This Land Is Our Land

South Africa’s ruling party has failed to redistribute land to the black majority for over two decades. Can the new president defuse a ticking time bomb?

About 1,000 members of the Landless Peoples Movement of South Africa march on to the National Land Summit in Johannesburg on July 27, 2005.
About 1,000 members of the Landless Peoples Movement of South Africa march on to the National Land Summit in Johannesburg on July 27, 2005. (ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

For almost 24 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) supported a land reform program that was based on a willing-seller, willing-buyer policy. The policy required the consent of both the seller and buyer for the purchase of the land, with the consequence that sellers, almost exclusively white, would determine which land they wanted to sell. After decades of ignoring criticism of that policy, the ANC’s leadership has changed tack, at least rhetorically. It is now advocating a radical policy of land expropriation without compensation.

The unresolved land question in South Africa is a time bomb. One out of every two South Africans was classified as “poor” in 2015, with the poverty rate increasing to 55.5 percent from a low of 53.2 percent in 2011. This translated into more than 30 million out of 55 million South Africans living in poverty in 2015. Ongoing struggles for housing in urban areas and grazing in rural areas reveal the full extent of the country’s poverty crisis. The ANC government now seems to realize that for both its survival as a ruling party and the preservation of democracy, something drastic must be done to reverse the vast inequalities that plague land ownership in South Africa.

When the ANC came to power in 1994, it inherited a deeply uneven playing field. For more than a century, land ownership, access, and use of land had been determined by race. This was the direct result of European colonialism and the arrival of white settlers who violently dispossessed indigenous black Africans of their land. Early settlers established “native” reserves for blacks and, in 1913, the white-led government of the Union of South Africa passed legislation restricting the black majority to just 7 percent of South Africa’s territory, which by then was already overcrowded and overgrazed. This paltry percentage of the land was increased to 13 percent in 1936, a situation that prevailed until the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994.

Even after being relegated to faraway reserves, black South Africans often did not actually own their land. The state owned most of the land in the rural areas of the former reserves, granting only rights of occupation to its residents, rather than the freehold title deeds that were common for white landowners. While white colonialists were initially committed to promoting a class of African farmers in the reserves, they changed their minds in the late 19th century, when minerals and gold were discovered throughout the country. They saw rural areas, including the reserves, as reservoirs of cheap labor to stimulate capitalist development. Lacking adequate land, black Africans were forced to sell their labor, cheaply, in the booming gold and diamond mines across the country, as well as on farms and as workers in the emerging white-controlled towns and cities.

Meanwhile, in the native reserves (later rechristened as “Bantustans”) the administration of land was in the hands of compliant state-appointed “headmen.” Having fought wars with tribal chiefs, colonialists appointed headmen as administrators of land whenever they defeated chiefs. With the advent of apartheid in 1948, chieftainship was revived — and only chiefs who were prepared to execute the apartheid government’s policies were appointed.

Although headmen and chiefs did not own the land, colonialists and the apartheid state officials made chiefs and headmen their gatekeepers by giving them land allocation powers and the tremendous authority that came with it; no rural resident could be allocated land without the approval of chiefs and headmen.

Beyond the Bantustans, more than 80 percent of South Africa’s agriculturally productive land belonged to white commercial farmers, who, unlike their African counterparts, held freehold title to it. By the 1990s, there were approximately 50,000 such farmers. They benefited from government support ranging from marketing strategies and state subsidies to extension officers, who provided them with technical services. Black farmers received none of these benefits. Crucially, white farmers also had access to cheap labor, supplied by the defeated and often landless Africans. When Nelson Mandela became president of a democratic South Africa in 1994, this is the deeply unequal system he inherited.

Soon after taking power, Mandela’s ANC adopted a land reform program that had three components: land restitution for those who lost their rights in 1913, land redistribution to redress racial imbalances in ownership of commercial land, and land tenure to protect the rights of farm workers and dwellers, labor tenants and those residing in the rural areas of the former Bantustans.

