Land and race: SA’s untold story – Andrew Kenny - Biznews

The land question has been brought up by several new MPs sworn in last week.

The land issue in South Africa remains a contentious and complex topic, often driven by historical grievances and political agendas. Recently, new MPs, including figures like Andile Mngxitama and John Hlophe, have reignited debates around land ownership, focusing on who is entitled to the land and the historical injustices related to it. However, these discussions are often marred by ambiguity, anger, and a lack of clarity about what constitutes “African” or “black” identity. The deeper question of whether ordinary South Africans prioritize land ownership over other pressing needs like jobs, education, and security remains largely unanswered.

Andrew Kenny

The land question has been brought up by several new MPs sworn in last week. 

These include Andile Mngxitama, the former leader of Black First Land First (BLF) and now an MK MP, famous for saying he would kill women and children for his cause. 

Also included are former judge John Hlophe, also an MK MP, who wants land to be owned by African people, and that guardian of revolutionary morality, Carl Niehaus, a new EFF MP, who wants the land to be owned by traditional African leaders. 

The land issue is characterised by much anger and much more vagueness and confusion. What do these people mean by “African” and “black”? Whom are they speaking for when they say land ownership is of paramount importance in South Africa? Are they speaking for ordinary black people or a privileged elite such as themselves? 

When they say the land was stolen, from whom and by whom? By what principles do they say one group of people is more entitled to land than another? The trouble is when you ask for clarity on these matters you are shut down by bluster and name-calling. You are not supposed to enquire, you are supposed to give in to the speakers’ angry obtuseness. Let me illustrate this by quoting Hlophe.

Recently he said, “We stand for the issue of land in this country and we are not apologetic about that. We know the history of land in this country, how it was acquired, we are not apologetic about it.” Very well then, Mr Hlophe, tell us about the land your people stole from the original African people who had been living in South Africa for 100,000 years before you invaded and conquered them.

I live near Fish Hoek in the Cape Peninsula. In the middle of the valley is a small hill with a rocky outcrop on top, and in it a wide overhang called Peers Cave. Once, some years ago, when I was jogging through it, I came across archaeologists with tripods on the floor of the cave. I spoke to them. They told me that if you dug deep enough below my feet you would find human artefacts going back over 100,000 years. These belonged to the first modern humans (Homo sapiens) in South Africa, the Bushmen. Only they are entitled to be called indigenous South Africans. I must emphasise that “Bushman” is the correct term. “San” is a racist insult.

Like all people who had never encountered other people, the Bushmen had no name for themselves. The first Europeans called them Bushmen because they lived in the bush; the people themselves were happy with this since they loved the bush. However, proto-woke white anthropologists shrank from so earthy a term and noticed that the Khoi, a somewhat mysterious grouping of people, who moved here about two thousand years ago, referred to them as “San”, which meant “rascals” or “bad men”. They didn’t understand the term, but it sounded suitably arcane and academic, and so whites have been using this insulting term ever since. (The Bushmen were hunter-gatherers, the Khoi were herders.)

The Bushman lived all over South Africa until the Bantu invaded from the north. “Bantu” is the scientific, accurate and honourable term for people like John Hlophe, Julius Malema and Jacob Zuma, for most people living in South Africa today. It is racist to decry the term “Bantu”. 

The Bantu are the most important group of humanity, with the greatest genetic diversity. The Bantu evolved in West Africa, then moved east to East Africa where, from the Arabs and other people, they picked up cattle farming and steel-making technology. 

Contact with domesticated animals from the north exposed them to their diseases and gave them the white man’s immunity to them, which the Bushmen never had. 

Then, in about 500AD, the Bantu moved south into what is now South Africa. Their superior technology, social organisation and martial prowess enabled them to crush the Bushmen easily, to drive them off their lands and mate with Bushmen women, who passed on the click sounds in their languages, and some of their genes. DNA testing showed that Nelson Mandela had some Bushman genes; I shouldn’t be surprised if Jan Smuts had had some too. 

