OPINION | Between the chains : Trouble with communal land ownership

"The land here belongs to everybody, and is available for use by everybody. It therefore belongs to nobody. "
"The land here belongs to everybody, and is available for use by everybody. It therefore belongs to nobody. "
Image: 123RF/Helen Filatova

The land along the border between SA and Lesotho, running down through the Free State and Eastern Cape, is some of the most beautiful real estate in the country.

The dramatic features of the mountains, the deep gorges and grass-covered, snow-laden hilltops almost kissing the blue sky make the rugged terrain in the area from Zastron, through Aliwal North, Barkly East and Elliot, all the way to Ugie in the south, even lovelier. In the distance, sleepy Basotho villages built of stone add to the scenery for the wandering eye. A sight to behold.

This prime real estate becomes even more beautiful for other practical reasons: the area is scarcely inhabited. Cattle, sheep and maize farms are the lifeblood of the economy here. There is order in how the land is inhabited and used. Small villages are neatly clustered on the edges of commercial farms.

As you drive on further down into the old Transkei the population, obviously too big for the land mass, is spread on the rolling hills, as far as the eye can see.

As a consequence of the Bantustan apartheid policy and a high rate of population growth, almost every habitable piece of land here is claimed for dwelling.

Whatever is left is constantly under the feet of emaciated cattle and other livestock, which often stake a claim to the road – with disastrous consequences for animals and travellers alike.

Urbanisation has not stopped this chaotic state of land tenure as those who have migrated to the cities tend to retain strong ties to the area.

I am one such person. Being of these people, owning livestock and tilling the land is traditionally the way of life. Which brings us to my point.

The land here belongs to everybody, and is available for use by everybody. It therefore belongs to nobody. There is no obligation on any single person to regulate the optimal use of the land or to worry about its carrying capacity.

For such is the way of “communal” ownership.

Which presents other challenges for land tenure. A young man is expected to – and wants to – acquire livestock as soon as possible. Not only are cattle a good thing to own, but they are a store of value. They are also a currency with many social uses.

Deep-seated desire

The situation I have observed now in the Transkei, and in many rural parts of SA where the ownership is communal, is that of overgrazing. I certainly have had to pay more attention to this since, a few years ago, I decided to finally respond to a deep-seated desire to be a “real man”.

As my late grandfather would put it, a “real man” is one who owns herds of cattle and produces food for his own family on his own land.

As one of the first inhabitants of our tiny village, he obviously enjoyed a share of the land for his mealie fields, and then the rest of the grazing lands for his vast herd of cattle. Which made him a wealthy man for a large part of his life. But he outlived his livestock, which was the measure of his wealth, by a wide margin. The whole village has long run out of grazing land and owning livestock has never again been a profitable way of life around here. It still is not. I know.

If anyone is to make a success of rearing livestock, feed must be imported from four hours away at Ugie. And that is where the nearest commercial farm is, which one could buy.

We do not learn from history, and from our own experiences. The whole of SA is now toying with the idea of communal land ownership. They may not use the exact words, but this is exactly what those politicians who call for the nationalisation of land mean by forcefully expropriating it from the current owners.

It is no coincidence that the poorest parts of SA are the rural areas, where land ownership is communal.

SIKONATHI MANTSHANTSHA is deputy editor of the Financial Mail