OPINION | Fire from below on a Saturday afternoon

Cyril Ramaphosa
Cyril Ramaphosa
Image: Getty Images

I should visit my mother more often.

Driving to see her last weekend, I saw what political scientist Professor Somadoda Fikeni calls “the fire from below” – people no longer just demanding land, but being encouraged to take it and actually doing so.

In the space of one hour I saw four different land “occupations” in and around Soshanguve and Winterveldt, just north of Tshwane.Later the same day, I saw a fifth one in Wallmansthal, Tshwane. All on a Saturday afternoon.

The first one was near Soshanguve Block BB, on the Soutpan Road. This is a place that saw the first set of land occupations in 1990 when, in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, huge chunks of land were settled. The growth of this first wave has led to the development of a massive, ever-growing township.

Last week’s occupation there was a sedate affair. A man had put up a sign saying “OFFICE” in huge letters and a motley group was putting up incredibly small shacks in the vast open space behind the office sign.

My friend and I drove on. The second occupation was at Dinamuneng – the old orange farm in Winterveldt. This was a working farm in the 80s. In the 90s it lay fallow, and then there seemed to be some attempts to revive it in the 2000s. This time I saw shacks being put up on one corner of what used to be the orange farm.

We got to the Soutpan T-junction, a place where for decades a Chinese family has run a general dealer and petrol station. Behind the shop is the Tswaing crater, where a government project to build a visitor centre and attract tourists, has just not taken off. Right at the T-junction a few cars were parked. A huge sign was up: OFFICE.

My friend walked over. The open piece of land was open for occupation, said one of the men. A mere R500 secured you the site. You can settle the rest – R1500 – later. What about title deeds? You can get a receipt right now, said the man.

In all three places the men offering or selling stands were neither ANC nor EFF. They said they act with the authority of the City of Tshwane, but didn’t have titles. They were “entrepreneurs”.

It’s unlikely that the nation will return to business as usual
Professor Somadoda Fikeni

Our fourth occupation was near my mother’s village, New Eersterus. Shacks were being put up at a very quick rate. Later on in the day, driving back to Joburg, I passed by Wallmansthal, a settlement of which land restitution was finalised in 2007. The original, black owners are still not back on the land. Instead, for the umpteenth time, the land is being sold off by “entrepreneurs” at R8000 a stand.

What’s going on? Well, 28 years after a whole wave of Mandela villages were born across South Africa, it is clear that there is still hunger for land – certainly urban land. What I saw may be led by unscrupulous “entrepreneurs”, but they are responding to a real need.

Solution? The ANC, and President Cyril Ramaphosa, have tried to bottle in the debate and control it. But that’s no longer possible. Ramaphosa’s repeated calls for the law to take its course against occupiers have fallen on deaf ears. Not a single policeman was in sight last Saturday.

Not even the EFF is in control. As Fikeni put it in an interview this week, the fire is coming from below, from ordinary people who are now prepared to take a chance and settle.

“It’s unlikely that the nation will return to business as usual because the fire is beginning to come from below, people say ‘we were promised this and that’.

[They] will have to find a creative way, even though under siege and under pressure, to say how are we going to do this in a manner which is constructive,” he said.

We cannot follow Terror Lekota’s embarrassingly ahistorical stance and say there was no sin of land theft and dispossession committed.

We cannot follow Julius Malema’s champagne socialist ideal (“everything will belong to the state!”) because we know the EFF, like Zanu-PF, just wants the keys to the safe so they can loot.

We cannot follow the ANC’s mealy-mouthed and half-hearted attempts at the job, because much of it is being orchestrated by Jacob Zuma to put a fire under his successor Ramaphosa.

Right now, except for a small corner inside the ANC and at civil society bodies, there are very few sensible solutions on the table. We have a crisis of leadership on this and many other issues. We are at sea while the fire from below rages, and rages, and spreads.

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