by Shaun Arendse (2017)

The dispossession of the African people of the land was a historic crime. Land dispossession under colonialism destroyed the economic foundation of pre-capitalist African societies and forcibly dragged millions into the super-exploitation of the capitalist world economy. The 1913 and 1936 Land Acts remain notorious to this day. Under apartheid, control of land was a cornerstone of the white minority regime. It underpinned the exploitation of the black majority, especially as a means to control black labour. The forced removals under apartheid are still in living memory. Between 1960 and 1983 alone some 3.5 million black people were forcibly relocated.

With land looming so large in the history of black oppression in South Africa, the demand that “whites must give back the land” is the foundation of nationalism’s claim to be a radical ideology. Indeed, land is the rallying cry of nationalist organisations. If their ideas can have an ‘edge’ over Marxist ideas it should be on the question of the land. But unfortunately, nationalist organisations not only fail to correctly understand the root of the problem, they fail to put forward a resolution to the land question that would genuinely restore the land to the people. Marxists can only understand this to mean restoring it to the working class and poor people who are the overwhelming majority in society.

Urban and rural

In 1913, 80% of the population lived in rural areas. But today South Africa is an overwhelmingly urban society. Over 65% of the population lives in urban areas, expected to reach 70% by 2030.

Unsurprisingly given South Africa’s demographics, it is in urban areas, amongst the working class, where the struggle for land is at its most intense. Here the demands of the working class are overwhelmingly for the development of land for residential use. Service delivery protests demand the building of houses, roads, schools and clinics and the provision of water, sanitation and electricity. Overwhelmingly there is no expectation or desire to ‘make a living from the land’. Service delivery protests struggle for control of land to provide a dignified place to live when people are not working.

Notwithstanding important struggles for decent and affordable university accommodation, “the land” is not an immediate bread and butter issue for those black students examining nationalist ideas. Rather it is a proxy for all that is wrong in society. It is a symbol for racial inequality.

But, when nationalists discuss the land question as a concrete issue and not simply as rhetoric, it is overwhelmingly in relation to the productive use of the land and people’s ability to make a living from it. In other words: who gets to farm the land?

It is crucial to be aware that little more than 10% of South African land is suitable for growing crops (though more is suitable for raising herds of cattle, sheep etc.). There are over 2.5 million people farming this land. The overwhelming majority are black and live in communal areas (the former apartheid-era ‘homelands’). However, 95% of farmland is owned by just 36,000 commercial (i.e. capitalist) farmers, the majority of whom are white. It can only be this tiny number of white people that nationalists can really be addressing when they demand that “whites must give back the land”.

Land & Marxism

Land has always been central to the working class struggle for socialism and Marxism’s analysis of capitalism. The Marxist-led 1917 Russian Revolution was victorious under the slogan of “Bread, Peace and Land”. Armed with a radical programme for land redistribution, the working class led the millions-strong peasant majority in the defeat not only of capitalism but of landlordism too.

In his key work, Capital, published in 1867, Karl Marx explained that “the expropriation of the mass of the people from the soil forms the basis of the capitalist mode of production”. The capitalists found that people would not sell their labour to them if they could make a living from the land. They needed to be forced to work for the capitalists. So everywhere land dispossession has been necessary for capitalism to create a class of wage workers, the exploitation of whom is the source of all capitalist profit. Marx described land dispossession (or “primitive accumulation”) as capitalism’s “original sin”.

The dispossession of the African people built upon the earlier dispossession of the European people. Indeed, it was the dispossession of the former that created the conditions for the dispossession of the latter. In Britain, the Industrial Revolution that created modern capitalism was made possible by the expulsion of millions from the land. Formerly self-sufficient peasants were forced into the factories as wage workers to create super-profits for the capitalists. These super-profits in turn led to the development of monopoly capitalism, the economic foundation of imperialism. In the late nineteenth century, driven by the pressure to find new markets for profitable investment, the imperialist European governments carved-up the world. This included the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and the incorporation of South Africa into the world capitalist economy.

