Joe Kitchen
Joe Kitchen

Some thoughts on land reform…without ice

It has been said that every generation hates its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers. In my case, my 70-plus father-in-law (though he is actually less than 20 years my senior) may be a case in point.

I have always liked my in-laws. I like my mother-in-law because we share the same hairstyle and because she makes the best potato salad in the world. I like my father-in-law because he supports the Cheetahs — my second favourite team — and because he taught me the correct way to drink brandy — straight, at room temperature, with no ice or Coke. The fact that we get on so well has, for many years, hidden the fact that there are vast differences between my generation and theirs. I was part of the young upstarts who rebelled against apartheid in the nineties. At the time, my father-in-law was a stalwart of Namibian opposition politics. In one of my books I would later call him “a racist and proud of it”.

I think one of the reasons we got on so well, especially during our late-night brandy-tasting sessions, was because he is practically deaf in one ear. If we talked politics, I made sure I sat on his deaf side so that, to innocent bystanders, he would appear to agree with everything I said. When we talked rugby, I moved to his other side. We never disagreed about rugby. We were both relieved when Morné lost his place in the Bok team and we both hoped the young Goosen guy would get over his heel injury soon.

Lately, however, my father-in-law doesn’t drink so much brandy any more. Most of our conversations now take place over morning coffee. Astonishingly enough, we can hear each other much better now. It would seem the deafness in his ear was perhaps not so much a medical condition as a temporary state induced by the substances we used.

We sometimes dare to approach subjects that were forbidden before. I was surprised when I asked him for his opinion about the farm workers’ wage dispute in the Western Cape, and he replied, without hesitation, “One hundred and fifty rand a day is still hopelessly inadequate. No-one can make a decent living on that wage.”

“But the farmers can’t afford that,” I said, startled.

“Farmers pay a lot of taxes to the government. The government supposedly uses that very same tax money to pay benefits to the unemployed. Why can’t the farmers deduct the extra wages from their tax burden? Then those people don’t have to be unemployed, the money doesn’t change hands, and production levels don’t drop. That is the obvious solution.”

I’m not a genius when it comes to economics, but I must admit there was a simple logic to this argument. It had to work … in one paragraph, without the aid of brandy, he had solved one of the most pressing problems of our time.

What about land reform? I was terrified to ask him that question. This was a man who came from a generation of hard-working Calvinist tribalists. He represented the very people I had despised in my youth. Admittedly, the philosophies I embraced in my youth were not without flaw. I seemed to think, back then, that if everyone just drank enough Tassenberg and smoked enough weed, everyone in South Africa would soon be reconciled. At least the generation my father-in-law belonged to knew how to build roads and stuff. They created Sanlam. They fed the masses with maize and corn. Unfortunately, they also invented apartheid. I realise this sounds almost as corny as the “Hitler was a nice guy, pity about the Jews” argument, but the point is, these guys knew how to work with their hands, how to get things done, while I was so permanently stoned I couldn’t even roll a neat-looking spliff. As a colleague of mine from the Voëlvry era used to say: “If I need a tyre changed on my car, I’d rather ask an Afrikaans right-winger to do the job than a liberal like myself.”

One day when my father-in-law wasn’t looking, I found a box with all his old speeches he had made when he was still active in Namibian politics, years ago. I was looking for something; the famous address about land reform he’d made in the early nineties. The speech that had even the guys from Swapo applauding him afterwards. I had heard about the event, and I was curious to know more about my father-in-law’s big moment of triumph.

I finally tracked down the original typewritten speech, and after asking my father-in-law for permission, I include it here in an abbreviated form. I think it is a pretty nifty speech. I am proud of my father-in-law for writing it, with or without the aid of a good glass of room temperature brandy, no ice, no Coke.

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Sir, man is the cruellest creature of all animals on earth. From the earliest stages of our existence they invaded one another’s land. They killed, maimed and destroyed regardless.

Mr Speaker, I believe that no language group, no tribe, no nation can claim that they have never done this in their history, whether millions of years ago or recently. That is why Hon. Kaura could admit the other day that even his tribe, the Herero’s, are guilty of the so-called land crime that we experienced in this country many years ago.

Mr Speaker, there was another man from Africa, 50 years BC, 2050 years ago, who invaded Europe with his elephants. He invaded Europe via Spain and conquered the whole Mediterranean. His name was Hannibal. He was stopped by the Romans in Italy. His father’s name was Hamelkar, a good Afrikaans name. Maybe Hannibal got the idea from his father to expand to Europe.

That happened, Sir, in the olden times, it is not a recent phenomenon for one group to invade the land of another. We are animals, and we are guilty of this and this happens, as it happened long ago, as it happened recently and as it will continue happening for centuries to come.

Mr Speaker, what has been said in this house during the debate, especially by senior members of the ruling party, might justify retaliation. But because they have spoken from their hearts and because it is an emotional issue, I do not feel compelled to retaliate. I shall let it pass.

This is a serious matter, and if all of us indulge in mud-slinging and wild accusations, whether justified or not, Sir, an acceptable Land Reform Bill would never see the light during this session.

Mr Speaker, members, if further threats that land can be confiscated are thrown randomly across this floor, we are heading for trouble. A further 20% drop in foreign aid is not something a minister should initiate with such thoughtless remarks.

Mr Speaker, I think as from this very minute, let us not rekindle dead fires, painful truths, half-truths and prejudices. Let us resolve this problem cool-headedly and bring forth a model paper which we can only be praised for. Let us not be responsible for something that might become known in years to come as “the document that declared war between the tribes of Namibia”.

Nobody disagrees with the principle that the government can obtain, make available or buy agricultural land for those in need. The provision that an act of government must be in harmony with the Constitution of Namibia is not debatable and to write a law in accordance with that should not be a problem. So, what is the problem here?

Mr Speaker, I have my reservations about whether our vulnerable ecology can outlast an uncontrolled onslaught of the expected influx of people and livestock to the small farms. To turn this nobly intended operation into a long-term success instead of a disaster, the government must accept responsibility to prevent that. The government must at all cost provide the necessary professional tuition to new farmers, especially those from the communal areas. The government must take a firm line against trespassers who violate grazing and other preservative regulations. If not, Sir, a half desert will soon become a full-scale desert with no agricultural land for nobody ever.

Mr Speaker, let us not make the same mistakes, let us not carry on with the same practises followed in other African countries where millions die each year of hunger. The quickest way to extinct a nation in Africa is to allow mismanagement of agricultural land. Sir, I believe that presently most of the land is well-preserved, economically utilised and revenue-producing. My plea is, let us keep it as such even after reallocation even to the most ignorant farmer.

To conclude, Sir, our responsibility regarding this Bill is not only to pass another law and it must not be to gain political points. Our responsibility is to pass a law whereby our children and their descendants will be able not only to survive, but to prosper as farmers for many centuries to come. I support the principle contained in this Bill that a law should be passed to redistribute land in an orderly way as well as the continuous preservation of all our land. Thank you.

Vic Verster

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PS: This historical reconciliatory address by my father-in-law helped guide Namibia to its present-day land reform policy. A policy which, while not 100% successful, seems to work much better than the radical practices of Zimbabwe and the stalemate of denial, which still exists in South Africa.

I believe we as South Africans will learn from history, and reject radicalism in favour of the positive attitude and down-to-earth common sense of my father-in-law’s logic … with or without eish.

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