaries. People have taken the decision to go back and occupy their forefathers' land as beneficiaries.’ Ironically, this happened in the time when the politicians and officials that run the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform were crisscrossing the country with their newly released Green Paper that promised a more committed and efficient land reform programme with more redistribution and more agricultural support for land reform beneficiaries. Does this mean that landless people or at least a section among them, have lost patience with the state and the market, and have decided to act directly, by themselves, for themselves, through themselves?
The Food Sovereignty Campaign believes the time has come for land occupations. This movement of emerging farmers and farm dwellers is based in the Western and Northern Cape provinces. It was started in 2008 and initially concentrated on public pressure on the state through marches, pickets, sit-ins, discussions, submissions, a symbolic land occupation and laying charges at the Human Rights Commission. Other than that, it put a lot of effort into developing its activists through popular education and organising. This drew assurances, promises and sometimes lectures and insults from the politicians and officials, but little or no action. Now the activists in the campaign believe the time has come to put greater emphasis on direct action. ‘Land occupations are the new way of doing land reform,’ says Johan Jantjies, the convenor of the Food Sovereignty campaign. ‘Recently the government brought out a Green Paper on Land Reform. They made it clear they have no plan of how to get the land from the capitalist owners. Without such a plan how can you even talk about land reform? We have a plan and that is for the landless to occupy the land.’
Jantjies is a member of the Ithemba Farmers Association, a group of about 300 black families that started farming on a sandy stretch of government owned land between Khayelitsha and Eerste River in Cape Town. For the last three years they have been fighting the joint efforts of the departments of public works, human settlements and the Cape Town City Council to evict them. ‘In our meeting the delegate of the Ithemba Farmers Association reported that nothing much happened there in the last two months,’ says Rosina Secondt, an emerging farmer from Pella on the Orange River and a previous convenor of the Food Sovereignty Campaign. ‘They are still farming on the land. I am claiming that as a victory for the Food Sovereignty Campaign. The people did not have jobs or income. They occupied the land. The municipality, three government departments, lots of lawyers, the police and a mining company all worked together to throw the Ithemba Farmers off the land. They all failed and they are still failing. Why? Because the Ithemba Farmers mobilised themselves and the Food Sovereignty Campaign mobilised supporters from as far as Pella, 700km away in the Northern Cape. We physically stopped those who tried to evict the farmers. Today the Ithemba farmers are making a living on the land that they otherwise would not have had. That is a victory!’
The Ithemba farmers are not the only members of the Food Sovereignty Campaign occupying land. Patrick Steenkamp of the Loeriesfontein Emerging Farmers Association explains that they have been doing the same thing. ‘We became fed up with the municipality. They collected rent but they did nothing for us. There were no services. So we decided to develop the land ourselves. We put up our own fencing and our own windmills. We refused to pay rent. This has been going on for more than two years now. The land reform has failed us. The municipality has failed us. We will not fail ourselves. We are occupying this land. We will not be removed. Ever!’ At the meetings of the Food Sovereignty Campaign the emerging farmers of Kareeberg heard about the actions of their Loeriesfontein comrades and decided to follow their example. ‘Our members cannot be held back anymore,’ says Basil ‘Die Hond’ Eksteen of the Kareeberg Emerging Farmers Association. ‘They are just too angry. We talked, we wrote letters, we marched – now we are ready to take the land. The municipality gives us no support and now they want to charge us these impossible rents. They know we can’t pay. They just want to get rid of us and put white, commercial farmers on the land. We are in contact with a group in the Kimberley district that has occupied a farm of one of the richest land owners there. A man that owns fifteen farms while people sit with nothing. Neither the police nor the army has been able to remove these members from the land. If they could do it, so can we!’ Eksteen and his comrades published their intention to occupy the land without paying rent in a local newspaper, an intention they quickly carried out. The municipality had to concede the legitimacy of this action, and has undertaken to let the farmers use the land rent free while involving them in the drafting of a new policy around commonage land.   