Land and capitalism in the history of South Africa

The discovery of gold in South Africa in the 1880s, coincided with the maturing of European imperialism. Only the imperialist monopolies could supply the huge amounts of capital needed to make gold mining profitable. Its entrance into South Africa was a decisive watershed, transforming the entire economy, including the social relations on the land.

In the late nineteenth century, despite the existence of a small and wealthy land-owning elite in the Western Cape, the white Afrikaners were overwhelmingly a peasant class. The output of their farms was often at little more than subsistence level and relied on family labour and semi-feudal labour relations with black tenants. To establish their economic dominance, British imperialism not only crushed the remaining independent African nations, but defeated the independent Afrikaner republics militarily in the 1899-1902 South African War.

African and Afrikaner societies were both reconstructed to serve the interests of British imperialism. The need for vast numbers of low-paid wage workers in the mining industry could be supplied by the dissolution of tribal African societies. This guaranteed that land dispossession accelerated. The demarcation of the ‘native reserves’, culminating in the 1913 Land Act, meant that for the black majority, access to land would in the future be fully on the terms dictated by capitalism.

The dislocation of the South African War and the economic laws of capitalism worked their destructive power on the Afrikaner farms too. Before 1890, 90% of Afrikaners lived in rural areas; by the 1930s, less than 50% did. Afrikaners were increasingly pushed into the towns, dispossessed themselves of the land stolen by their forefathers.

A new agricultural capitalist class began to form based on private ownership of the land, the employment of wage workers and production for sale on the market. Of course, those Afrikaner farmers who could adapt became the backbone of this new class. But the development of capitalism broke the link between the overwhelming majority of whites and the land whatever romantic notions exist today amongst both black and white nationalists. Today, only 8% of white people live in rural areas.

Explaining this history is not intended to diminish land dispossession in the pre-imperialist period of history. The dispossession of the Khoikhoi and their transformation into an indentured servant class was just one of the cruel chapters of history from that period. All the racist justifications for their brutal treatment were later developed and hardened by imperialism (see Race & Class: Marxism, Racism and the Class Struggle).

Rather, this history is important to draw attention to a fundamental mistake in analysis made by many nationalists. Focusing only on ‘black vs. white’, nationalists see nothing but continuity in the history of South Africa from 1652 up until today. They see that white settlers arrived and started stealing the land. By 1913 they had all the land that they could use, and today, they still have it. This mistaken reading of history inevitably leads to the conclusion that therefore whites in general are the reason why the vast majority of black people continue to have limited ownership of land, limited access to it, and little control over it.

But in class terms the history of South Africa since 1652 is not one of continuity. As we will explain below, the land, and the ability to make a living from it, is today monopolised by a tiny capitalist class. But because of their racial blinkers, nationalist organisations cannot see this. They therefore cannot characterise their enemy correctly and without understanding their enemy they cannot work out the tactics needed to defeat him. For this it is necessary to recognise the contradictions between the different classes on the land and in society in general – exactly the approach that so many nationalist organisations reject.

Who really controls the land?

In the chapters of Capital dealing with the question of land, Marx explained the tendency of capitalism to centralise capital and concentrate ownership. This economic process is at work on the land in South Africa. In 1996 there were 60,938 commercial farms, shrinking rapidly to 45,818 by 2002 as a result of the ANC government’s neo-liberal economic policies. Today there are estimated to be 36,000 commercial farms, expected to fall to just 15,000 within 20 years. As Marx explained in Capital, “one capitalist always kills many.” But further, in 2002, just 1,348 commercial farms (5% of the total) received over half of all commercial farm income. These are the big capitalist farmers that monopolise farming – barely a thousand individuals.

