Caution!!! Land Reform in South Africa
Milton Keynes, September 13, 2018 (AltAfrica) South Africa is talking about a long awaited retribution. In February 2018, South African parliament voted in favour of seizing private, rural farmland without compensation, otherwise known as land expropriation. This is extremely symbolic for South Africa because as a country it remained in the grip of a racist minority government for nearly 50 years after it’s independence. Up until 1994, black South Africans were often forcibly removed from their land, paid nothing and relocated to one of the many reserves also known as Bantustans. It comes as no surprise that this proposed land reform policy is welcomed by majority of black South Africans. However, there are many who are skeptical, as some neighbouring African countries have already proven that a poorly executed land reform policy can be detrimental to already fragile economies. So the question is, does returning colonized land move a country forward or set a country back?
To understand why some South Africans are in favour of a land reform policy, it is important to first understand the basic history of the land. The indigenous people of South Africa have fought long and hard with their colonizers. The country gained its independence earlier than most African nations but shortly after, the 1913 Native Land Act was implemented. This land act set the tone for land segregation in South Africa because it provided the building blocks for a massive segregated land reform policy years later. And that is exactly what happened. Under apartheid law, the National Party seized land from black South Africans without compensation and cheaply sold the land to wealthy white South Africans. This was an ongoing process while The National Party was in power from 1948–1994. Plus, even when the party was thrown out and replaced by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) there was no restitution or redistribution of the stolen land.
Naturally, the people of South Africa are upset. They want justice and total freedom from apartheid, which still haunts the country today. The redistribution of land stolen from ancestors could go a long way toward healing those generational wounds.
Land expropriation is not just limited to Africa; it is common practice worldwide. Depending on the country it may be called something else — eminent domain, land acquisition, compulsory purchase or expropriation. No matter the name, it means the government has the power to acquire private land for public use and compensation varies by country and/or constitution.
What is happening in South Africa is a major symbolic step within their already existing land policy because ultimately, they’re talking about restitution. The idea of taking back stolen land is undoubtedly appealing, but the history of land expropriation in Africa tells a different story.
The most notable would be the land reform that happened in Zimbabwe. At one point in Zimbabwe’s history, 1% of the population owned 65% of the best land in the country. Meanwhile, roughly six million black farmers were living in poverty and on land that was unable to produce crops. After a failed attempt to redistribute land fairly with backing and donations from Britain, the Zimbabwean government passed legislation that gave them power to seize land owned by Europeans. Zimbabwe wanted to put an end to the ongoing colonialism facing the country. However, the fast paced land reform policy was violent and haphazard; it solved the initial problem of land inequality but in turn another severe problem was created. The country began experiencing a food crisis due to the sudden decline in agriculture. As food shortages ramped up, the rest of the delicate economy began to collapse. Businesses were forced to close, unemployment rates skyrocketed and inflation reached unimaginable heights. Everything Zimbabwe had worked towards since their independence was gone in a matter of years and all because the infamous Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugambe, was stuck in the past.
Former Commercial Farm in Zimbabwe. Credit: Damien Farrell
It is not my intention to sound insensitive. Land rights and ownership in Africa is an extremely sensitive political and ethical subject. So part of me understands the possible thinking of the former Zimbabwean President, but at what cost is righting the wrongs of history worth it? As an African, the idea of restitution happening in South Africa leaves me feeling satisfied, but I fear there is always going to be irreversible scars on these countries as a result of century long colonialism, colonization and segregation. As much as I would enjoy seeing land returned to black South Africans, a part of me worries will this act of restitution turn into an economic collapse?
It is estimated that seven out of ten people still live off the land in Africa. The majority of Africans are farmers but usually only to sustain themselves and their families. Large-scale agriculture in Africa is far behind the rest of the world. What African farmers are missing is the modernization that most of the world has seen in the agricultural industry. Things like affordable and available seeds, fertilizer, up to date education, insurance, clear land rights and farm infrastructure has not happened in many parts of Africa. Where it is happening in Africa, is almost always on land owned by white farmers. This is what Zimbabwe failed to see. Although the small minority population owned the majority of the country’s best, arable land they kept the country’s food security and economy afloat. Once the land was seized and redistributed, small-scale Zimbabwean farmers simply couldn’t keep up.
Could what happened in Zimbabwe happen in South Africa? This is a big worry for many who are unsure of the recent vote in the South African Parliament. It’s hard not to ignore what happened in the neighbouring country but South Africa has some clear differences. The most important would be the difference in democracies; the South African constitution limits the power of parliament. Fast paced, colossal land reform policies, like that in Zimbabwe, would not make it through to law. Cyril Ramaphosa, the President of South Africa, has publicly said [in relation to land expropriation] that South Africa’s food security and economy must be protected. This is something Zimbabwe’s former President, Robert Mugabe, did not do. What Ramaphosa is saying is that large-scale commercial farms, owned by white farmers, will likely be protected due to their impact on the economy. Which then begs the question why land expropriation as a form of restitution? South Africa is also no stranger to government corruption. The leading party that has governed the country since apartheid, the ANC, is known for mismanagement, misspending and false promises. So it is hard to know what will actually happen in terms of land reform and expropriation.
I believe there’s still this impression of Africa as an archaic vast land filled with people who don’t understand or who choose not to adapt to the modern world. In some parts yes, Africa is still a very raw and tribal place. But not everyone is living in ancient history. African people dream of lives outside of the traditional ways, they don’t all aspire to be farmers. Restitution for African people needs to be framed in a way that propels them forward instead of keeping them stagnant. There’s no doubt that the African “millennials” envision a future for themselves that does not involve tending to the land. So what are their options for restitution? Where’s their pass to a possibly better life?
Photo Credit: hdptcar
Although the small white population in South Africa still holds most of the wealth, the black middle class is growing and the economy has been relatively stable. The action the government is taking to push through this land expropriation policy will be slow, but it means the people are being heard. Many believe restitution is long overdue especially amongst the poor, who believe their poverty is directly linked to stolen land from ancestors.
There is no way to tell how this will all play out for South Africa but one thing is certain, actions taken by governments to right the wrongs of history need to be carefully executed so that the people of these countries do not continue to pay the price of colonization.