The Queenstown Town Hall was packed to its limits to accommodate the multitudes of South Africans attending the public hearings on whether to amend section 25 of the Constitution to make it possible to expropriate land without compensation, if it is in the public interest to do so.

The people of Chris Hani District Municipality came from as far as Cradock, more than 100 kilometres away, Middleburg, Hofmeyr, Tarkastad, Whittlesea, Engcobo and Dordrecht, Inxuba Yethemba, Enoch Mgijima, Intsika Yethu, Emalahleni and Sakhisizwe local municipalities. Drawn by their high interest in land redistribution, large numbers of people went early to the town hall to secure a seat and their opportunity to speak, but the hall could not accommodate them all, leading the police to close access to the hall. This led to much unhappiness among those who had been excluded and they disrupted proceedings to express their dissatisfaction.

The Co-Chairperson of the Joint Constitutional Review Committee leading the delegation in the Eastern Cape, Mr Lewis Nzimande, intervened by instructing the police to allow members of the public to fill the hall gallery. Even this was insufficient to accommodate all the people, but it was enough to allow the hearings to begin in a peaceful manner.

As usual in previous public hearings on the matter, Mr Nzimande explained the purpose of the hearings and spelt out the rules of participation. He urged people to maintain the high levels of discipline to ensure that all are afforded an opportunity to express their views freely on the issue. He highlighted the significance of the hearings and warned people to ensure that the hearings are not compromised by intolerance of opposing views. “Let each one speak freely. Do not turn the hearings on this very import issue of land redistribution into a political rally” emphasised Mr Nzimande.

The people of Queenstown told the delegation that the land between Queenstown and Cradock is entirely in the hands of white people. Black people, they said, are still squeezed into tiny areas on top of hills and mountains. Ms Noxolo Sonkani of Sada said that white people have a monopoly on land in Queenstown and that the land between Queenstown and Aliwal North is shared by a few whites, each with over 28 hectares. “They take that as a divine privilege bestowed by the almighty upon them. Had that not been the case, they would have voluntarily given some of the land to their black, historically land-dispossessed fellow South Africans,” she argued.

The people of Chris Hani District differed on the value of expropriation and amending the constitution. However, support for amending the Constitution to allow the expropriation of land without compensation dominated the Queenstown hearings. Those who did not support it based their arguments on the fact that currently there is a government land restitution programme, in which people can claim land if they can show evidence of forced removal from that land. Proponents of this view argued that the government has so far failed to deliver. It must be forced to do so, as many of those who laid claims, as long ago as 2003, have not been compensated or received their lands back.

On the issue of custodianship of the land between the government and traditional leaders, people had opposing views. Some argued for traditional leaders as custodians, while others argued for state custodianship on the grounds that South Africa is a constitutional democracy and is not subject to customary law anymore.

The people of Queenstown also referred to the Bulhoek massacre of May 1921, where more than 160 black people of the Israelite church were massacred by the colonial government during forced removals. Ms Veronica Soci of Queenstown said that given such a history, expropriation of land without compensation should be negotiated.

The Eastern Cape hearings continue today in East London in the Amathole District Municipality. East London is in what was known as the Border region, an area famous for the 18th century frontier wars, during which the AmaXhosa kings were disposed of their land.

Mava Lukani
26 July 2018