But it is not just the big commercial farms that control the land. In 2002, three multinationals controlled 90% of the maize, wheat and sorghum markets; in 2008 three multinationals controlled 86% of the fertiliser market; in 2007 80% of food processing was monopolised by four big businesses; in 2010 the big retail chains (e.g. Shoprite and Pick N Pay) controlled 68% of the food retail market. These capitalist monopolies super-exploit their own workers, squeeze consumers through their influence over prices, and push small and medium farmers out of business by monopolising the market for farm inputs and the market for processing, marketing and selling farm produce.

These facts alone show that it is extremely imprecise to define those who own and control the land simply as “the whites” and to put forward the idea that “the whites must give back the land” as the solution to the land question. Those who own and control the land are not whites in general but a tiny monopolistic faction of the capitalist class. More, they are entirely parasitic. The monopolies described above are stock market listed. It is unlikely any of their shareholders have ever farmed or will even set foot on the farm they own. Many are multinationals whose shareholders could be anywhere in the world.

It would not be unreasonable to assume that the majority of these shareholders are white. But it is not their skin colour that is decisive. What is decisive is that they are private owners of land who use that ownership to make a profit on their original investment. That profit can only be created through the exploitation of wage workers and production for the market. It is the pursuit of their self-interest on this capitalist economic foundation that explains their behaviour, from the refusal to ‘share’ more land, to the raising of prices, driving down of wages, eviction of tenants etc. For the capitalists to survive against their competitors they can do nothing less. The same economic laws compel all capitalists whatever their skin colour. The idea that a black commercial farmer would somehow live in harmony with black workers, black consumers and black tenants is impossible on the basis of capitalism.

That the economic and class relations are decisive in understanding the land question can be demonstrated by the recent history of South Africa and Zimbabwe. On the basis of capitalism land can only ever be used to benefit a minority regardless of the skin colour of that minority.

South African land reform

In its dying days the apartheid regime began to dismantle the enormous state support that had protected white farmers. This was a move calculated to put the wealth of one of their core constituencies beyond the reach of the state they were about to lose control of. But the ANC, the party of ‘black liberation’, upon forming the government not only refused to reverse the apartheid regime’s neo-liberal measures but took them further. For example, legislation passed in 1996 ended the state marketing system and privatised the grain co-operatives. These and other neo-liberal counter-reforms further consolidated the agricultural sector as a capitalist monopoly.

Since 1994, 900,000 farm workers have been evicted from their homes on farms, most due to job losses. The ANC has done nothing to prevent this. Indeed, it was their commitment to maintaining the capitalist economic foundations of apartheid on the land, as in the rest of the economy, which was the background to these evictions.

Since 1994, the ANC government has redistributed 8% of farmland through its land redistribution and restitution policies. Up to 250,000 rural households are thought to have benefited in some way. But even these policies are overwhelmingly designed to ensure that the land continues to be exploited on a capitalist basis. That by definition means under the control of a minority and for the benefit of a minority. That is why the overwhelming majority of people are extremely frustrated with the slow pace of ‘reform’. The glacial pace over the last twenty years has itself protected the big commercial farmers and guaranteed them years of additional profits.

Just as BEE has aimed to create black capitalists in other sectors of the economy, for example a class of “black industrialists”, the goal of much ANC land policy is to create a class of black commercial farmers whilst being careful not to undermine the basis of capitalist farming in general by disrupting the white-owned sector. Evens so, there are now estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000 black commercial farmers whose operations depend on employing wage workers. Some of these black commercial farmers will be part of the small elite controlling the 95% of farmland.

Some commentators have pointed to similarities between the ANC government’s land reform programme and the apartheid regime’s “betterment” policies. In many cases the ANC government demands business plans and the backing of private investors before redistributing land; the apartheid regime provided support to farmers in the homelands as long as the land was going to be made ‘more productive’. Both policies aimed to develop a class of black commercial farmers as a middle layer in society whose status and wealth is dependent on the continuation of capitalism.

