Playing with people’s hopes

Watching the scenes at the land hearings over the past two weeks has been to witness cynical cruelty at its worst.

The expressions on the faces of people in the long queues outside the venues have had one word written on them: hope. Their singing and patience speaks of enthusiasm for the process. Their impassioned speeches inside the halls speak of how much faith they have in this process. The emotions in the crackling voices show their belief that the promised land is just over the next mountain.

As a democracy, one has to respect and give space to processes overseen by the national legislature, which is the constitutionally established assembly of the people. In this case, Parliament voted overwhelmingly to establish the Joint Constitutional Review Committee to evaluate section 25 of the nation’s founding document. The purpose of the work of the committee is to assess whether it is necessary to amend the Constitution to “make it possible for the state to expropriate land in the public interest without compensation”.

And so the mulitparty committee is criss-crossing the nation to hear the views of ordinary and not-so-ordinary South Africans on the subject. After that, the process will move to Parliament, where expert opinions and the views of lobby groups and political formations will be heard. At some point, the national legislature will process the information at its disposal, debate the issue at length and possibly vote. If the amendment passes, it will be subjected to all manner of constitutional tests, and most likely court challenges by those who believe it strays from the Bill of Rights. The Constitutional Court itself will have to have a view.

But, for now, the show is on the road and very little of it has to do with rational and fact-based arguments. It is mostly raw emotion.

Many of the speeches are about settling scores from the colonial wars and the apartheid era rather than a discussion about the amendment to the Constitution, which was adopted by the Constitutional Assembly in which the liberation movement had an overwhelming majority.

A lot of the angry inputs do not seem to take into account that this state has, for 24 years, been run by a former liberation movement that has put in place very advanced laws on land reform, redistribution and restitution. Laws that it has dismally failed to implement.

News24 reported this week on how a Nkululeku Chabalala, who attended the hearings in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, talked about how the Constitution should be changed so that land can be returned to black people.

“We can’t have a law that protects thieves. Why should black people provide reasons for returning land when it was stolen from us in the first place? The Constitution must make provision for black people,” said Chabalala.

His sentiment echoed that of many who have attended the hearings in the belief that the process is a high-speed highway to getting the land back and thus opening the door to prosperity.

And yet, as we all know, this is just one big cynical exercise in political manipulation. The people who have showed up at the hearings have been led to believe the amendment to this dreaded section 25 is the panacea for all their ills. Many have been waiting for ages for land restitution and land reform to either hand them back the properties of their forebears or give them a foot in the agricultural sector. Some merely want decent residential land on which they can build a roof over their heads and enjoy dignity.

But they have been failed. They have been failed by the political system and the bureaucracy. Many studies in the recent past have shown that the primary cause of the slow pace of land reform and redistribution is political and bureaucratic. Although there are obviously budgetary constraints – as there are in many facets of the state – failure to deal with the land question hardly has to do with the shortage of money, as lots of funds meant for these tasks lie unspent.

In fact, the Kgalema Motlanthe-headed high-level panel that assessed the impact of post-apartheid legislation on the citizens found that there was “increasing evidence that a degree of elite capture has taken place in land reform in general, as well as in land redistribution in particular”. On restitution, it said implementation had “been poor at every level”.

The high-level panel’s report is not the first to deliver such a diagnosis. Studies by academics, nongovernmental organisations and government’s own agencies have delivered similar verdicts. And yet, instead of taking these findings on board and acting on the learnings, we have the spectacle that is the land hearings.

Over the next few months, we will be hearing more of the same demands by attendees of the hearings, most of whom – with due respect – have very little idea of what this whole process is about. These are ordinary people with genuine grievances and wishes who just do not know that they have been failed by human beings and not by the Constitution. They are good citizens who are being played by people who know the truth and know the facts.

It is utterly cruel and unfair to mess with people’s hopes and dreams in this way. Rue the day the people see through the deceptions.

This article first appeared in the City Press on 8 July 2018.

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