‘Summa pia gratia nostra conservando corpora et cutodita, de gente fera Normannica nos libera, quae nostra vastat, Deus, regna.’ This line from an antiphony recorded in Dark Age churches bespeaks a dread fear of its time. ‘Our supreme and holy Grace,’ it says, ‘protecting us and ours, deliver us, God, from the savage race of Northmen which lays waste our realms.’

The Northmen – alternately, the Norsemen, and better known today as the Vikings – impressed themselves onto history over a period of some 300 years, between the 8th and 11th centuries. Their reputation as fearsome seaborne warriors who lived by raiding from their dragon-headed longships has rather overshadowed a rich culture whose influence remains with us today.

One intriguing theme in Viking history was their ability to extort tribute from their intended victims. Having been ravaged repeatedly by the Vikings, some principalities found it simpler to pay them off. Rather than attempting to repel them, fearful monarchs and nobles would simply hand over a sum of silver or some other valuable. The Vikings, shrewd traders and merchants just as they were fierce warriors, saw the advantage of this. And then attacked anyway.

The Danegeld

Although such tributary systems existed across Europe, this is a history with particular significance in England. After having been soundly defeated by a Viking army in 991, the English king Æthelred the Unready attempted to buy them off so they would break off their attack. Since the Vikings in this case were largely coterminous with the Danes, this practice (and the taxes levied to support it) became known as the Danegeld, loosely translated as the Danes’ money. These payments continued intermittently for years, but so did the incursions of the Danes. This perpetual conflict which the Danegeld was meant to avert came to define Æthelred’s reign. He was even deposed briefly from his throne and replaced by Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark.

The Danegeld has a special place in English lore, signifying craven appeasement that only encourages aggressors. It stands for a misguided search for security on terms prescribed by one’s opponents, but which produces quite the opposite.

Rudyard Kipling memorialised this 900 years later in a poem entitled ‘Dane-Geld’ (with the subtitle A.D. 980-1016’). Its second verse captured the hubris and self-deception invoked as justification for paying the tribute:

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,

  To puff and look important and to say: —

‘Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.

  We will therefore pay you cash to go away’

It ends with an admonition:

So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,

  You will find it better policy to say:

‘We never pay any-one Dane-geld,

  No matter how trifling the cost;

For the end of that game is oppression and shame,

  And the nation that pays it is lost!’

Better policy

The end of the poem refers to a ‘better policy’. These words resonate (or at any rate, they should) with South Africa today. When even officials at Treasury begin referring to South Africa as a failing state, it is time to take seriously questions of policy – specifically, to identify what is undermining our chances of growth, development and employment – and to come up with alternatives that will produce those desired outcomes.

In its way, South Africa has endured a sort of Viking terror. Our raiders may not wear chainmail and wield battle-axes, but the blows of bad policy and ethics-free governance can be just as destructive.

Much of this has been in existence for years. It has even been recognised as damaging. But for many who might have had the strength to resist, the will to do so was simply not there. Rather, the tactic was of endless engagement in the hope of something, well, ‘less bad’. And this has become South Africa’s Danegeld.

It has been my great privilege over the past few years to have interacted with some very fine people, whose skills, business acumen and commitment to the country are beyond question. I say this with particular regard to our farming community. South Africa is a tough environment for farming, whether in terms of its climate or the state of its infrastructure, and yet despite this, it continues to function.

Even in the face of the pandemic, farming came through. Indeed, the recently released GDP figures record an impressive performance, the sector having grown by some 8.3% in 2021.

But farming has long been at the sharp end of political and policy hostility. Farmers have been stigmatised as a sort of problem population, a representative of much that is wrong with South Africa – land thieves, holdovers from apartheid, abusers of their workers.  They routinely ‘rape and assault’ their workers, as one-time land affairs minister Lulu Xingwana put it.

And for more than a decade, the farming economy has been the (nominal) target of a sustained campaign to abridge property rights. In legislative terms, this goes back to the Expropriation Bill of 2008. This was followed by the cessation of the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy in 2010; the agriculture Green Paper of 2011, which put forward a host of measures detrimental to farming, much of which would find its way into proposed legislation; the proposal to demand 20% of farmers’ landholdings in the National Development Plan of 2012; the Land Restitution Amendment Act of 2014 and the thousands of new land claims that came from it, without the budget to finance them; the subsequent Property Valuation Act via which the state sought to escape that budgetary bind; the Agri Land Bill that sought to make the state custodian of all agricultural land; the Regulation of Land Holdings Bill that would cap farm sizes and force farmers to surrender the surplus; and subsequently the proposed (and for now, defeated) constitutional amendment.

Currently, the revised Expropriation Bill and the Land Court Bill continue to push the agenda – altering the legal framework to shift power over landholdings to the state, and expand its latitude for action.