Zimbabwean land reform

In the early 2000s a radical redistribution of land took place in Zimbabwe. Including the smaller-scale programme of the 1980s, 6,000 white-owned farms have been broken-up and redistributed to 245,000 black families (more than 1.5 million people). But this redistribution has taken place within the context of a capitalist economy. The economic laws of capitalism are already at work. A process of class differentiation (Marx’s “one capitalist kills many”) is already developing among the new small farmers. One study showed that 10% of farmers were likely to “drop-out” in the next period because they were unable to make ends meet. A further 35% were “struggling”. But 34% of farmers were “stepping-up” – accumulating capital and employing increasing numbers of wage workers.

Many of the new farm owners relied on their own labour and family-labour in the beginning causing tens of thousands of farmworkers to lose their jobs. But the more successful farmers are increasingly making use of wage workers. One study showed that 31% of small commercial farmers employed on average five workers each and 57% employed casual workers. The study also noted the significantly lower wages and worse conditions faced by farmworkers since redistribution. Already strikes are not unheard of.

There are currently laws limiting the size of farms and outlawing multiple farm ownership. This is calculated by the Mugabe regime to maintain a broad base of support among small farmers. But if the working class and rural poor do not intervene to prevent it we can anticipate that these restrictions will be lifted by Mugabe’s eventual successor. This will be the case if, as is likely, the imperialist powers intervene to defend capitalism and open up Zimbabwe to the world capitalist economy. Within a generation or two, on the basis of capitalism, the real successors of the 6,000 white commercial farmers may well be 6,000 black commercial farmers. The majority of people will again have no opportunity to make a living from the land and the exploitation of farmworkers will continue.

Even leaving aside the 10% of farmland that has been handed-over to Mugabe’s cronies to profit from, the distinction between those that own the land and exploit the labour of others, and those who do not own the land and are forced to sell their labour to be exploited is developing all over again. But this time both exploiter and exploited will be black. This can only be explained if class is the foundation of your analysis.

Both the limited land redistribution of South Africa and the more thoroughgoing land redistribution of Zimbabwe show that on the basis of capitalism it is impossible to genuinely “return the land to the people”.

The land and the class struggle

Marxists would recognise the land question as genuinely resolved and the land returned to the people only in a socialist society where all forms of exploitation are ended and even the idea of private property in land falls away. In other words, to end capitalism on the land will require the nationalisation (or socialisation) of the land and the collectivisation of agriculture (i.e. democratically organising labour on the land to ensure that agriculture is as productive and efficient as modern technology and techniques allow).

Agriculture could not survive as an isolated socialist sector of the economy however. Capitalist social relations would need to be ended across all the important sectors of the economy. Alongside the big commercial farms and the monopolies linked to farm inputs, food processing and food retail mentioned above, the banks, the mines, the big factories and big businesses would also be nationalised under democratic working class control. Replacing the current capitalist state, a workers state based on elected and accountable committees would democratically plan production and the running of society.

So far we have painted a picture as pretty as any nationalist organisation. But the real substance of the land question for Marxists is: how will this be achieved? This is precisely the point on which the nationalist organisations are silent.

Trotsky explained in his 1938 Transitional Programme that the starting point for Marxists is to:

 …work out with all possible concreteness a programme of transitional demands concerning the peasants (farmers)… in conformity with the conditions of each country. The advanced workers should learn to give clear and concrete answers… (Emphasis added)

In other words painting pretty pictures will not do. Nor will empty slogans. The ability to give “clear and concrete answers” to give a way forward must be based upon an understanding of the different classes on the land, their different interests and the contradictions between them that bring them into conflict. From this understanding a revolutionary programme can be developed that puts forward clear tactics for the class struggle. Because only the struggle of all exploited classes can resolve the land question in the interests of the vast majority.

