Musawenkosi Ntinga

The land question is probably the most divisive issue in South Africa today. Twenty years after the miracle of a rainbow nation, many still feel disillusioned with the gains of democracy, particularly with land distribution. Many are calling for past injustices to be addressed, while others are calling for us to forget the past and move on. Does God have anything to say about this? What is the biblical framework within which we should consider this issue? Before we hear what God has to say, let’s look at some statistics and the history that has brought us to where we are today.

Land statistics

The answer to the question, “Who owns what land in South Africa?” depends on who you ask. The EFF, for example, has previously said that 80% of the land in South Africa is owned by 40,000 white families. These stats have been disputed by some, who have accused the EFF of overstating and skewing the facts for their own narrow, political agenda.

On the other hand, a Stellenbosch University study stated that 67% of land in South Africa is owned by white agricultural farmers, 15% is black communal land, 10% is owned by the State and the rest (8%) is urban land. Those who publicise these figures are also accused of serving their own agendas by making it seem like black people own a lot of land, when in reality there are no title deeds to communal land in the farmlands and State land is not black-owned land.

Whichever stats you consider, it is apparent that land ownership in South Africa is skewed quite heavily towards white people, who make up less than 10% of the population. But there are historical reasons for this and it’s a history of subjugation, greed, inequality and injustice.

The history of land in South Africa

Before colonisation there was no ownership of land in the Western sense of the word, because land occupation was a fluid concept – the land belonged to a community and was not bought or sold. Permission was given by tribal leaders to settle and people settled on land as long as they wanted to. If the need arose, they moved.

However, this changed when white settlers landed in South Africa and title deeds were introduced. As the colonial empire grew in South Africa through conquest and dispossession, the question was, “What do we do with the native majority who live on the land?” Initially, the answer was to capture the land by force and divide it into territories for different groups to use, but later on legislation was enacted by colonial powers to consolidate areas for white settlement. The reasons for the dislodging of Africans from their land were largely economic and driven by the desire to acquire more power. The key Act in South Africa, which was a culmination of previous land Acts, was the Natives Land Act of 1913. Under this Act, black Africans were prohibited from buying or hiring land in 93% of the country. With a stroke of a pen, the Act enabled the seizure of the very resource that was most central to the lives of African people. It rendered them destitute, forcing them to work as cheap labor for white industry. These injustices continued under apartheid which called for separate development of different racial groups.

This is the history that has brought us to the problem we face today. There is a growing frustration in society that the beneficiaries of past injustices still live a privileged life, while the victims still live in squalor, even after more than 20 years of democratic rule. And so we ask, what does God have to say about #BringBackTheLand?

God’s View on Land

All land belongs to God

This is very clear in both the Old and New Testaments. In Acts 17:24-26, when the apostle Paul addresses the philosophers in Athens, he makes this point clear.

24“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth…26From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.”

So we see Scripture affirm that there is one God. He rules this world supremely. He doesn’t need humans for anything, but we are dependent on him for everything. From one man, Adam, all the nations of the world were made, for the purpose of inhabiting the whole world. God was not just involved in creation, he also rules over our histories as nations. In vs. 26 he determines where each person goes. He uses the activities of this world, the brokenness and conquests of one nation over another, the movements of nations to different lands and territories for us to find him and call out to him.

God hates injustice

The second thing that Paul points out is that because God is sovereign, ruling over all creation with its best interest at heart, it means that he will hold us accountable for our actions. Humans are not like the rest of creation. We have been created in the image of God. We are his offspring, as vs. 28 puts it. Because of this, we are held accountable for how we live in this world. And God calls for justice in his world.

It mattered to God how people were treated in the land he gave to the Israelites. So in Israel, how the land was distributed was important – you were not allowed to dispossess the land of the poor and vulnerable (Leviticus 26). As people who lived in the land, you were not at liberty to mistreat the foreigner among you and dispossess them, but according to Leviticus 19:34: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself…”

It matters to God how people treat one another in the land that they live in. God is against taking advantage of the poor through dispossession as well as the ill-treatment of the foreigner.

