Land issue needs ethics, not iniquity

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cience tells us that Africa is the historic birthplace of our species, going back about 200 000 years. Therefore, Africa is also the historical motherland of ethics because no community can survive long and thrive without ethical values. Supported by the ethics of our other traditions, faiths and cultures, African ethical experience is the key to a successful handling of the land question, because doing things ethically is the only way to achieve lasting benefit for all.

Ten values stand out in connection with the land: justice, truth, generosity, respect, humaneness, responsibility, dignity, safety, non-violence and the inclusivity of ubuntu/botho. Together they mean that we cannot correct a historical injustice with a new injustice.

The purpose and goal of ethics is to provide the greatest possible wellbeing for all. It is about enabling all our people to thrive on a sustainable basis. Of these requirements the ones that relate most directly to the land question are nourishment, potable water, dignity, safety and financial security.

While restorative justice is a vital part of achieving this outcome, it is not sufficient. The Charter of Positive Values of the Moral Regeneration Movement, with its deep African roots, can help us here. One of its most important clauses is about truth. It says that honesty and integrity are key social values. What this means for the land question is that we need all the facts and details about land ownership and land use. We also need great honesty from those who have benefited from the way land was taken without payment in past centuries and kept till today, through sale after sale. In this situation we need very accurate information. Sweeping generalisations will not be enough to prevent new mistakes and even injustices.


All beneficiaries of injustice must now in honesty acknowledge the truth that they have benefited from a grave historical wrong, and indicate their willingness to help South Africa find the best way forward in justice and concern, not vengeance or violence. That in itself is service for the common good.

Another vital ethical value is generosity of spirit and action, the opposite of selfishness and greed. Therefore, today’s beneficiaries of the land tragedy also need to offer their expertise and resources to those who lack them, through no fault of their own.

The recipients in turn would greatly assist land justice to happen harmoniously by understanding the extremely painful, anxious and disturbing situation those beneficiaries are experiencing, and by showing their willingness to see them as partners in rebuilding the country, not enemy invaders who need to be dispossessed of their homes and livelihoods.

We need restorative justice, not punitive justice. This ensures that the great African moral principle of hlonipho/hlompo, meaning true, deep, rich respect, plays a prominent part in whatever new land laws are passed. This will ensure that we replace inhumanity with the humaneness of ubuntu/botho, not with yet more inhumanity.

The next value is responsibility. The ethical person and the ethical leader is one who displays great thoroughness and accountability and who can therefore be relied upon to act with integrity and thoroughness, not hurriedly and without the most careful research, consultation and preparation. We need wisdom, not opportunism.

Equitable access to land and land ownership provide dignity and a degree of financial security. Even small pieces of land can provide food, and when there is title to them, the land can serve as security for loans to finance ways of increasing the income of the title holders, or even selling their land.

Ethics strives for peace and prosperity, so it does not do its work violently. Therefore the new land dispensation must avoid violence. This will require the utmost moral responsibility from all.

The remaining key ethical value that must be practised is inclusivity, which is what ubuntu/botho means; telling us that worthwhile existence is a matter of togetherness and cooperation, not assertive, self-concerned individualism. There is no other way to ensure that all our people are respected, understood, appreciated and helped as fully as possible, as together we create a new and lastingly better future about the land.

So if we want to transform a great wrong about the land and the people who occupied it into a great good, all of us and our leaders most of all need to understand and practise all the values that ethics alone can give to the new land laws we need. Before land ownership ever becomes a matter for legislation, it must therefore be the subject of the best, participatory ethical discussions we can achieve, involving a national conversation to map the ethical road ahead.

This article offers a contribution to such discussions by identifying 10 core ethical values for our discussions: truth, justice, generosity, respect, humaneness, responsibility, dignity, safety, non-violence and the inclusivity of ubuntu/botho.

- Emeritus Professor Prozesky is a former academic specialising in questions of ethics and religion. He now works as an applied ethics researcher, writer and trainer