Land occupations are becoming an everyday reality as people redistribute land themselves. This is a growing pattern in Cape Town and in Durban where people at Emmause are defending occupied land. Militants do not occupy land as a symbolic gesture but because they need homes and secure livelihoods. They are responding to the crisis created by historic and continuing dispossession which leaves too few people with sustained access to enough land.
Government policy is not just failing to deal with the land problem, and not just dealing with it too slowly, but is taking us in the wrong direction. Policy promotes the commercial use of land, especially agricultural land, and is aligned with the interests of national and global elites. It relegates land-use policy and practice for the poor to an ineffective side-show marked by lofty rhetoric and zero positive impact Land is not just a rural issue and not just an agricultural issue. Land-access and landuse policy and practices shaped by the dominant class interests continue to dictate outcomes. In urban areas, the rich and powerful have ready access to land, housing and services while the market excludes the poor. Poor people are then driven to the peripheries or to occupy land that is not valued by the markets because it is steep and prone to mud slides, on flood plains or next to sources of pollution. The refusal of services to shack settlements is one way in which the state supports the market view that poor people should not be there. The consequences are that the rubbish piles high, shit runs in the paths and fires regularly sweep through the settlements. Meanwhile, people who are removed are put into transit camps which look increasingly permanent. The houses are made of tin and dubbed ‘government shacks’. On commercial farmlands, the consolidation of land ownership continues apace. Through this process, agro-industrial and -financial interests strengthen their grip on the land and on the agricultural value chain. The land itself is engineered to the requirements of industrial farming – large-scale, energy- and input-intensive monocrop farming – while staggering numbers of farm tenants, farm workers and even farmers are driven off the land. The dispossessed must then find a home and many do so in urban and rural shack settlements or in the former reserves where land use is largely non-commercial. These areas, however, are rendered barely liveable as the dominant and globalised power of the capitalist system organises almost all aspects of life. People live under conditions of grinding poverty, social exclusion, and the systematic destruction of viable livelihoods and communities outside of that capitalist system.
Changes in state policies are now marked by trial and error. The recently renamed Department of Rural Development and Land Reform continues to avoid the question of land redistribution. Instead, it frantically develops policies and programmes that reinforce the landlessness of millions of rural people and farm workers. Their programmes and policies take on the frame of market and profit and appear to aim at luring people into commercial farming. Where ‘beneficiaries’ do not perform according to department’s set standards they will forfeit their land right to another group of beneficiaries. This ends up giving a developmental cover to the entry of transnational corporations using land for mega projects and displacing people and putting their lives and futures at risk.
CLP is not persuaded there is anything real in the current “re-emergence” of the land issue and land policy debates except that people’s real struggles for land keep the state in more or less constant need of counter strategies. Sometimes the ‘necessity’ of greater state intervention is motivated as a responsible move to head off the awful specter of angry and uncontrolled ‘land grabs’. The media routinely plays this card, vaguely referring to Zimbabwe’s fast track process or Julius Malema’s presumed capacity for populist mobilisation.
In CLP’s view, neither a more robust state-driven land reform, nor apparently spectacular land grabs driven by populist individuals are likely to benefit more than a tiny elite. What is needed is a serious, democratic, popular, grassroots land project ata- distance from the state and this will take time and patience.