Gugile Nkwinti, Minister for Land Reform and Rural Development, stoked land reform debates in South Africa at the weekend. Speaking to City Press, a Sunday paper aimed at a black readership, he said that the expropriation of land without compensation could be possible if the current leadership fails to speed up land reform in the country.
This reflects a growing debate taking place following controversial remarks by leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema. In April 2010, Malema praised Robert Mugabe's “courageous” reforms after a visit to Zimbabwe. This sentiment was repeated at the 2011 ANC Youth conference, where Malema vowed to “take land without payment”, saying "there is no way you can be diplomatic about the issue of land. We will never be diplomatic about willing buyer, willing seller. It has failed”.
The ANC’s target of redistributing 25 million hectares of farm land by 2014 looks likely to fall short by some margin. Currently, only 7.4 million hectares have been given to previously disadvantaged South Africans. This shortcoming has been acknowledged by ANC leaders, but they are wary of being seen to support the comments of the influential and often radical Malema.
President Jacob Zuma was quick to emphasise that successful land reform is a high priority for the ANC, but must be carried out in a lawful way. Speaking to a meeting of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) on June 27, he said: “Land reform is urgent but requires careful handling and consultation, and must be conducted within the confines of the Constitution of the Republic. We are in the process of finalising a green paper that will set a new trajectory for land reform in South Africa.”
Zuma made clear that land redistribution had proceeded too slowly under the “willing buyer, willing seller” policy. A green paper will outline strategies to de-racialise the rural community, promote democratic land allocation, and keep food production secure.
The opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, (DA) has spoken out against Zuma, arguing that he has not quashed Malema’s inflammatory remarks. DA spokesperson Athol Trollip said: "It is not sufficient for President Jacob Zuma to simply state that land grabs are not ANC policy. The DA regards it as imperative that an effective land-reform programme is implemented in our country. Should the willing-buyer, willing-seller model be abandoned, the impact on food security and our economy as a whole would be devastating."
The question of land has been a key political issue throughout South Africa’s history, with centuries of dispossession by white settlers of land occupied by indigenous communities. The history of the ANC is also intrinsically tied to land distribution: the party was founded in 1912 partly in response to the threat of the 1913 Land Act, which forced non-whites from their farms to work in the cities and restricted their movements.
Black land ownership was initially restricted to reserves which made up just 7% of the country (later increased to 13% in 1936), forcing sharecroppers into labour tenancy, undermining independent black farmers and creating a pool of migrant workers for the mining industry and other labour-hungry industries. The subsequent relocation of millions of black people under the apartheid government only served to strengthen the dispossession of land, while subsidies for white farmers allowed their production to soar.
By the early 1990s, some 102 million hectares of arable land was concentrated in the hands of around 55,000, mainly white, farmers. In the reserves, around 1.2 million black subsistence farmers shared 17 million hectares. As apartheid ended, 86% of land was under white ownership.
Today, some 40% of the population live in rural areas, with 1 million South Africans working on farms. These rural areas are where the deepest poverty can be found, with land reform seen as a step to providing income for some of South Africa’s poorest. However, prospective farmers must apply for government grants to acquire farms offered on the market.
In reality, because of limited government resources, grant sizes are often inadequate to purchase farmland. One official in the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, who chose to remain anonymous, claims the reason for the failure of land redistribution was landowners colluding with land evaluators to sell over-priced, unproductive land to a government desperate to make its “willing-seller, willing-buyer” policy work. The official went on to say that black farmers and their businesses are set up to fail under this situation.
Mike Mlengana, president of the African Farmers Association of South Africa, agrees that the price of land has been manipulated. He says that the original owners of the land often continue to occupy it after government purchase, slowing down the process and resulting in black farmers getting the ‘scraps’. Considering the amount of money that has been paid by the government, he believes that black farmers should be occupying 50% of the target, yet that goal remains distant.
Although the current system hasn’t created opportunities for land redistribution on the scale that was hoped for, many farmers are fearful of the impact of Malema’s comments. There is some evidence that a few have already acted, following reports that a farm in the Eastern Cape was being illegally occupied by a group using the ANC Youth League leader’s comments as justification for their actions.
Bad model to follow
Many concerns about making changes to the current system of land redistribution centre on maintaining food security and agriculture’s key role in the economy. The sector, valued at R130 billion ($19 billion) in assets in 2009, with land and fixed income valued at R124 billion ($18 billion), remains highly important to the economy of the country. It is self-sufficient in most major agriculture products, as well as produce making up 8% of the country’s exports.
Mike Vink, Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Stellenbosch, believes that expropriating land without compensation could deter investment in the sector, stunting growth and development. He argues that more market access and education for new farmers will be a better route to strengthen the current approach to land redistribution. Vink says that because farm ownership changes every 10 years on average, many current landowners in South Africa have not inherited land from ancestors who stole it, but have bought it legally under constitutional guidelines. He points to the complexities that arise from this reality: “The argument that land belongs to whites is flawed, because land belongs to individuals. People bought farms every 10 years and as most farms have been traded with different owners, this would make it unconstitutional to expropriate land without compensation.”
If land reform is to work in South Africa, the government must scrutinise the process more carefully to ensure that it is giving previously disadvantaged South Africans a good deal; in other words, good land, and good business opportunities. A crucial element of land reform is the support required to assist new farmers to use their land productively, otherwise the key aim of poverty reduction will not be achieved. It will also ensure that land redistribution will not undermine food security.
The market-driven approach will never restore the systems of land tenure in place before the advent of the Western settlers. Historically, land was not owned by individuals, but by extended families or communities, and as such, ownership was seen in a much more fluid and less prescriptive way.
Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Nkwinti’s green paper, which is currently being approved by the cabinet, will not bring these things back. It will focus on deracialising the rural economy to create growth, equitable and democratic land redistribution, and “production discipline” for sustainable food security. Whether it will bring a solution that speeds up land redistribution without resorting to taking land by force remains to be seen, but we can be sure that, as so many people’s identities are intrinsically linked with the landscape they live in, ownership of land will continue to be a highly emotive subject in South Africa.