There is a poem called “The Cold Within” that was written in the 1960’s by then unknown American poet James Patrick Kinney.
I first heard this poem quoted by our former Public Protector Professor Thuli Madonsela, but apparently it is quite well known the world over. What struck me about it was the fact that it could so easily have been written about us here in South Africa in 2018. It is challenging, painful and beautiful and – as the various 2019 election campaigns begin to polarise and divide us – it deserves our full attention:
Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.The next man looking ‘cross the way
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor.The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.The poem is so powerful because it places us together around a fire – usually a space for friends. But the fire is dying and so are we. It begs for us to find our common humanity – that which will save our lives – and share what we have with one another; our kindness, our time, our resources – regardless of our differences.
“No one is going to lose his or her house. No one is going to lose his or her flat. No one is going to lose his or her factory or industry.” EFF Leader Julius Malema.
Calm is needed around the issue of expropriation of land without compensation. We run the risk of this becoming the most polarising issue of our post-1994 democracy and it really needn’t be. In fact, I would suggest that this issue could – if we view it slightly differently – become one that further unifies us South Africans and strengthens the bonds that have developed between us over the past two decades.
The reason I say this is because most people I speak to or listen to on radio agree on so many of the fundamentals around the issue of land expropriation: They agree that imbalances in land ownership are still a major stumbling block to the realisation of the dream of a fair and equal, democratic society; they agree that land that was unfairly stripped from black people, needs to be returned; they agree that progress in terms of land redistribution has been slow to the point of near non-existent. So, unless we harbour prejudices aside from the actual issue at hand – redress of the wrongs of the past concerning land ownership – we are largely in agreement that things need to change. How often does that happen, especially with such an explosive issue as land?
It is at this point in the land expropriation without compensation conversation that fear kicks in: What will happen to my land? What will happen to the economy (or put another way, my savings, my pension)? And to justify my fear (as if fear needed justifying) I turn to tried and trusted arguments: Look what happened in Zimbabwe; It is a disaster when unqualified people are given land they do not know how to farm.
But these arguments and questions are futile and unhelpful for the very reason that they elicit more fear and bring about further polarization. More useful (if more difficult) questions will guide us back to productive solutions and ultimately, unity – even if we disagree on how things finally get done: How do we empower our people with land in a responsible manner? How do we put our differences aside to make this happen? What needs to be done to ensure that expropriation, or rather redistribution, benefits the recipients and the economy at large? What needs to happen to allay the fears of all current land-owners? How do we ensure food security?
This issue needs to be handled with such levels of care and sensitivity. That sensitivity should begin with us – the citizens – and how we think of and speak about this issue.
But land redistribution (lets be cautious of the language we use to describe this) should happen, and will happen whatever we think and whatever we fear. We must acknowledge the deep pain around this issue and be open to the possibilities that it represents.