It is worth noting at this point just how far some nationalist organisations deviate from the clear path of Marxism. For example, Andile Mngxitama’s Black First Land First (BLF) organisation does not even finish at Marxism’s starting point. In a 2014 article Mngxitama rejected Marxism as “euro-centric” and dismissed Marx’s so-called “racist, mechanical thinking”. In doing so he disarmed his movement of any capacity to put forward a coherent land programme.

Nationalists like Mngxitama prefer to gloss over class divisions because it disproves their view that the struggle for the land is first and foremost a racial struggle. Reflecting this, BLF’s website, whilst forced to recognise “elites within the black community” dismisses these class divisions as “misunderstandings amongst the oppressed”. Further, the BLF website puts forward the utopian promise that “Black First seeks to end all divisions and contradictions amongst the people so as to consolidate them into a united strong block against white racism and dispossession.” By an act of willpower Mngxitama thinks he can overcome the class contradictions between land owners and wage workers, exploiter and exploited, on the basis of ‘racial solidarity’ that the history of the class struggle shows is impossible.

The way forward: the working class and socialism

A revolutionary Marxist programme for the land not only recognises class divisions as fundamental but must aim to sharpen them. As Trotsky explained, “the political task of the industrial proletariat [urban working class] is to carry the class struggle into the country. Only thus will he be able to draw a dividing line between his allies and his enemies.”  Every struggle waged, tactic employed, programmatic demand and slogan raised must be calculated to isolate the tiny capitalist class and deny them a mass base amongst the people that could be mobilised against the working class and a socialist government. Only in this way can we hasten the downfall of capitalism and genuinely restore the land to the people.

The following socialist demands are the heart of our land programme:

  • Nationalise under democratic working class and community control the banks, the mines, the commercial farms, the big factories and big businesses. A publicly owned and democratically planned socialist economy to meet the needs of all and not the profits of the capitalists
  • Nationalise the 36,000 commercial farms that control 95% of agricultural land; support and debt cancellation for small and subsistence farmers. Democratically elected community committees to determine the use of non-agricultural land – home-owner occupiers and small business premises exempt

Such measures would destroy the power of the capitalist class over the land. It is the working class who must organise and lead the struggle to implement this socialist programme. First and foremost that means unity between the urban and the rural working class. Trotsky explained that:

The brother-in-arms and counterpart of the worker in the country is the agricultural labourer [farmworker]. They are two parts of one and the same class. Their interests are inseparable. The industrial workers’ program of transitional demands, with changes here and there, is likewise the program of the agricultural proletariat.

Today, there are some 700,000 farmworkers in South Africa. In addition there are hundreds of thousands of casual and seasonal farmworkers, including super-exploited migrant workers. There are 130,000 food processing workers. Marxists support these workers to organise in powerful and democratic trade unions to struggle for higher wages and better working conditions as they did in the 2013 strikes in the Western Cape.

Just as other groups of class conscious workers demand the nationalisation of their industries, so too farmworkers must demand the nationalisation under their own democratic control and management of the commercial farms and the other monopolies. Organised and armed with a revolutionary programme, it is the rural working class which has the potential to lead the transformation of social relations on the land as part of the working class’s struggle for socialism. Those serious about “returning the land to people” must first and foremost orient towards these workers.

The way forward: the small farmer

But as Trotsky explained, there are other classes[1] on the land.

The peasants ([small] farmers) represent another class: they are the petty bourgeoisie of the village. The petty bourgeoisie is made up of various layers, from the semi-proletarian to the exploiter elements.

A different programme must be put forward to win over the non-exploiting small farmers to the working class struggle for socialism.

There are between 2-2.5 million black subsistence farmers in South Africa. They grow food overwhelmingly for their own use, possibly selling some surplus, e.g. selling corn cobs by the side of the road. Many will be doing this purely as a means of survival in the face of unemployment and poverty. A programme for job creation, a living minimum wage, and rural development would likely see many voluntarily give up farming for the stable income of wage work. But those who wish to continue farming their own subsistence plots would be supported by a socialist government.

