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  • A reflection on the land question, country and city
  • Alan Mabin (bio)

From the city to the country

In the mid 1980s, the late Thomas Matsetela and Moses Molepo helped me to see South African cities as most South Africans did then: not as places-in-themselves from which all the world could be surveyed, but as places to be approached from the countryside. It would be nice to think that Raymond Williams’s wonderful The Country and the City (1973) had already opened my thinking in this way. But to deepen my grasp of the perspective, I spent substantial time over the decade from 1984 to 1994 in the countryside. I initiated small research projects that explored continuing profound ties between city life and country places, some of which informed a series of articles published between 1987 and 1992. At the same time I remained fundamentally interested in cities, and my thinking about the land question reflects this commitment, then and now.

One of the articles was published in Transformation 11 (Gcabashe and Mabin 1990) and resulted from the rather obvious tie between listening to people in and about land, about the countryside and its future, and the emerging prospects of ‘rural’ land reform. Two decades later, what has changed? I am not a specialist in the field of rural land and I refer readers who share this apparent disability to the work inter alia of Ramutsindela (2001), James (2007), Ntsebeza and Hall (2007), Walker (2008), Cousins (2009a, 2009b), Hall et al (2009) and for a short recent piece, Cousins and Hall (2010). Whilst others are better placed to enter the terrain of assessing what has happened, history is always contested. Within this terrain, of course we reflect on what has happened since 1990. My view is close to that summarised by Deborah James (2007: 252): [End Page 53]

Land reform in SA has been an enterprise riddled with contradictions. Grand ambitions were laid out but few have so far been realized. Since those to whom land was given back or newly transferred were often those with least motivation or ability to use it, much of it has lain fallow. Worse still, where funds have been, almost literally, ‘ploughed’ into the land, these have failed to yield any harvest other than disappointment and frustration … Failures are generally taken as further indication of the urgent need to accelerate the process, rather than of its perhaps being misconceived in the first place.

The explanation which James advances puts the emphasis on institutional, political, personal and policy process matters. Indeed, her book explores the property and power questions which help to explain why land reform policies have not worked out as intended. These are all significant. But it seems there are larger issues and in this reflection piece, I intend somewhat provocatively to explore them, and to relate them to my own central interest, which is that of city futures.

My starting points are the three arguments advanced in the 1990 Transformation paper, which seem to me to remain cogent today:

  1. 1. Evil is certainly but not only due to apartheid

  2. 2. Land questions are not simple

  3. 3. Happy policy outcomes mean a need to know much better than we do.

After returning to each theme in the light of the present, the present paper moves to reconnecting the issues with the cities – an essay in trying to arrive in the city from the countryside, thinking through some of the consequences of that trajectory.

Not all due to apartheid

South African land reform discussion hinges on apartheid for at least two reasons. One, racist state allocation of land use and ownership, and similarly state contributions to accumulation, have been central to the construction of apartheid; two, the notion of ‘post-apartheid’ society usually involves a sense of reconstruction without the limits imposed by apartheid. Unfortunately this focus on apartheid proceeds without much attention falling on just what it would mean to end apartheid in rural South Africa …

(Gcabashe and Mabin 1990: 59)

It is not terribly helpful to proceed from the notion, as almost every text on the subject does, that ‘The issue of land is a critical one in post-Apartheid...


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pp. 53-72
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