LAND restitution: you will not find a mainstream political party or commentator in South Africa who does not fervently support it as an essential prerequisite of the nation’s future. The current populist cry (and increasingly action) is expropriation without compensation; accompanied by amendment of section of 25 of the Constitution, which according to some opinion is unnecessary tokenism that holds wider dangers. Little is heard at present about the more enabling land redistribution and reform. This is fairly typical of a situation where a political bandwagon feeds a wave of populism.

And as so often with simple answers, the problem lies in a glaring absence of intelligent questions. For a start, these might include which land; to whom; and for what purpose? In the case of land once owned by black South Africans and to which they held title deeds (the offensively named black spots) that was confiscated in pursuit of apartheid’s mad geography there should be a paper trail to enable fair restitution. However, experience at District Six in Cape Town sounds a warning. Theoretically, this well-documented urban area should be easily returned to the heirs from whom property was stolen as recently as the 1960s. But the problems have been legion, not least the claims of descendants of tenants.

Most alienated land in terms of area was not owned by Africans in the modern sense of the term, but held in effective trust in the name of a group or tribe by a chief. Here there is no paper trail of entitlement; just an oral tradition of family identity and a claim to ancestry and burial places. In matters of property, oral evidence carries little weight. How is this conundrum to be resolved?

It is one of the ironies of a modern state that a stable system of property ownership is essential to the confidence required for investment, in large measure to ensure the integrity of the banking system. But at the same time land as a driver of economic growth is now a relatively minor factor. In the twenty-first century the information economy is on the ascendant and agricultural sectors have become highly specialised.

Is there a yearning among the urban poor, the precariat living on the margins of society and economy, to become small-scale agriculturalists fulfilling their own family subsistence needs and releasing a significant surplus into the market to earn income for other requirements? If so, this would be an excellent reason for land restitution, even without compensation. Successful small farmers could release pressure on overpopulated urban areas, stabilise rural communities and contribute meaningfully to national food security – if numerous enough. Is this the plan? If so, there is not much information about it although it is implicit in the news that agricultural studies are to become compulsory up to the last year of secondary schooling.

Instead, one fears that land restitution may be another of the populist fantasies of our times: the South African equivalent of Trump’s American autarky, the Brexit of English imperial nostalgia, and any number of European right-wing agendas. Listening to SAFM (what was once the nation’s public service broadcaster) it is clear that land is regarded as a panacea. Miraculously all will be well, but what happens when this fantasy bubble bursts and turns out to be Pandora’s Box?

Talk (‘let’s have the conversation’ in SABC-speak) and rhetoric, lekgotlas and indabas, song and dance: these are all quintessentially South African approaches to problematic issues. In a very important and highly alarming, but subsequently unremarked, interview with ENCA News recently Ben Cousins, one of South Africa’s leading academic experts on the land issue, made the point that no one has any real idea who holds what land. There is no authoritative database. The debate about land redistribution carries on within a serious information vacuum. Politicians, as politicians do, are encouraging expectations for short-term gain; rhetoric is flying thick and fast; and illegal land invasions have started in earnest with potentially disastrous consequences. In the Pietermaritzburg area so-called MK veterans, the Economic Freedom Fighters, and a variety of private opportunists driving very large vehicles have seized the opportunity. No one has confidence in the forces of law and order: police competence is limited to shooting at people; and the legal system has been systematically undermined.

Some of the greatest challenges are emerging not from issues around white farmland, but areas that have never been alienated such as much of KwaZulu-Natal (60%) which falls under the Ingonyama Trust Act; in other words King Goodwill Zwelithini and the amakhosi. This was a late apartheid era stitch up reminiscent of colonial manipulation of the chieftainship system that guaranteed KwaZulu involvement in the 1994 elections and averted threats of secession, which are now re-emerging. Former president Kgalema Motlanthe described the chiefly trustees as ‘village tinpot dictators’, there are doubts about the trust’s constitutionality, and definite evidence of corruption and maladministration. Zulu nationalist aspirations reflected in the land issue are a severe obstacle to economic progress. Certificates of occupation are of tenuous value and there is now evidence that rent is being extracted. Title deeds and economic emancipation are not on the agenda of the amakhosi.

If land is a metaphor for a better life it must be backed up by concrete and creative proposals that take the nation forward. South Africa’s inability to manage other aspects of society and economy hardly bode well. There is the disturbing notion that once land is confiscated and distributed, riches will automatically flow. They won’t. And this invites the question in increasingly desperate times – what next will be seized without compensation?