Land: The stubborn question confronting South Africa

by | Apr 10, 2021 | Opinions | 0 comments

Nevanji Munyaradzi Chiondegwa
In 1996, during a session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, a member of the largely black African audience told this story: “Tom and John were neighbours. One day, Tom stole John’s bicycle. They did not speak for years until the day Tom extended his hand to John and said, ‘Let us reconcile.’

“What about my bicycle?” John asked.

“Forget the bicycle,” Tom said. “Let it not stand between us.”

The above helps best to capture what happened in South Africa.
Yes, they fought apartheid and in 1994 finally got the majority rule they had been clamouring for but, it was only a window dressing so to speak.

Years later, the imbalances are hard to miss.
There remains the most important issue to be addressed, the inequalities caused by years and years of colonialism and the biggest one of that is the land issue.

The land issue is intertwined with the national question in all former colonies across the world.
The national question involves ensuring that we all co-exist in their diversities and that all population groups have an equal stake in the economy.

According to a 2017 land audit by the South African government, 72 percent of the country’s arable land remains in the hands of whites, who account for fewer than 10 percent of the total population.

This is contemporary evidence of the wholesale land dispossessions carried out by successive colonial regimes, from the 17th century until as recently as the 1980s.

Historically, black land ownership was undermined through decades of colonial dispossession and discriminatory apartheid legislation – measures which for many years prevented the majority of the population from owning property based solely on their race.

The reality that large-scale farmers – mainly white and a few black – own most of the prime land and dominate agricultural and natural resource export markets is untenable.

This was promoted and instituted by colonial and apartheid policies, starting with the infamous 1913 Native Land Act, then the 1936 Native Development and Trust Land Act and many others.

Essentially, the present land and agrarian structure, that is, large-scale corporate producers who are mostly multinational, as well as medium- to large-scale commercial farmers on private land and communal households, is a historical accident that needs to be corrected.

With the end of white minority rule in 1994, the democratic government made a promise of land restitution and a programme was put in place.

It followed a “willing seller, willing buyer” model through which the government bought white-owned farms for redistribution. However, despite this, progress has been slow and most of the country’s farmland is still owned by white farmers.

The issue of land reform—and more specifically, of taking land from white farmers—has become a cause célèbre in the United States, Canada, and Britain, largely among white right-wingers, and even reached the Oval Office last year, when Donald

Trump tweeted about it, threatening sanctions should South Africa carry it out.
In South Africa, the issue of land redistribution is complex, and has a long history characterized by a series of ineffectual and ill-defined government programs and a lack of political will that spans successive cabinets.

The lack of progress on resolving the issue speaks not just to the varied issues facing South Africa—from poor economic growth to spiralling unemployment—but also to the broader difficulty of finding practical solutions to redress historical injustice.

It is a challenge informed not only by domestic politics, but also by years of chaos in neighbouring Zimbabwe.
Imperialists have made sure that they cripple the Zimbabwean economy to the extent that other countries are afraid of attempting it.

Measures used to achieve this include international isolation and illegal sanctions.
Furthermore, the West is anti-land reform and will most likely react in the same manner as they did to the Zimbabwean land reform.

In 1996, Nelson Mandela signed into law the new Constitution of South Africa, Article 25 of which deals with land and property rights. It prohibits “arbitrary deprivation of property” but allows expropriation of land for “public interest” after “just and equitable” compensation.

President Cyril Ramaphosa proposed a constitutional amendment in 2019 that would allow the government to seize “unused” private land without compensation, a process known as expropriation, and redistribute it to disadvantaged black farmers.
The South African Parliament, voted overwhelmingly to draft it, and an adhoc committee was set up to oversee that process but to date nothing tangible has happened.

There are some who do not see the need for the Constitutional amendment dealing with land and property rights.
Many in the African National Congress say since Article 25 allows for appropriation without compensation where public interest is concerned there is no need for the amendment. Skeptics argue that the clause will not deter endless litigation in courts.

The Economic Freedom Fighters led by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Sello Malema are calling for nationalization of all rural land without compensation.

President Ramaphosa assured foreign that there will be no land grabs and that land reform and expropriation without compensation would take place in an orderly manner.