Policy strategy

Part of the strategy rested on a belief that these plans would not be resisted to any meaningful degree. Rather, its proponents hoped to find leadership figures who would cooperate with them, perhaps out of a genuine concern for land reform, perhaps in the spirit of compromise, or perhaps because particular parts of the farming economy would hope to see their own interests protected in exchange for rendering other parts.

This approach was generally successful. (Although we must commend the Transvaal Agricultural Union for having recognised the risks while its peers often did not.) We at the IRR repeatedly and publicly raised concerns about the direction of policy, but often found that those representing the farming economy – who had a great deal to lose – dismissive. Our concerns were ‘alarmist’, we were told, and the constitution and the courts would protect us anyway.

I don’t think that this response was in the main a Machiavellian betrayal of the farming community by the leadership of organised agriculture, or the business world. I’m sure there was some of this. But those attempting to engage with the government were probably simply out of their depth. They assumed that accommodating the concerns within which the state and the ANC framed their case would produce an outcome that all could accept and buy into.

If the government proceeded with the path we warned of – say, expropriation at no compensation, or a mass custodial seizure of land – the damage would be incalculable, and so following those paths would be inconceivable. That sounds eminently reasonable. Æthelred the Unready was so called because he was poorly informed and lacked the measure of the Vikings. Something similar was in play here.

But it only holds if one assumes that rationality is uniformly perceived. When one factors in the baleful influence of ideology and political worldview, this looks rather different. For the ANC, ‘the land’ is as much a political statement as an economic asset, and it’s by no means clear that it fully appreciates what making land work as an asset actually entails. Seen from that angle, economic considerations might be very much secondary, and economic damage a price regarded as worth paying.

In other words, the assumptions upon which accommodation were premised did not and would not hold.

National Democratic Revolution

The IRR has previously argued that the ANC is pushing a broad ideological strategy, its National Democratic Revolution, a concept to which it regularly commits itself. On land matters (economic matters more broadly), its goal is not economic growth, employment or any other pedestrian concern, but a thoroughgoing restructuring of ‘property relations’.

In this, its approach is to advance its agenda constantly, but typically taking care to do so quietly, and where possible, with the support of its intended opponents. It seeks to do this, in the words of one ANC policy document, with ‘dexterity in tact and firmness in principle’. Where resistance is encountered, prudence and even withdrawal might be advisable.

From this flows the IRR’s position. Identify one’s interests, and defend them forthrightly. As our former CEO, Frans Cronje, remarked:

It is quite pointless, in our experience of many decades, to seek to convince a political movement to change its trajectory if it cannot at the same time be convinced that the balance of power in public opinion is against it. Remember that politics is about balances of power – create enough pressure to force such a balance and your ideological adversaries may change their perception of the balance of forces in public opinion, and then pull back.

It was this line-in-the-sand approach that confronted the issue head-on, that warned repeatedly of the consequences of the measure, and that held off the amendment to Section 25 of the Constitution last year. And that was despite the endorsement of the move by a number of commentators on the basis that it was necessary to give President Ramaphosa a victory.

Important here was that Agri SA took a firm line on this measure – this was a reversal after they had commended assurances on their property rights, and realised that these were more rhetorical than real. One might also note that such interests as taxi owners and traditional leaders generally aggressively defend their corners – at times, rather too aggressively – and are more often than not successful in this.

The EWC agenda continues while the Expropriation Bill and the Land Court Bill remain in train.

Land Court Bill

The adjudication of land-related matters by a prospective Land Court, for example, might have some merit. But in its current design, and under current conditions, it is likely to load the process against landowners. The Bill is explicitly conceived to expedite land reform. It includes such provisions as the inclusion of assessors to sit alongside judges (with the former having the power to override the latter on questions of fact), and the admissibility of hearsay evidence, according this such weight as ‘it deems appropriate’.

It takes no significant feat of imagination to see how this might be abused. At any rate, it shifts the ground in favour of the state and against the citizen.

It is concerning that Agbiz, the Agricultural Business Chamber, has endorsed the Bill, albeit with reservations. The latter reflect what might best be described as solid, technical objections. They fail to understand or account for the political impulses to which a law like this might be harnessed.

South Africa is undergoing a tumultuous time. The setbacks the ANC has experienced over the past few years, and the approach of another election – in fewer than 800 days – means that a very real danger of precipitous policy action exists, in the hope that as large a part of its ideological objectives as possible can be forced through.

All South Africans who care about the future, and especially the farming community, need to beware of these risks, and the dangers that come with seeing them as something other than what they are.

And we must be particularly wary of trying to appease. Paying the Danegeld will not rid us of the Dane.

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Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think tank promoting individual and societal freedom. Readers are invited to support the IRR by sending...

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