The opening passage of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) January 8 statement, delivered by President Jacob Zuma on Saturday, evokes the Natives Land Act of 1913.

Land is an extremely emotive issue. These emotions are even more firmly embedded by the various associations with which the land is embellished. We speak of the "motherland", evocative of the unequivocal love of a mother for her children. "Mother" is associated with birth, caring and nurturing, all of which inspire warm, positive feelings. Every national movement claims its inspiration is the struggle to reclaim land lost to oppressors or conquerors. Virtually all the nationalist slogans in the South African freedom struggle invoke the land and assert its primacy among the objectives of the struggle itself.

After the frontier wars that resulted in the systematic expropriation of the indigenous people’s land, the Natives Land Act is probably the most deeply felt grievance among blacks. While the wars had all ended with whites seizing African land, by legislative fiat, the 1913 law excluded the possibility of blacks ever reacquiring it on the open market, for example. There could be no clearer indication that the white minority had taken the land as the spoils of conquest.

Invoking the issue of land in a week when farm workers in the Western Cape were on strike, Zuma indirectly raised the profile of one of the stark realities of SA’s economy. It is on the land, especially in the commercial farming sector, that the racialised character of property ownership is most evident. Not one of the commercial farmers involved in the dispute is black. Not one of the striking workers is white.

One of the great ironies of post-apartheid SA is the tardiness with which we have addressed the matter. This reflects the ever-diminishing role the rural areas and their populations played in shaping the history of the latter half of 20th-century South African history. Issues affecting farm workers and the working poor of the rural areas did not feature prominently in the programmes of mass movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Farm workers were the least affected by the unionisation of the black working classes after 1973. The paltry minimum wage prescribed by the Department of Labour is not the result of battles fought and won.

SA’s commercial farming sector is SA’s principal food producer. But this was not always the case. During the 19th century, peasant farmers, among them thousands of black tenant farmers, grew the fresh produce in the markets of our cities. This continued well into the 20th century. Racist law-making destroyed that black peasantry. The coup de grace was the Natives Land Act, which stripped thousands of black peasants of their land and livestock. After 1913, the terms "farmer" and "white" became joined.

The democratic government feels constrained by the demographics of the commercial farming sector. Organised agriculture is almost lily white and dominated by one language community. White commercial farming’s record in SA’s economic and political history is not very attractive. But SA’s highly urbanised society would starve without its co-operation. Consequently, the government has been measured in its pronouncements on the land issue. In addition to the "willing buyer, willing seller" principle enjoined by the law, the government has been permissive in the application of its own land-reform measures. In order to evade the obligations land reform imposed on them, farmers evicted farm workers, swelling the ranks of those in overcrowded informal settlements.

In the former Bantustans, the ANC’s own political tactics have persuaded it to find accommodation with the chiefs, in whom colonial/apartheid law vested the power to determine access to arable land and grazing. Consequently, the ANC’s practice vacillates between asserting the rights of rural dwellers as set out in the constitution and acknowledging the claims of chiefs, rooted in precolonial traditions that are of little relevance in the 21st century.

The Native Urban Areas Act of 1923 took the legislative expropriation of blacks a step further by declaring urban areas the preserve of the whites, which blacks could enter only to serve the whites. The Natives Land Act and the Native Urban Areas Act encapsulate the economic disempowerment of the black majority and were at the heart of that body of laws, ordinances and regulations — the pass laws — that empowered the colonial/apartheid regimes to monitor and regulate every aspect of a black’s life.

The January 8 statement defines the goals the ANC will pursue.

This probably sets out the programme of the Zuma presidency, signalling a firm commitment to drive the struggle for economic freedom during Zuma’s second term as president of the ANC.

Jordan is a former arts and culture minister.