God deals with injustice

Therefore, God deals with injustice in the world – ultimately in the Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ into the world was a definitive moment in the history of the world because in his coming God rang the bell and announced that judgement is at hand – the days of injustice are numbered. Jesus comes as the judge of the world – the time to give account has come. God has given proof of this by raising Jesus from the dead (Acts 17:31).

God’s desire is not to punish us – he wants us to seek him, reach out to him and find him. God desires people everywhere to repent, vs. 30, and the appointed judge is also the one whom God has provided as a saviour! Christ suffered injustice at the hands of the world in order to restore the world to God. God offers restoration for all those who repent and trust in Jesus, but judgement remains for those who choose to reject him.

God provides a new home

God offers a new home for Christians, where sin and injustice will be no more, where the nations, tribes, and peoples of the world will not be competing for new territory or oppressing one another, where they will be united as one as they worship the one true God (Revelation 21:23-27).

So if this is God’s attitude to injustice and oppression, and this is his remedy for it, how does it help us to make sense of the calls in society to “bring back the land”?

So what?

There are three major players in this debate that this biblical framework confronts, and whom I want to address.

The role of the government

First, the government. According to Romans 13, governing authorities are put in place by God to establish order and execute justice against those who do wrong. I take it then that in situations where gross injustices have resulted in huge inequalities, as with the land issue in South Africa, it is right and godly for the State to address these injustices and attempt to restore the land that was dispossessed to its rightful owners. They should be encouraged to do this and not just pay lip service to the idea of restitution. But in their redressing of past injustices, the State must not act in a way that causes further injustice. It must consider that in most cases we are not dealing with the direct perpetrators of the crime, but their descendants. It needs to balance numerous factors in delivering justice, and we ought to pray that they do so in fairness.

To the beneficiaries of injustice

Second, to those who are the beneficiaries of past legislation, I think the Bible calls for an attitude of repentance and a genuine contribution towards redressing past injustices. This will look different for different people depending on how they benefited. For some, the benefit is direct – there is land being disputed as belonging to someone else. For others, it is more indirect in the sense of one’s standing in society and the opportunities that are now open to them (that is, “white privilege”). Repentance is not just saying sorry, but acknowledging the wrong and seeking to correct it.

But also understand and know that there is forgiveness in Christ. Being God’s child means that one no longer has to live in fear and guilt. There is forgiveness in him and when we turn and place our trust in him we are restored not only to fellowship with him but also fellowship with one another as his people.

To the victims of injustice

Third, to those who were victims of past injustices, I want you to know that God understands. He is angered and deeply grieved at what happened to you and the fact that no one is standing up for you. He understands your frustration at how unjust this world is and he sympathizes with you because he suffered the same injustices when he was killed for a crime he did not commit. Know that if you are in Christ, these injustices that we see in this world are coming to an end. When Christ returns, you will not be treated as a second class citizen in the land of your birth. Know that as a Christian, you are an heir of an inheritance that will never fade or rot, stored up for you in heaven.

But there is also a warning. It is right to want past injustices to be addressed, and we pray and act, seeking to achieve these. But the Bible warns us that we must ask ourselves where our treasure really lies (Matthew 6:24). Is our call for the land motivated by justice or greed? Is it motivated by a desire for redress or revenge? When you see a white beggar on the road do you feel compassion for him or do you feel that he deserves it for stealing your land? If this is the case, you are no different from the person you are condemning, because their anger, greed and fear motivated them to do unspeakable things. You would do the same if the opportunity presented itself. Sin is not unique to white people, it’s not a problem only for the rich. The poor struggle with it too, we all do. The solution for both is the same – Christ calls us all to recognise our desperate need to be reconciled to God and turn to him.