There are another 200-250,000 black small farmers who grow crops and raise livestock. But this is not on a scale that allows most to make a living from farming alone. Many supplement their farm income with wage work, remittances from family members etc. They therefore have one foot firmly in the camp of the working class. However, they are engaged in farming to sell on the market at a profit. Some exploit wage labour, especially on a seasonal or casual basis. They therefore also have their other foot in the camp of the capitalist economy. It is in relation to this layer in particular that Trotsky gave the following relevant guidance:

The program for the nationalization of the land and collectivization of agriculture should be so drawn that from its very basis it should exclude the possibility of expropriation of small farmers and their compulsory collectivization. The farmer will remain owner of his plot of land as long as he himself believes it possible or necessary.

Any transitional period between capitalism and socialism will therefore involve some temporary concessions to small private property[2]. But these concessions are not of a principled character, i.e. sacrificing the goal of socialist land relations. Rather they are of a temporary and tactical character designed to win the majority of the rural population over to the side of the working class, and create the mass support necessary for the socialist reorganisation of society.

It would be pure recklessness to make people enemies of the working class and a socialist government over economically peripheral petty property. That is why we are clear that we demand only the nationalisation of the 36,000 commercial farms and the other monopolies linked to the land and promise support for small and subsistence farmers. In our Socialist Civic Programme we have raised the demand to:

Campaign and fight for state supported cooperatives of small farmers and small businesses; a public wholesale goods network to provide cheap bulk supplies; provision of affordable credit to existing small businesses and those wishing to open a small business; price controls and guaranteed markets.

We are also clear that the property rights of small businesses and home-owner occupiers will be protected in any socialist land reform.

This is why the EFF’s demand for the wholesale nationalisation of the land (which now seems to have been quietly abandoned), which AZAPO also puts forward (see appendix), is too blunt an instrument, even if it sounds very radical. It is the kind of demand that the big capitalists could use to sow confusion by portraying a socialist government as preparing to “steal your land and take away your livelihood”. Further, without clarifying the class character of the state that would become the “custodian” of nationalised land it is not at all clear that the grip of the capitalist class’s control over the land would be broken by implementing this policy.

It is also necessary to recognise that the demand for the nationalisation of the commercial farms under democratic working class and community control does not exclude the possibility of them remaining private property in a transitional period. Especially in South Africa, tenancy rights and family homes are important concerns of farmworkers. It is not impossible that today’s farmworkers could take a democratic decision to break-up the big capitalist farms in order to work them as small privately-owned farms. For Marxists, the first prize would be for the farmworkers to immediately decide upon the socialisation of the big commercial farms and their integration into a planned socialist economy. This is what our current programme points to. On the basis of the example set by the working class in the cities, putting forward sweeping nationalisation of industry as part of a socialist plan of production it is the most likely road that the farmworkers would take. At the most practical level, many farmworkers will not want to make life harder for themselves by losing economies of scale, labour-saving mechanisation and other benefits of large-scale farming. But ultimately, the way forward must be decided democratically by the farmworkers. Their decision will depend on how the class struggle unfolds and how this effects the development of a socialist consciousness.

But Trotsky explained the key difference that would face small property-owners in a transitional period between capitalism and socialism. He explained that, “dependence upon private capital will be replaced by dependence upon the [workers] state”. Through its new democratic state the working class would now control the 95% of former commercial farms and the monopolies supplying inputs and responsible for processing, marketing and retailing farm produce. The concession to small private property would therefore only apply to a tiny section of the economy, even if that involves millions of individual small producers. But not to make such a concession could push these millions of small producers into the arms of the big capitalists who posture as the defenders of private property rights.

Even so, any transitional period would also include firm pressure from a workers state to prevent exploitation from developing. Trade union rights, living wages and decent conditions for any employed workers would be strictly enforced. The task here is to split the small farmers between exploiters and exploited. As Trotsky explained:

The alliance proposed by the proletariat [working class] – not to the “middle classes” in general but to the exploited layers of the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie [small farmers, small business owners etc.], against all exploiters, including those of the “middle classes” – can be based not on compulsion but only on free consent…

The organisation of small farmers and small business owners into organisations and associations allied to the working class will be vital.

