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A Cry to the Beloved Country: Meeting the Challenge of Land

The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) has issued a statement on the challenge of land in South Africa signed by the President of the Conference, Archbishop Stephen Brislin. The bishops say that the land consultations held throughout the country have “evoked strong feelings which cannot be ignored or simply brushed away”. They remind us that embedded in Catholic Social Teaching is the fact that there is “no such thing as the absolute ownership of land”. They also remind us that there is “no easy solution to this vexed matter”.  

A Cry to the Beloved Country – meeting the challenge of the land

 A Statement by the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference

Urgency of the Land Issue

It is widely accepted that the matter of land ownership in South Africa calls for urgent attention.  The consultations conducted throughout the land have evoked and are evoking strong feelings which cannot be ignored or simply brushed away.  A nerve with strong historical roots and which cries out for healing and the restoration of justice, has been touched.

Based on Biblical teaching 1 and further developed by the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church, we affirm that the land is meant for all the peoples of the earth and is held by us in a sacred trust. There is no such thing as the absolute ownership of land. 2 Human Beings are always at the centre of our social and economic life.  It is a matter of human and divine justice that people have access to the land and that it be equitably distributed. In this perspective, priority has to be given to the poor and the landless. 3

To ignore these fundamental realities is to invite a backlash that can only be harmful to all the citizens of our land.

The Complexity of the Land Issue

The framing of the debate in terms only of the expropriation of the land without compensation is at best only the beginning of the process, at worst the opening of a Pandora’s box.  There is no easy or simple solution to this vexed matter.  In order to appreciate the complexity of the matter we have only to consider the following facts amongst others: the magnitude of the demand for land; the shortage of land in sought-after urban areas; concurrent claims to the same land; the problem of long and drawn-out litigation; the reality and danger of corruption in the process; the limited capacity of the State in dealing with the whole process – cf. the present backlog…  And so, the list continues…

It is no exaggeration to say that the present situation calls for a great leap of creativity.  At this crucial time in our history we have to make this leap.

Challenges confronting us

In urgently seeking a creative response we need to broaden the conversation beyond that simply of expropriation without compensation. 4 Amongst the many factors that have to be taken into account, are the following:

the unacceptable gap between the rich and the poor; a pervasive greed both old and new – a stubborn holding on to and a relentless pursuit of privilege; the collapse of the rural economy and the influx of people into our cities; the involvement of Traditional Leaders and security of land tenure; the productivity of the land; the building of capacity and access to markets; a destructive and dehumanizing consumerism; …. etc.

Towards a creative response

1. Enduring values and principles
We affirm the need at all times for the following: respect for human life and human dignity; a democracy at the service of the common good; transparent and incorruptible leadership; responsible dialogue; non-violence; respect for the Constitution and the judicial process; practical wisdom and the rejection of populism…etc.

2. New initiatives
Both old and new ideas must be revived and re-imagined, as for example: the publication of successful models of shared ownership; the active encouragement, development and incentivization of such models; the generous involvement of civil society and business; renewed economic decentralization and the revival of rural areas; the opening up of marketing bodies; support for socially responsible entrepreneurial initiatives; the encouragement of voluntary initiatives and the promotion of simple and selfless lifestyles…etc.  These examples only serve to highlight the urgent need for new creativity in the conversation around land and the other factors of production.


We the Bishops of the Catholic Church, maintain that these and other broad human and divine values are imperative.  To ignore these would be dangerously irresponsible, morally unacceptable and harmful to human persons and the common good. Our call is addressed not only to our own Catholic leaders and communities but also to all people of goodwill who are passionately concerned to see a true and just flourishing of our Beloved Country – and indeed of the whole Southern African region and further afield.

At this critical time and recalling the best of decisions leading up to 1994, we believe we are once again called to respond to the critical challenge of this time. Guided by the noblest of human values and divine truths we pledge ourselves to be a part of this creative process.

Archbishop Stephen Brislin
President Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference

Media Queries:

Archbishop William Slattery OFM
Archbishop of Pretoria and Spokesperson for the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference
+ 27 83 468 5473

Image: Pexels/Magdha Ehlers

  1. Leviticus 25:23 ‘Land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to me, and to me you are only strangers and guests.”
  2. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states “Christian tradition has never recognised the right to private property as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation. The right to private property is always subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.’ [#177]
  3. The principle of the universal destination of goods which is at the heart of our tradition requires that ‘the poor, the marginalised and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern.’ [Compendium #182]
  4. Our tradition allows for expropriation if it is for the common good. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states: “The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise… The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others. [CCC 2403. 2404, 2406] Pope Francis in his encyclical ‘Laudato Si’, quotes Pope John Paul II as follows “The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and ‘the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.’”

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.