Land reform has been a focus of debate in South Africa in 2018, which saw the government accelerating its programme unprecedentedly.
The year has been characterised by divisive and acrimonious debates on the reform, particularly on the suggestion for land expropriation without compensation. Despite the government’s comprehensive land reform program, the country has not made sufficient progress in addressing this issue, because “most of the country’s land remains in the hands of the few,” as President Cyril Ramaphosa put it recently.
Even as Ramaphosa exhorted South Africans in his Dec. 16 Reconciliation Day message to accept land reform as the primary instrument to bringing about long-term and sustainable reconciliation in the country, some of the luminaries of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and analysts have warned of dire consequences if this issue is not urgently and effectively dealt with.
Some have accused the ANC of “bowing to the whims” of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Black First Land First (BLF). Both the EFF and BLF have vocally championed the land issue as part of radical economic transformation. They have argued that the failure to consolidate political will and to move to soberly address the very emotive land reform issue in South Africa could seriously impact the country and open the door to chaos and anarchy, with dire consequences for the southern African region and the continent. This is a critical question that raises the spectre of the unfinished transition from apartheid both in heated debates in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, and the National Council of Provinces, the upper house, as well as in numerous volatile public consultation events on the proposed amendment to section 25 of the constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation.
Some have accused the ANC of “bowing to the whims” of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Black First Land First (BLF). Both the EFF and BLF have vocally championed the land issue as part of radical economic transformation. They have argued that the failure to consolidate political will and to move to soberly address the very emotive land reform issue in South Africa could seriously impact the country and open the door to chaos and anarchy, with dire consequences for the southern African region and the continent.
Ernst Roets, deputy CEO of Afriforum, which represents a large constituency of the country’s white farmers, declared in his submission on the proposed amendment that the process was driven by “an oversimplified, twisted perspective of history.” He stated that it was premised on a false “ideological viewpoint that centralisation of the power in the State will be to the benefit of the public.” Roets said the land reform initiative “was built on the false argument that the eroding of property rights and tampering with healthy market principles will lead to economic growth.”
The vote by both houses of parliament in November in favour of amending the constitution for land expropriation without compensation, therefore, has raised the stakes and threatens to unravel the tenuous peace that underwrote the South African transition to democracy, according to Roets. Opponents to land reform also argue that the ongoing process has also opened the wounds of the country’s disturbing past and fuelled a dangerous discourse that will deeply polarise the society, threaten food security, and undermine nation-building and efforts to develop the economy.
However, for the South African government and the ANC, the land issue is cardinal, and it was at the ANC’s most recent congress that the party resolved that land expropriation without compensation would be a central plank of its project to address the injustices of the past and to transform South Africa. Injustice and dispossession of land among blacks were inflicted by colonial conquests across the world, and continue to play a role in many modern conflicts, Ramaphosa said. The president calls for a more just and equitable land reform or redistribution regime. “The equitable distribution of land has been a consistent call of the overwhelming majority of South Africans,” he said. “Access to land is a fundamental right of citizenship.” “It doesn’t just empower communities and workers. It enhances food security, especially for the rural poor,” Ramaphosa said. Access to and ownership of land open significant opportunities for those who have been marginalised, because it “enables people to gain and develop productive assets, and to participate more meaningfully in the economy,” according to the president.
Ramaphosa echoed the view of land reform supporters who insist that land reform is inextricably tied to nation-building, is key to further reconciliation in the country and central to eliminating inequality in the society. They say that far from being a measure that will fuel tensions or set race relations back, accelerated land reform has the potential to improve goodwill between the races in South Africa.One of the voices calling for a more deeply-contemplated approach to land reform is ANC stalwart Ben Turok. As one of the framers of the ANC Freedom Charter, and one of the party’s longest serving representatives in the National Assembly until 2015, Turok has been one of the party’s most incisive thinkers on transforming the economy and society. He cautions against a cavalier approach in trying to resolve the land issue.
Currently director of the Institute for African Alternatives, Turok said the debate on land reform has been deployed by numerous forces to mobilise their constituencies in the run-up to the national elections, scheduled for early 2019. “It is an election year and everyone is looking for votes, and this matter of land reform is an emotional issue so the ANC and EFF are raising it sharply,” Turok told Xinhua in an interview. However, the ANC stalwart believes that the decision to make the call for the amendment of section 25 of the constitution was not properly considered, as the current statute holds significant power which is under-utilised. He also believes that there is oversimplification, and that the question of land reform has numerous components, each of which has to be dealt appropriately. “Nobody has clear answers, as the land question is a complex issue with many factors,” Turok said.
This includes traditional leaders and their abuse of land and the corruption that goes with it and then the agricultural issue and the land tenure issue, he explained. Turok stated that the problem is that “the debate has been so simplified” and had drawn reactions of anger and insecurity from some of the white farmers because “the lunatic fringe of the EFF and BLF are threatening land occupation.” Part of the problem, he said, is the lack of political will, and “after 25 years in Parliament the ANC has failed to take action on land reform.” “There is a lot that can be done such as utilising peri-urban land that needs to be farmed, but is being used for speculation,” he stated.
Turok also pointed to “a looming danger in failing to confront traditional leaders.” He said firm action is needed to address the question of land reform and that this will call for assertive action from the head of state. “Cyril Ramaphosa will see he has to act, because failing to act will create a lot of negativity,” Turok added. Former Minister of Arts and Culture Z. Pallo Jordan advised that the issue be tackled in a focused manner. Jordan said in the latest edition of New Agenda periodical that “since the adoption of a resolution by ANC’s elective conference in December 2017 to change the constitutional provision requiring equitable compensation for land expropriated by the state, the dialogue on the specific constitutional clause as well as on land distribution and ownership in this country appears trapped between the extremes of hyperbole and double talk.”
Search for solutions to the land question in South Africa calls for depth and understanding, he noted. “Calm, deliberative debate, based on an appreciation of our country’s history, pre- and post-1652, the immense societal changes wrought by industrialisation, urbanization and economic integration, is vitally important at this moment because the decisions and actions taken will be of great consequence not only for South Africa, but also for the region and the continent,” Jordan said.
Political commentator Sipho Seepe, who was former vice chancellor of Vista University, takes a different approach, arguing that “the intended process is meant to correct the historical injustice and change the economic landscape.” “The anti-colonial struggle was like any revolution based on land, and this means that the South African transition would be incomplete without addressing this historic injustice which has correctly been described as South Africa’s original sin,” Seepe told Xinhua. He explained that land represents many things. “It is a signifier of who matters and controls the country’s economy. It is all encompassing speaking to the social, the cultural and the economic. It is not an accident that those without land are poor and marginalised. Politically this is an affront if one considers that indigenous people have been reduced to trespassers in the country of their birth.”
The volatility of the debate, he said, is driven by real factors and “the reason the land reform issue has become explosive is because it threatens to upend the economic relationship in the country.” Seepe noted that what is reflected as a “strong opposition” to land reform is actually “a manufactured strong opposition.” He believes that “the main obstacle to the implementation will be ironically the ruling party. “The ANC suffers from the need to be affirmed. It wants to please all people and as a result it sends mixed messages which make implementation impossibly difficult,” Seepe said. When asked what will happen if the process fails, he said South Africa can expect more land invasions and in time the people will turn against the ruling party. “The ANC will succeed in becoming enemy of the people with South Africa becoming ungovernable,” Seepe warned.