Over time, the dominant socialist sector of the economy would set an example of the benefits of socialisation, collectivisation and economic planning. Guaranteeing a decent standard of living for all, this can be used to win over most small producers to a programme of voluntary socialisation and voluntary integration into a planned socialist economy. The need for temporary concessions to private property would fall away of its own accord.


A revolutionary programme designed to deny the capitalist class any possibility of a mass base could involve other compromises, for example on the question of compensation for nationalised property. Nationalists make “no compensation” for land a question of principle. They justify this by an emotional appeal to historic injustices. The problem with this is that it ignores the variation in the size and scale of land ownership today, regardless of its historical origins.

Marxists view the question of compensation as a tactical question and raise the possibility of paying it in cases of proven need. This is nothing more than a variation of the compromise to small private property described above.

For example, it is estimated that 50% of the 36,000 commercial farms are so-called ‘part-time’ or ‘hobby’ farms. Rather than commercial agriculture the land is used for tourism, ranches, resorts, holiday homes or second homes etc. In cases where the livelihood of these owners is completely dependent on these farms some compensation could be paid for their nationalisation. This could even be the case with small shareholders of the big commercial farms and other monopolies, for example in the case of a pensioner supplementing their income from petty share-ownership.

Again, this approach is calculated to make it harder for the capitalists to win a mass base by appealing to those who feel they have “lost out” under socialism Compensation will not of course persuade all small and medium owners whose property is nationalised. But it will win over some, neutralise others and deny the big capitalists a propaganda weapon.

The way forward: the traditional leaders

In keeping with Trotsky’s advice to examine the land question in concrete circumstances in every country, there is one feature specific to South Africa that requires special discussion – that of traditional authorities and traditional leaders.

Much nationalist rhetoric helps maintain the fiction that ‘traditional’ African institutions that disappeared long ago still exist. As we have explained above, the entrance of imperialism in the late nineteenth century destroyed what remained of the traditional African social structure. But whilst its substance was destroyed, its form was preserved as a social support for the capitalist economy. Consequently, many kings and chiefs supported the apartheid regime as the source of their privileged social position. For example, the apartheid regime used the ‘homelands’ as a labour reserve and the chiefs profited through a cash tax on migrant labour contracts. This is hardly a ‘traditional’ tribal relationship.

One of the compromises that the ANC made with apartheid’s legacy was to use the boundaries of the former ‘homelands’ as the basis for new ‘communal lands’ under ‘traditional’ authorities. Ironically, these boundaries were originally demarcated through massive land dispossession. Yet the ANC has recognised them as legitimate. Some 16.5 million people live on this land. But today’s ‘traditional’ authorities are not a return to some pre-colonial idyll but an appendage to South African capitalism. The kings and chiefs remain on the state payroll, paid up to R900,000 per year. Traditional leaders have agitated for communal land currently held ‘in trust’ by the state to be transferred, not to the people, but to themselves or the traditional councils they control.

This parallels Marx’s description of how the tribal relations in Britain were also corrupted by the development of capitalism. In Capital he described how the Scottish highland chiefs, “On their own authority…transformed their nominal right [to the land] into a right of private property, and as this came up against resistance on the part of their clansmen, they resolved to drive them out by open force.” In other words, a chieftaincy hollowed-out of its original substance sided with the capitalist class to disposes their clansmen of the land and turn them into wage workers.

In exchange for being cut in to the deal some traditional leaders have supported mining capitalists to profit from communal land. In June 2016, the Sunday Times reported that in Sekhukhune, up to R500 million worth of chrome had been illegally mined. All that was required of ‘investors’ was to make a one-off payment of R250,000 in to one of six community trusts under the control of traditional leaders, reportedly with permission of the Bapedi king.