For the most part these actions developed organically through people’s spontaneous reactions to poverty and perceived government inaction, but now the Food Sovereignty Campaign is ready to promote land occupations as a deliberate tactic. For the past year the members of the campaign have been attending a series of popular education workshops discussing the necessity, risks, limitations and benefits of land occupations in the light of contemporary and historical examples of movements that successfully used this tactic. Ricado Jacobs, agrarian studies scholar and member of the Food Sovereignty Campaign explains, ‘Land occupations should not be elevated to a panacea for other and all problems. It must be located within a broader framework, which the Food Sovereignty Campaign has in the form of food sovereignty, agro-ecology and anti-capitalism. But we must never forget that now and historically land occupations offered the only means through which the landless could engage in land reform directly, confront capital and gain control of the means of production.’
South Africa’s political system and governing elite are of course quite hostile to these kinds of land occupations. Property rights are enshrined in the constitution of the country and the land reform programme is based on a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ model, where private land owners have absolute discretion over whether to sell and at what price. They have priced the land not only out of reach of land hungry blacks, but often even out of reach of the state. There is no provision in law, like that of Brazil, which allow hungry people to grow food on unused land of absent owners. Some municipalities have gone so far as to create special ‘anti-land invasion’ police units that quickly developed a reputation for ruthless brutality.
Since 1996 the South African government has followed a strict neo-liberal policy path that includes cutting state expenditure on ‘unprofitable’ social services. A key strategy has been to cut transfers of funds from the national treasury to local governments by more than 90% over a ten year period, while at the same time transferring responsibility for delivering social services such as housing, water, electricity, health and policing from the national to local governments. The national treasury could thus balance its books and even generate a surplus, but municipalities had to deliver far more services to many more people with much less resources. They therefore became trapped in a well known cycle of poor service delivery, desperate cost recovery and community protests. As far as municipal land is concerned the pressure became overwhelming on municipal executives to charge the highest possible rents. Emerging farmers find it unaffordable, which leaves them effectively landless, as the national land reform process is a complete failure that managed to transfer less than 5% of agricultural land from white to black ownership.
In September the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform released its Green Paper on Land Reform that ‘seeks to provide new policy direction on Land Reform and it also proposes the establishment of institutions to support the implementation of the policy proposals contained in the
Green Paper,’ according to the notice in the Government Gazette. A new policy direction is indeed needed in the face of growing rural poverty and the failure of land reform. However, as the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies noted, the green paper provides almost ‘no guidance on any of the crucial questions facing land and agrarian reform in South Africa’ and ‘defers policy making’. The only conclusion, unanimously drawn by all land reform NGOs and movements, is that government policy and the situation of the rural masses will continue as now.
‘This is where land occupations has such a crucial role to play,’ says Herschelle Milford of the Surplus People Project. ‘There is this block on the national conversation on land reform and the equitable distribution of the land. That block is private property. As long as land reform must bow down before private property it will go nowhere. Land occupations can unblock the conversation and challenge the status quo. There is no justification that people should starve while there is unused land. The focus must be on needs. In Nababeep people occupied the land and involved women and children in the process. They are not only producing food for themselves, but they are also building a healthy community. The land owners were not affected at all, because they have enough. Land occupations are even cheaper to the state than market based land reform. The experience of Brazil, where they wrote in the country’s constitution that landless people have the right to occupy unused land, shows that government does not have to oppose land occupations.’ In their 2005 book ‘Reclaiming the Land,’ Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros notes that in Brazil ‘from 1995 to 1999, 85 per cent of all new settlements conducted by government had their immediate origin in direct land occupations; 2800 land reform settlements were created with nearly 300000 families in total, and these settlements followed 1800 occupations with 256000 families participating.’     
This view is further supported by the findings of a study by the Economic Commission for Africa of the United Nations. In May 2009 it published a major report on ‘Land Tenure Systems and their Impacts on Food Security and Sustainable Development in Africa,’ which, after a comprehensive survey of the land issues of the continent, concludes that ‘recently, illegal squatting or land occupations, albeit of a sporadic nature, have been more influential in keeping the land redistribution issue on the agenda than formal organizations of civil society or their recognized community-based organizations.’   


