08 / 2004
Trained as a pastor, Graham Philpott was opposed to military service during Apartheid on several levels; on religious grounds because of the violence and inequality institutionalised by the State, and politically because a government that manipulates the army to segregate its people, granting whites a place of privilege while the indigenous live in conditions of abject poverty, is totally illegitimate.
When Graham became a conscientious objector in 1981, he created a rift between himself and his future employer, the Church, who was directly collaborating with the South African State. After serving less than a year in a military detention centre, he was sentenced to six years in a civilian prison, which he never served because South African justice “didn’t know how to prosecute” a trained pastor who chose not to do his military service because it went against his religious beliefs.
Since the Church was not prepared to accept him, he became active in squatter communities, in youth structures, and began to explore and practice Liberation Theology, which places religion at the service of the poor as an educational and advocacy tool to counteract established power.
During his eight years living and participating actively in the squatter community, the question of “how to get the Church to engage on the political terrain”, led Graham and his compatriots to the national land question; and the role of the Church concerning the State as a respected and influential institution practicing “critical solidarity” with the government.
Previous to the democratic changes, the Church had accumulated about 53,000 hectares of fairly high quality agricultural land, according to Graham, through investments, acquisitions, or gifts from the colonial powers that saw religion as a “good domesticating power of indigenous populations”.
With the knowledge that the Church had become a land holder and had benefited from Apartheid, and that the vast majority of the membership was landless, the Church Land Programme (CLP) among others, began looking at those land holdings and asking the membership “how it could be used to benefit the poor?”, “how it could get the progressive elements in the Church to adopt land reform?”, “how it could get the land away from its function of investment?”
At the end of Apartheid in 1994, the work of the Church Land Programme is an attempt to transform the critical solidarity with the State into a critical solidarity with the poor. The programme began an advocacy campaign in 1997 to apply ideological pressure on the Church to recognize its historical role in the human rights abuses perpetuated during the segregation of the South African State.
Graham, having joined a non denominational Church structure, identified the land issue as a critical element for the functioning of democracy. Land was a key to “affirming identity and dignity”, providing a revenue and subsistence, and linking individuals to their communities and their environment.
In addition, the real-estate holdings of the Church represented a historical legacy of inequality and were morally incompatible with the Christian vocation of advocating for the less fortunate. Therefore on both moral and political grounds, the demands of the CLP became a clear mobilizing force for equality, justice, and the historical indemnities owed to victims of State sanctioned racism where “87% of the land was owned by the 13% of the [white] population.”
“Today, constraints of the macro economic framework that our government has chosen to follow, first through the ‘Reconstruction and Development Program’ of the early 1990’s, and then through the ‘Growth, Employment and Redistribution’ ideology of the late 1990’s, have been a major ‘shift toward neo-liberalism’, sharing with the World Bank the conviction that South Africa had to play the international game and placing a constraint on land reform.”
South Africa, ahead of the so-called “international game” has proceeded with a series of “self-imposed structural adjustments” leading to the reduction of social spendings and progressive anti-discrimination legislation, before international institutions (such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organisation) impose them through sanctions.
New governmental programs attempt to “avoid destabilizing the rural economy, which is a fundamentally unjust economy, and seeks only to displace the 48,000 white commercial farmers with black commercial farmers.”
“A question that needs to be asked is ‘is the commercial model viable?’” “We need policies that prioritize the needs of the poor,” continued Graham, “rather than the creation of new black commercial farmers.”
1) “Since policy and justice have attempted to avoid land rights violations, we try and listen to and identify local struggles against violations (murder, physical abuse, evictions). Over 1000 cases have been opened in the last six years, identifying a pattern and representing only a small proportion of the violations; most going undeclared.”
“Legislation prohibiting white farmers from evicting farm workers exists, but not one legal case has been filed,” though the practice is current, explains Graham.
“Providing legal and logistical support, accompanying victims, and documenting injustice” provide another way in which the CLP can help the landless in their struggle.
“We provide workshops with local Church leadership,” continued Mr. Philpott, “on how to take action on a local, regional and national level” to put pressure on the national Church leadership, considering that they “meet with the president quarterly.”
2) “We work with Church structures, trying to familiarize them with violations, to develop a language and a vocabulary that identify with their beliefs, and to facilitate dialogue between different southern African countries.” South Africa has the most powerful economy in the region and the CLP “promotes the decentralization” of the regions control, attempting to empower smaller countries and weaker economies to establish their own national will.
3) Finally the CLP attempts to “document and reflect generally on why there are so many land violations, so much hunger, and to act as a tool for reflection and research, providing a theological and economic analysis through publications like Land in South Africa: Gift for All or Commodity for a Few.”
The purpose of Graham Philpott’s presence at the World Forum on Agrarian Reform as the representative of the Church Land Programme was to “strengthen ties and important alliances with social movements in other countries.” His clear reasoning and quiet faith provided a solid foundation for the interview. Although the land holdings of the Church are not significant (.5%), they represent an important ideological element in the struggle for equality in a country that is still suffering from decades of State sanctioned segregation.
We sense that religious faith is a fundamental factor in Graham’s commitment to the South African people, but his tone is subtle and tolerant which allows a much broader debate about the political, social, and economic levels of importance in a global struggle.
This interview has been realized by ALMEDIO Consulting with the support of the Charles-Léopold Mayer Fondation during the World Forum on Agrarian Reform (Valencia, Spain, 5-8 December 2004).
Graham Philpott. Church Land Programme. Tel: 27 033 34 55 367. E-mail: email@example.com