17/07/2017 02:59 BST | Updated 17/07/2017 02:59 BST

What If Andile Mngxitama Is Actually Right About The Land?

I don't agree with Mngxitama - his rhetoric is racist. It is this latter point where him and I might share a perspective on an underlying issue - dignity.

Deaan Vivier/ Beeld/ Gallo Images
Andile Mngxitama expresses his views during a discussion about the widespread allegations that the Guptas had been interfering with the state when it comes to the hiring and firing of ministers.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, the 63 BC Roman consul said, "What then is freedom? The power to live as one wishes."

Last week a senior executive at a state-owned enterprise said, "There was no negotiated settlement... we agreed to disagree." In his mind, the sunset clause proposed by Joe Slovo is not a fait accompli any longer. The inability of his black countrymen to "live as they please" is to him indicative of a failure by the ANC negotiators to achieve freedom. In his opinion, the "property rights" of white South Africans are property wrongs, and must now be challenged. This man is not a thug shouting radicalised political slogans. He is a PhD graduate in his forties. In his mind, the "land question" is a matter of historical injustice.

One of his colleagues in the room, a white male in his fifties, retorted calmly that the land question is more complex than it is being portrayed. He argued that the state is the largest landowner in South Africa and that land ownership does not equate to wealth and that secure property rights are important to the country's food security and to business confidence. Trying to bridge the gap between their perspectives, I wondered out-loud, "Maybe the people calling for expropriation without compensation don't care." The graduate agreed with a broad grin, "yes, the land must be returned!"

South Africa has entered a new era

While the political elite ponders the difference between rural land versus urban land, the "willing buyer, willing seller" principle versus expropriation without compensation, and watch the ANC succession race like it is the Durban July, the political discourse drifts further away from pragmatism. The negotiated settlement was a pragmatic solution to the balance of forces at the time. It was not a victory for the ANC nor their defeat, nor a victory for the white nationalists, nor their defeat. It was a practical bargain between opposing forces on the grounds of the common good - the settlement was better than war.

While the settlement was a strategic retreat for the ANC, it was a defeat for the black nationalists such as the PAC. This balance of forces has now shifted. As the ANC weakens, the leftist nationalists such as the EFF are strengthened, and as the youth vote emerges who have little emotional attachment to the era of Madiba magic, the terms of the settlement are being tabled once again. The "agreement to disagree" is being turned into an argument for a renegotiation.

Anyone who denies that this is what is going on is either in denial or has not listened to the voices of the youth, the unemployed and the urban poor. South Africa has entered into a new era. From an apartheid era, we were catapulted into a democratic era between 1985 and 1995. Today we are being dragged into a post-democratic nationalist era where market forces are pitted against militant populist forces.

The "land" is not about soil per se

I don't agree with Andile Mngxitama. His rhetoric is racist. His economic logic is non-existent. His politics are anarchist and his values are unbecoming a democrat and leader who supposedly treasures human dignity. But it is this latter point where Andile and I might share a perspective on an underlying issue - dignity. His Black-First Land-First movement is pitting the dignity of Peter Bruce, the proverbial white male protector of white monopoly capital, agains the dignity of the black Africans in South Africa who still live in the undignified legacy of dispossession. To them, in Andile's mind, land is life and land is dignity. He is of course wrong on the first account, since a subsistence existence is vulnerable to the ravages of drought and famine as we see across many parts of Africa.

My own view is that there will be a battle of attrition, a battle of ideas and a battle for the high road of national construction and development.

As for the second, that land ownership equates to dignity, this is an emotive myth that is shared across many cultures. Ironically, this same romanticism is shared in the traditionalist Boer community where white male farmers find identity in their religion, their family and their plaas. Presented with the argument that 50 percent of black South African Africans now live in cities, I suspect Andile will respond with consistent ambiguity and argue that he, and they, don't care - they want the land. Increasingly, "the land" is coming to mean, the land and the fullness thereof; the farms, the houses, the businesses and the materialistic "wealth" that South Africa's elites so enjoy flaunting.

White Monopoly Capital better listen and act

Being described as a member of white monopoly capital is a bit like being called a European settler. It does not matter if you arrived on this earth under the African sun, or dirtied your toes as a child in the red dirt of Mzansi. If your skin is lighter than a certain undetermined shade, you are in the eyes of Andile, a settler, a European and a member of white monopoly capital. The reality, by contrast, does not matter. Patterns of racial ownership of the companies listed on the JSE does not matter. Real incomes, real asset accumulation and factors such as education levels etc. don't matter to the nationalist populists. They want what "we" have. It matters little whether the object of their desire is real or imagined. They do not account for unsecured indebtedness, home loans or the practicalities of the middle-class existence of most whites.

So, what is to be done? Well, some will want to fight for the "land" and spill their blood for the soil of Africa's south. Some will want to reason with Andile's mob. Some might believe that Andile is a marginal maniac and that the likes of Mrs Dlamini-Zuma's ANC and Julius Malema's EFF will take a more informed and nuanced approach to redress. My own view is that there will be a battle of attrition, a battle of ideas and a battle for the high road of national construction and development.

The nationalist populists will have to be withstood by the Democratic pragmatists in a generational battle of attrition. The weapons of the battle will be those of education and information inter alia. However, the more significant strategic play will be to address the systemic forces that shape the arena - the contours of the lack of our development and national construction since democracy. Only if all South Africans, and particularly the young, have ladders of access to opportunity to draw them upwards towards a dignified existence, can the rising tide of populism be averted? Perhaps an accelerated approach to land reform, which accounts for the symbolic nature of the issue and not only the substantive dimensions, is a step in the right direction.

Cicero also said, "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need." For now, Andile and his ilk are obsessed with the former. Perhaps someday he will discover the glorious benefits of the latter.