A wealthy rural elite has developed under the cover of ‘traditional authority’ whose interests are bound-up with the maintenance of capitalism and the exploitation of the rural population. The struggle to genuinely return the land to the people and to end exploitation will require a struggle against these exploitative chiefs and kings.

The chiefs and kings will try and mobilise the rural masses to defend them. They will portray Marxists who try and organise a struggle against them as launching “an attack on African culture”. Unfortunately, the policies of many nationalist organisations make it likely they will be persuaded by this propaganda and support the chiefs and kings in such a struggle (see appendix).

So a revolutionary socialist programme must again be designed to deny these exploiting elements a mass base that they can use to defend themselves. Appealing to the rural working class, rural poor and small farmers Marxists must make it clear that the struggle is against a wealthy elite that includes many traditional leaders and not a struggle against African culture. Indeed, it is these very kings and chiefs who have been co-opted by capitalism who undermine African culture. A Marxist programme must defend cultural rights with a programme to return culture to the people, allowing them to democratically decide what aspects are to be celebrated and which abandoned. That means separating cultural institutions from the capitalist state and the capitalist economy.

Our programme toward traditional authority and traditional leaders includes the following:

  • End all state salaries for traditional leaders – remove traditional leaders from municipal councils; traditional leaders retain the right to form a political party and contest elections the same as every other citizen
  • Put all taxes and royalties paid by mining companies and foreign investors currently paid to traditional leaders under the democratic control of elected and accountable community committees and spend on social development
  • Traditional authority to be given the status of voluntary associations – if members chose freely to pay subscriptions and maintain traditional leaders as full-time employees from those subscriptions that is their concern; such traditional associations to observe democratic norms of non-oppression, non-discrimination and non-coercion.

Nationalism or Marxism?

The struggle on the land is an integral part of the struggle for socialism. The establishment of socialism will give democratic control over the land to those who live on it and work it and allow society as a whole to democratically decide on how to use the wealth produced from the land. But socialism will only come about through organisation and struggle. Key is the organisation of the working class to lead their allies amongst the rural poor and small farmers.

We argue that there are three main theatres of struggle: the workplaces, the communities and amongst the youth. All of these theatres feature acts that play out on the land. The struggles of the three theatres, whether urban or rural, must be united into one powerful mass movement for socialism.

The building of a new socialist trade union federation must include the farmworkers. Campaigns should be undertaken to organise casual and seasonal workers and defend the rights of rural migrant workers. The building of a new country-wide socialist civic federation must involve rural communities and address itself to the specific issues found there. For example, rural development and the organisation of struggle to win support for small and subsistence farmers. The building of a revolutionary socialist youth movement must include the youth at the agricultural colleges and the unemployed in the rural areas.

Crucially, all the fighting elements on the land must form part of a socialist mass workers party. Organised alongside its allies, the working class must lead the building of a mass revolutionary party to wage the struggle for a socialist South Africa, linking up with the working class across Africa and the world. The waging of a relentless class struggle for socialism against the exploiting minority, whether the big capitalists, exploiting middle farmers or corrupted traditional leaders is the only way to genuinely return the land to the people.

Continue to Appendix

[1] For Marxists, class is determined by a person’s relationship to the means of production – do they or do they not own means of production? Therefore, no matter how poor a person might be, if they own means of production they cannot scientifically be viewed as working class. The land that small farmers own becomes a means of production when used for farming. That is why scientifically they must be viewed as petty bourgeois, i.e. small capitalists. But there is enormous variation in the conditions and consciousness of the petty bourgeoisie, some are the allies of the working class, others its enemy.

[2] When discussing private property here we mean private property in the means of production, which includes land ownership. Marx always distinguished between this kind of property and private property in the means of consumption, or what we might call personal property today, i.e. your individual belongings, which even on the basis of socialism would be used as the individual owner sees fit.