Land expropriation and the morning after

John Kane-Berman says govt has yet to find a model of land redistribution that works

Once again, President Jacob Zuma has kicked off the year by promising to speed up land reform. At the beginning of last year he said that "the challenges of poverty, inequality, and unemployment have their roots in the vast tracts of land that was stolen from the indigenous people of South Africa". Land reform and support for emerging farmers should therefore be "radically accelerated".

This year in his speech on the 105th anniversary of the founding of the African National Congress (ANC) he promised to "pursue land reform and land redistribution with greater speed and urgency". The ANC in its 105th birthday statement echoed this promise.

Whether Mr Zuma and his party and government can actually implement their promise of greater urgency is doubtful, however. Although Mr Zuma said the government would use the Expropriation Bill passed last year, he has not yet signed it; if he does so, it is likely to be challenged all the way to the Constitutional Court, which has already put land restitution legislation on hold on the grounds that it was enacted without adequate consultation.

"Returning the land to the people" is a key component of the national democratic revolution, commitment to which was reiterated at least half a dozen times in the ANC's statement –although this was largely ignored by the press. The ANC's statement also claimed that the South African "peasantry is left with a shrinking land mass to eke a living".

The minister of rural development and land reform, Gugile Nkwinti, seems to have a different view. At the beginning of December last, he said that much land had already been transferred to black people and that the government was trying by all means to make sure that it remained productive. Previously he has acknowledged that in most cases of transfer a productive farm which was a going concern had collapsed.

There have been numerous reports of how the supposed beneficiaries of land reform, more or less dumped on transferred land, have found themselves trapped in rural poverty. 

Perhaps Mr Nkwinti could remind his colleagues of the exchange that took place between Constand Viljoen, former chief of the South African Defence Force, and his successor, George Meiring, when General Viljoen was planning to disrupt the 1994 election with the help of 50 000 soldiers. As Hermann Giliomee reports it in his magisterial study The Afrikaners, General Viljoen told General Meiring that "you and I and our men can take this country in an afternoon". To this General Meiring replied, "Yes, that is so, but what do we do on the morning after the coup?"

The commitment by Mr Zuma and his party to taking back the land is mainly rooted in their desire to undo the "legacies" of "heinous" and "horrendous land dispossessions". But they also talk about land redistribution as if it were some kind of panacea for poverty, inequality, and unemployment.

On the assumption that the Expropriation Bill is eventually enacted and that vast tracts of land are then redistributed, a question similar to that asked by General Meiring arises, "Yes, the land has all been redistributed, but what do we do now?"

Having acknowledged the widespread failures in the past, Mr Nkwinti says the government wishes to ensure that future redistributed land remains productive. However, given the collapse of agricultural extension services on which farmers were previously able to rely, the government does not possess the ability to ensure that land redistributed in future remains productive. Mr Zuma's promises of "radical acceleration" in support for emerging farmers are as empty as his promises to combat corruption.

In practice what is likely to result from the "radically accelerated" land reform that is promised is that land once farmed commercially reverts to subsistence agriculture because the supposed beneficiaries have neither the skills nor the capital for very much else. "Yes," they will say, "we have the land, but what do we now do with it?"   

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.