Do we really need the land?

MFUNDO BONGELA argues that instead of giving black people back the land their ancestors were forcibly removed from, it would be better to give them today’s equivalent of that land in the form of a slice of the industrial economy.

This was before the industrial revolution that freed commercial interests from land ties, which opened up space for every citizen who could provide a service or create something that the industrialising economy needed to have a shot at success. It is during the industrial revolution that many institutions of training were built as part of the realisation that human capital was becoming what land was during the agrarian era of economic development.

The exclusion of black people from participation in the mainstream economic life of the country during industrialisation, reducing them to mere slaves breaking their backs in the belly of the revolution, on the mines and railroads, meant that the resource mobility of black labour, which could ensure that anyone who worked hard and was innovative could become successful, was effectively condemned to a life of backwardness and poverty, and many to death.

Black people were therefore excluded from both the agrarian economy and the multiple phases of industrialisation, pushing back our human development by at least 100 years. It’s possible therefore that Africans, as with other peoples of the world, would have moved away from the agrarian economy as industrialisation kicked in and upskilled themselves to both drive and benefit from industrialisation.

The stories of people black people, especially in the last 23 years, who started with nothing and later became a great success is testament to how far the world is from the land-tied wealth of the past and how industrialisation and its needs has opened space for anyone who could identify a niche or need to create a product to meet that need and be a great success. This is the 21-century meaning of true wealth.

This speaks to the importance of government focus during industrialisation periods. Whether it’s the first or the fourth industrial revolution, two critical investments of government have always been a necessary condition for its people to maximise benefits of industrialisation.

Investment in infrastructure in order to enable commercialisation to happen with minimum hindrances and investments in institutions of higher learning have always formed the primary ingredients of an industrialising nation. There has always been a risk that those who do not have critical skills may be missed by an industrial revolution and may never catch up.

This begs a question: at this stage of industrialisation, shouldn’t the constitutional imperative of correcting the injustices of the past, particularly the land question, be converted instead into a meaningful contribution to industrialisation?

Over the years, other sectors of the South African economy have grown faster than the agriculture, forestry, hunting and fishing sector; resulting in agriculture’s share of the GDP dropping from more than 6% in the 1970s to 1,9% in 2015 (Economic review 2015, DAFF). So, what does it mean to get land back today? Do we really want land or do we want its historical value to the pre-agrarian period and or when it was taken from us? What is really the true worth of what we lost?

This may require a lot of wisdom, but part of the solution may well be that instead of colonial white settlers and their offspring giving back the physical land, they must be asked to make payment of their ‘land price equivalent’ to a special fund that will be used to provide commercial infrastructure to all black areas and to build multiple institutions of learning in every region of the country to upskill the 45% of our young people who remain unemployable.

This would be a recognition that whilst land was the biggest contributor to economic participation in an agrarian economy, during this fourth Industrial revolution, ownership of land is not what it was when our land was taken away from us.

An investment into institutions of higher learning is not only about producing skilled labour but it’s also equally about investment in research so that new products, new technologies and new science can be devised which will continue to reinvent the pace of the industrialisation and create new industries that can employ more people.

Africa is said to be at an advantage because we can largely avoid the past western industrialisation model that burnt tons of fossil fuels into the atmosphere and brought us the unstable and violent weather patterns we are currently experiencing today. It is through huge investments in research that Africa will discover more efficient and environmentally friendly paths to strong and high levels of development.

Most of our land in South Africa is used for agriculture. Given that agriculture no longer contributes as much to the GDP of the country, any effort that seeks to correct the injustices of the past by merely giving back the land would be short-changing black people.

The question today may well not be what is the land price equivalent that is due to black people but what is the GDP equivalent of the land stolen from us in today’s terms. It may well be an equivalent of what financial services contribute to GDP today.

It’s important, therefore, for us to appreciate that whilst we seek to correct the injustices of the past, the world has not been standing still waiting for us to come back and take what belongs to us. What belonged to us then is unrecognisable in today’s value system. Our people need empowerment.

Would a return of land bring the level of historical empowerment a landownerhad in 1930 or would the level of industrialisation in today’s economy be today’s land equivalent? These are the questions that we must answer. These are the questions that must inform our policy.

Bongela is ANC Regional Secretary in the Joe Qabi Region of the Eastern Cape 

 

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