The South African Catholic Bishops Conference has recently published a document on land reform. The bishops write about an issue which has wider implications and is a live topic in many other countries. We present here a slightly abridged version of the document.
The year 1994 held high hopes for many people in South Africa in terms of change and fulfilment of their dreams. Coming from a history of dispossession and the unequal distribution of land, many were looking forward to a more just and equitable land restitution and redistribution. At the time of the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela, only 13% of the land of the country was in the hands of black people, while 87% remained in the hands of white people.
Since then, many studies and many efforts have been made to redress this massive imbalance. However, in the first 16 years of democracy, only 6,9% of the land was redistributed. Furthermore the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform acknowledged that, of the land redistributed, 90% remained underproductive. This highlights our failure as a country to address this crucial issue which poses a serious threat to the food security of the nation, adding to a rapidly growing frustration among the millions of landless people in our country which can explode at any time. In fact the ongoing invasions of state, municipal and private properties by landless people are a sign that the growing frustration of landless people is already exploding.
Since a successful land reform policy is still proving to be elusive, all stakeholders have an urgent duty to engage with each other and with the government to ensure that the obstacles to progress are swiftly addressed. We, as the Catholic Church, are one such stakeholder, having been, ourselves, engaged in efforts to ensure a more just use of our own land. We therefore believe that we have an important role to play in the development of a just and viable vision for land reform in our country.
Our vision for land reform is informed by understandings of the land revealed in our Sacred Scriptures and in documents of our Church Tradition. Biblical stories such as the exodus from the slavery in Egypt inspired the dispossessed and oppressed people in South Africa to dream about liberation and a different South Africa. Thus, liberation in 1994 is not the end of the story. It must be completed with rooted-ness, landed-ness, and belonging, where people may live out their covenant relationship with God, the ultimate creator and owner of land.
In the Old Testament, in response to the Israelite assertion to own the land, there is an insistence that the earth belongs to God and that God has given it as a heritage to all the children of Israel. It is therefore to be shared among all the tribes, clans and families. So, whereas in Egypt and Babylonia all the land belonged to Pharaoh or to the king, in Israel, God is the true master of the land, and people are simply the administrators or stewards.
God’s ownership of the land has specific consequences. Nobody has the right to dispossess a person who has the use of land, for this would violate a divine right. The prophets (Isaiah 5:8; Micah 2:2) are particularly energetic in their condemnation of abuses of the rich who force the poor and small farmers to give up their family holdings.
Care for the land, therefore, implies seeing it not simply in material terms as geographical space, but in moral and theological terms as an opportunity for sharing and caring for the poor, the dispossessed, the stranger, the sojourner, the widow and orphan; in other words, those who have no status in the community, since being without land means to be without power and dignity. This same spirit of sharing was at the heart of the early Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles (2:44-45; 4:32-37) where all things were shared in common.
In the same vein, “the question of equitable agrarian reform in developing countries should not be ignored. The right to food, like the right to water, has an important place within the pursuit of other rights, beginning with the fundamental right to life. It is therefore necessary to cultivate a public conscience that considers food and access to water as universal rights of all human beings, without distinction or discrimination.”
In the social teaching of the Church, the process of the concentration of landholdings is judged a scandal because it clearly goes against God’s will and salvific plan, inasmuch as it deprives a large part of humanity of the benefit of the fruits of the earth. Perverse inequalities in the distribution of common goods and in each person’s opportunities for development, as well as the dehumanizing imbalances in individual and collective relationships brought about by such a concentration, are the cause of conflicts that undermine the very life of society, leading to the break-up of the social fabric and the degradation of the natural environment.
The social teaching of the Church takes the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods as its basis in identifying the criterion of the productive use of the land for the exercise of the right to ownership of it, and in condemning the ownership of large land estates (latifundia) as intrinsically illegitimate.
While the Church upholds the right to private property to assure the exercise of personal and family autonomy as an extension of human freedom, this right is not unconditional, but entails some very precise obligations. It is basically an instrument to implement the principle of the universal destination of material goods, and hence a means and not an end. The right of every person to the use of the goods needed in order to live sets a limit on the right of private property. Hence, “when a person is in extreme necessity he has the right to supply himself with what he needs out of the riches of others”.
This doctrine was expounded by St Thomas Aquinas, and it helps in evaluating some complex situations of major socio-ethical importance, such as the expulsion of peasant farmers from land they have been farming, without guaranteeing their right to receive a portion necessary to sustain life; or, again, cases of occupation of uncultivated land on the part of peasant farmers who are not its owners and who live in conditions of dire poverty.
A socially responsible use of the right to property is suggested to be the promotion of family-owned and farmed enterprises that use family labour for the most part, but can tap into the external labour market by taking on paid workers. Such farms should be large enough to allow the family sufficient earning, to retain possession of the farm, to have access to the land credit market, and to ensure sustainability of the rural environment also through appropriate use of inputs.
The social teaching of the Church does not consider individual property the only legitimate form of land ownership, but also holds common property, which is a feature of the social structure of many indigenous populations, in particular consideration.
While the insufficient usage of large landholdings justifies expropriation, it must be emphasized, however, that according to the social teaching, agrarian reform cannot be confined simply to redistribution of the ownership of land. Expropriation of land and its redistribution are only one aspect — and not the most complex one — of an equitable and effective policy of agrarian reform.
The more farmers know about the productive capacities of the land and other inputs, and the various possible ways of satisfying the needs of those for whom the fruit of their work is intended, the more fruitful this work will be, especially as a means of personal fulfilment through the use of their own intelligence and freedom. Priority must therefore be given to setting up a system capable of providing the broadest possible range of knowledge and technical and scientific skills on the various educational levels.
See part 2 here.