The ANC’s goal in 1994 was to transfer 30 percent of the country’s agriculturally viable land from white farmers to black farmers within five years. At the core of the policy was the idea that land would be purchased from white commercial farmers who were willing to sell. This is a policy that was widely marketed by the International Monetary Fund, and the ANC leadership at the time was aligning its policies with the fund’s dictates. As popular as it may have been in Washington, this land reform program has been a dismal failure in rural South Africa. Despite the ANC’s ambitious five-year plan, less than 1 percent of land had been transferred to black ownership by 1999. And today, nearly 25 years after the ANC came to power, a mere 8 percent of the land is in black hands.

Today’s debates about land reform in South Africa and its failure tend to revolve around section 25 of the South African Constitution: the property clause. This clause attempts to strike a balance between recognizing existing property rights historically held by whites, while at the same time recognizing the need to return land to the indigenous people who were dispossessed of their land and property.

Many analysts, myself included, view this clause as inherently conflictual in that it protects existing property rights, which favor whites, while at the same time promising the dispossessed that their land will be returned to them. Those of us who subscribe to this school of thought argue for a constitutional amendment to make expropriation of land unambiguous. Others argue that section 25(2) of the constitution already provides for expropriation of land with limited compensation which, in terms of section 25(3) “must be just and equitable, reflecting an equitable balance between the public interest and the interests of those affected.” What is lacking, they contend, is the political will on the part of the ANC leaders to do something about it.

In 2013, the political equation surrounding the land question changed dramatically with the emergence of a new militant party called the Economic Freedom Fighters. Julius Malema, the EFF’s red-bereted commander-in-chief, had been expelled from the ANC and decided to launch his own party with a radical agenda — including demands for land expropriation without compensation. Malema had been the leader of the ANC Youth League at the time of his expulsion and brought many of his militant supporters with him to the EFF. His ideas, particularly on land, appealed especially to young people in urban areas, who wanted land primarily for residential purposes.

More important, Malema’s emergence as an opposition voice and his radical land policy put pressure on the ANC. The EFF was clearly capitalizing on so-called service delivery protests, which featured angry citizens protesting a government that had failed to provide them with houses, water, electricity, and other basic amenities. At the time, the ANC was also deeply divided between the supporters of the then-President Jacob Zuma, widely seen as corrupt, and those supporting the current President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was deputy president of the party and the country at the time. The ANC’s loss of support in major cities during the 2016 local elections added to the ANC’s sense of crisis.

Zuma, who stepped down earlier this year, likely saw the land question as an instrument to extend his life in the ANC. Having lost support in urban areas, he targeted chiefs in an effort to win the countryside. Throughout 2017, starting with the State of the Nation address in February and his address to the National House of Traditional Leaders in March, Zuma echoed the EFF in calling for expropriation of land without compensation.

Then, in December 2017, the ANC endorsed the idea of expropriation without compensation at its 54th party conference. Despite his initial opposition to the idea, Ramaphosa has endorsed the ANC resolution as policy. He has presented himself as a disciplined member of his party, emphasizing the need to unite the ANC and put it on a path of renewal while making it clear that any decision to expropriate land without compensation must ensure that the economy is not disrupted. This gives him a platform to water down the radical edge of the policy. In Ramaphosa’s view, redistributing land need not harm the South African economy; if anything, expropriation should make the economy and farm production grow. In public addresses, Ramaphosa has declared that the ANC will build on the “enormous potential of agriculture to promote industrialization, create employment, and transform our economy.”

The EFF capitalized on the ANC’s policy shift and brought a motion in Parliament for land expropriation without compensation, which was overwhelmingly adopted in March. At the level of rhetoric, the EFF and the ANC now appear to agree. Both, however, are thin on detail, and it’s unclear whether that rhetoric will translate into enduring action.

It will take direct action and mobilization from below, with those directly affected by landlessness, to ensure that the land question is taken seriously and implemented. For this to happen, social movements that are directly accountable to their constituencies in urban and rural areas alike will have to play a more visible role than they have in recent years.

So far, the process has been top-heavy and led primarily by political parties. If that continues, there is a danger that South Africa’s land reform will be reduced to a token expropriation of land that benefits an elite connected with the ruling party, the EFF, and the chiefs, while bypassing the downtrodden and the poor.

Lungisile Ntsebeza is the National Research Foundation chair in land reform and democracy in South Africa and A.C. Jordan chair in African Studies at the University of Cape Town.

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