South Africa needs a triple reform to have an even chance of dismantling the social legacy of apartheid: a land reform that passes control over communal areas from traditional chiefs to the present tillers of the land in rural areas, allows the urban poor to produce food and graze livestock in municipal commons, and provides land for housing for the millions in informal settlements.

Without land reform, the A.N.C. and Mr. Ramaphosa will fail to lift a majority of the black people from abysmal poverty and will fail in ending social apartheid. Few doubt that the spectre of Zimbabwe plagues South Africa’s political leaders. The irony is that, Zimbabwe itself delayed its own land reform to allow for South Africa to gain its independence.

In the absence of a credible response to the land question, the A.N.C.’s fear of populism and demagogy is likely to come true.
What is clear though from all accounts is, South Africa, like Zimbabwe, left the land issue for too long. 25 years after freedom, at least now a serious move is being made in South Africa. But will it make a difference?

To start with, the country needs to consider following both state-led and market-driven approaches in resolving the land question. In other words, the government is justified to acquire land from “other owners” for redistributive purposes.

The state-led approach is essentially a compulsory land reform approach – government uses its power to acquire land without consent to benefit the broader society, as explained in literature.

This is different from a market-based approach, which is largely based on a willing buyer/willing seller principle. By implication, both approaches can be used but unfortunately those who hold the land are unwilling to sale.

There is no reason government cannot expropriate land with compensation, taking into account the ugly history of land dispossession in Africa.

Even in Zimbabwe, the government has decided to pay farmers whose land was expropriated during the fast-track land reform programme.

Action on land reform is long overdue, and the failures to date lie substantially at the door of the State and the ANC as the ruling party over this period.

However, the ANC Government has no backbone to actually carry out land reform in South Africa. There have been half-hearted attempts at it with every ANC convention over the years passing a resolution on land.

The fact though that they had to fire radicals like Malema and Floyd Shivambu from their ranks after the two and others in the Youth League spoke about land shows an unwillingness to act.

The way ANC has only spoken about land during elections and then effectively went quiet thereafter shows that the land issue in South Africa may never see the light of the day except as an election gimmicky.

The economy in S.A, like in most African countries is largely agro-based or land based. Ownership of the land determines who controls the economy. The less than 10 percent whites in S.A own 72 percent of the land and therefore control the economy.

The ANC is perhaps a beneficiary of this skewed land ownership.
A few in its leadership ranks have been accused of being in bed with the whites and everyone knows Ramaphosa is a big business man. He cannot be trusted or expected to carry out an action that would upset the applecart.

The whites in SA hold a lot of power. It must also be noted that, SA freedom was not independence as in essence SA itself was a colonial power.

Its independence from colonial power was way back in 1910 as the white of Dutch and Huguenot extraction commonly called Afrikaners and those of English extraction came together and formed the Union of South Africa.

The repression of blacks was only further exacerbated for it had begun long before that around the very time of Jan van Reebeck’s landing at Cape Town.

It is likely to continue as the inaction of the government on land cannot be put down to the constitution. Expropriation was possible under existing rules; the issue was that the State has failed to act.

The fear of a Boer uprising as threatened by AfriForum, the fact that there is still a private Boer enclave of Orania where blacks are not allowed in and there is even a private currency exists, fear of the West’s reaction, the Zimbabwe spectre and the complete inaction on the issue shows clearly that SA will not be having any land reform any time soon.

How the whole black race can be held ransom by less than 10 percent of the population and why they would fear so much shows that even as they want land, the black people of SA do not know how to go about it. They are so used to their luxuries that letting them go would be a massive struggle.

There are no farmers among black people, that is outside communal farmers for the rest prefer a life in town, drinking and carousing. How to convince such a people that wealth lies on the land is difficult. For too long, they have not had land and their identity with the land has long been lost.

Whether government acts or does not, there will be no serious push from the urban dweller who has the resources for land.
The rural community’s fear of moving from what they now consider their land and the skewed land ownership there that gives all land to the chiefs makes it difficult for the disempowered black.

While South Africa gained majority rule, thus political freedom and a semblance of truth and reconciliation, it did not gain what was really at the matter of the struggle – THE LAND.

This is not likely to change anytime soon and many who fought for it will soon be gone from the scene and the song NOT YET UHURU, will continue being sung in South Africa for a long time to come