Land occupations ‘could hold catastrophic implications for investor confidence, food security and job creation,’ says Theo de Jager, vice president of Agri SA and chairman of the organisation’s Transformation Committee in a media statement on the Agri SA website. This view has all the weight of capitalist ideology behind it and exerts a powerful influence, including on government. As Grasian Mkodzongi explains in his article ‘South Africa: The Next Frontier for Land Occupations’ published on on 15 April 2010: at least since the Bredell land occupation in 2001, the South African government has been obsessed with sending ‘the right signal to the markets that Zimbabwean-style land “invasions” were not allowed here.’ Julius Malema, the suspended ANC Youth League president, touched a raw nerve in April this year when he told a gathering, ‘We have to take the land without payment, because the whites took our land without paying and transformed them into game farms.’ Both President Zuma and Deputy President Motlanthe were quick to repudiate the youth leader and give assurances that land reform will take place according the constitution that entrenches property rights. Even the vague and mild suggestions of the Green Paper on Land Reform to place undefined restrictions on private property are accompanied by the constant refrain that government will make sure that land reform does not compromise food security, as if land reform inherently threatens food security.       

‘Land occupations is a necessary and appropriate strategy,’ says Thabo Manyathi of the Association For Rural Advancement. Manyathi rejects the idea that land occupations threaten food security. ‘I have seen with my own eyes how land occupations are good for food security and for land reform. People reoccupied the Ndumo Game Reserve from where they were evicted in the past. They produced so well on the land that government actually made more land available to them, all without affecting conservation. Another group of women farm dwellers were evicted in New Hanover. They had nowhere to go and were desperate; therefore they decided to occupy the land from which they were evicted. Today they are settled, they produce enough food for themselves and for the surrounding community. If it was not for land occupations, the people would still be landless, and hungry!’

Ricado Jacobs takes the issue further and argues that land occupations are also crucial to the achievement of food sovereignty.  ‘Food sovereignty requires change in the whole agro-food system, including challenges to property relations and decision making powers. This is not possible with the unequal land ownership we see in South Africa. Movements like the Zapatistas in Mexico and the MST in Brazil have shown how land occupations can be used to challenge capitalist property relations and hierarchical top-down decision making. In South Africa exploitation and poverty are normalised, and land occupations can help put a stop to it. Of course the best scenario would be to link land occupations to an agriculture that addresses the ecological crisis, in other words agro-ecology, and to a broad process of popular education and mass mobilisation that does not only focus on farmers but involve the broad working class masses in both rural and urban areas. Food sovereignty is not just a farmer or even rural issue after all.’


The harsh difficulties of the lives of the dispossessed and dominated masses in the rural areas make it ever so tempting to hope, pray and wait for some elite figure or group to arise and finally provide relief and deliverance. Ideas such as ‘if only the king or the president knew about the corruption and brutality of the local land owners, he would intervene on our behalf,’ or ‘if only our man could become king or president,’ are old and widespread among poor peasants and farm workers. Its power, however, is not based on proven effectiveness, which it plainly lacks, but on its capacity to provide solace to people who feel it is beyond their power to do anything constructive about their oppression. ‘The agency of the landless and land-short has been the basic source of agrarian reform historically,’ Moyo and Yeros remind us in ‘Reclaim the Land.’ Even in cases where kings and presidents decreed land reform from above, it was in response to rebellions of peasants and farm workers from below.

In South Africa today opposition to neo-liberal land reform is dominated by professionalised NGOs, who despite the good work they are doing, cannot substitute for mass movements of the rural poor. Such movements will naturally gravitate towards land occupations as a tactic, given the absurd levels of inequality and the patent refusal of the state to do anything effective about it. Right now, however, the more important point is that land occupations, if coupled with a movement building perspective, have the ability to be the action that brings such movements into being. In a recent article on ‘Strategic Challenges for the Service Delivery Protestors in South Africa,’ Ronald Wesso, an activist in the Food Sovereignty Campaign wrote: ‘The necessity for direct action (such as land occupations) also flows from the need of activist groups to capture the imagination of the masses. It demonstrates a seriousness of purpose and a depth of feeling against injustice that not only requires but also inspires the bravery and commitment characteristic of successful movements for social change.’
‘Finally, movements of the poor need direct action precisely because they are movements of the poor. The poorest sections of society, the temporary workers, farm dwellers, rural people in former homelands, the unemployed and shack dwellers, are also the least organised. Poverty leaves no money to sustain organisers, the struggle for survival leaves little time and energy for the work of organising. Groups flare up and then die out quickly or become the turf of a more or less bureaucratic group that use their leadership positions to strike bargains for their own benefit with political parties, state organs or NGOs. Movements of the poor can only survive for any length of time if it fuses the struggle for survival with the work of organising. Only direct action makes this possible.’

Land occupations are already happening in South Africa.  Its background is growing frustration among the rural poor with persistent inequality along Apartheid patterns, and a clear failure on the part of government to work for meaningful change and listen to the unendingly articulated demands of the masses. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that the adoption of land occupations as a deliberate tactic by groups of land and agrarian activists can unlock a dynamic towards revolutionary change by mobilising mass movements of small farmers and farm dwellers that can link their struggles to movements of the urban poor and working classes for a joint rejection of the top-down capitalist property and state relations responsible for the landlessness, powerlessness and exploitation of the people. This is the direction the Food Sovereignty Campaign is moving in.