The Bushmen were driven off their fertile ancestral lands into the arid parts of South Africa. The Bantu moved south to the coasts of what is now KZN, and then eastward until they reached the Fish River, where they stopped. This was because they had summer rainfall crops, and west of the Fish River there was winter rainfall. So the Bantu did not proceed into what is now the Western Cape; Europeans got there before them.

The first Europeans here were the Portuguese, starting at the beginning of the 16th Century, but the first full settlement was by the Dutch at Cape Town in 1652. The Dutch settlement expanded northwards and eastwards, and encountered the Bantu at the end of the 18th Century. The Europeans had superior technology to the Bantu and so gradually took over much of their land. The British took over from the Dutch in 1806 and proceeded to colonise the land too.

The term “African” is next to meaningless and those who use it will get angry if you ask them to define it. All humans evolved in Africa, and so all humans may rightly be called Africans. “Black” is also fairly meaningless, and no one has ever defined it either. I was surprised to hear that Meghan Markle calls herself black, since she is lighter than me. (I never think of myself as belonging to any particular race, but both the apartheid regime and the ANC call me “white”, which brought me huge advantages in the past). However, I still use the term “black”, simply as descriptive; I’d never dream of giving it any legal meaning. I also call Malema and Hlophe “Bantu” just from their appearance, but would accept it if DNA testing proved me wrong.

In short, the Bantu stole the land from the Bushmen, and Europeans stole land from the Bantu. Now what? Do John Hlophe and Carl Niehaus think that we should all give the land back to the Bushmen – the few that we have not murdered or killed with our diseases? Do they think Europeans have got more stake than the Bantu for land in the Western Cape since they got there before them?

When somebody says that the whites own, say, 70% of the land, what do they mean? 70% by value or 70% by area? A 30 square metre flat in Clifton is worth more than 30,000 square metres in parts of the Northern Cape.

Zuma, Hlophe, Niehaus and others are saying that ordinary people should not own private property but that the “land belongs to the nation”, by which they seem to mean that the land belongs to the traditional African chiefs – the royalty and aristocracy. The king should control (which means “own”) communal land. 

In the election campaign and in its aftermath, there was a lot of talk about “progressive” and “left leaning” leaders. These progressive leaders seemed to believe we should revert from private ownership of land by ordinary people, as in the West today, to communal land owned by a ruling elite as in traditional Africa. This is more-or-less what Marx and Lenin believed in, and if you think Marxist-Leninism is progressive, I suppose land ownership by a ruling elite is progressive. 

Basically, communism was a return to feudalism. Collective farming was one of its striking features; it led to millions of deaths by famine but it was socialist, the total opposite of counter-revolutionary private farming in the capitalist USA, which led to bumper food crops and plenty of food for everyone. King John of England in the 13th Century seems to have had similar ideas about land ownership to progressive thinkers and tribal kings in South Africa today – or to Karl Marx for that matter.

Who wants this? Suppose you spoke to ordinary black people in KZN living on the lands of the Ingonyama Trust, owned by His Majesty the King. If you asked, “Would you prefer to own your own house on your own patch of land or to live on the King’s land at his pleasure?”, what would they answer?

A broader question: how deep is land hunger among most South Africans? According to all the polls and surveys I have seen, very shallow. Very few black people have land high on their list of wants. They want jobs, money, education and security long before land. They are constantly moving from the rural areas to urban ones. 

Very few want to farm. If they want property at all, it is just their own house and a bit of ground for gardening and recreation. They are like me. I’d hate to be a farmer. I regard farming as brutally hard work and nerve-rackingly risky; I’d much rather work in a factory and live in a suburb on a small plot with a view of mountains or sea. 

In Europe, not very many people even own their own houses; in Germany, for example, 54% rent their accommodation. In 2013, the land minister, Gugile Nkwinti, explained that most of the successful land claimants chose the money rather than the land. Out of 74,000 claimants, only 5,900 (8%) chose the land.

The constant angry clamour from a small group of activists that land is the over-arching concern in South Africa today is not only ill-defined, not only ambiguous, not only dishonest, but complete nonsense.

Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer, and a classical liberal

This article was first published on the Daily Friend.