Land: voters move on while politicians fight the last war
Earlier this year Cyril Ramaphosa described "the dispossession of the land of the indigenous people of this country" as the "original colonial sin". He was right. And there was more to dispossession than just land.
The racial carve-up of the country as formalised in the 1913 Natives Land Act would never have been possible under a democratic franchise. Black African farmers were bottled up in already overcrowded reserves, denying them business opportunities elsewhere, distorting the land market, and helping to turn the homelands into labour reservoirs.
The pass laws restricted black movement in the rest of the country. In later years homeland "independence" was designed to turn blacks into foreigners in the "white" 87% of South Africa. Even the fact that black land ownership in the homelands was protected by the 1913 act from white encroachment does not justify the fundamental injustice of the carve-up, let alone the forced removal of at least two million people into the homelands from what the Tomlinson Commission in 1955 described as "black spots" in the "white" area.
Given this history, the results of a recent survey by Gareth van Onselen of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) may seem surprising. He found that even among supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the proportion wanting land to be taken away from whites without paying (44%) is outnumbered by those who say land reform is not needed or that, if it is needed, it should be done through "willing buyer willing seller" or distribution of government land (54%). Among all black voters the proportions are 37% and 61% (the rest being "don't knows").
Yet even these figures overstate the demand for land reform. Our survey found that only 3% of EFF voters and 5% of African National Congress (ANC) voters regard land reform as a priority issue. "Jobs and unemployment" are a far bigger concern. This applies in both rural and urban areas.
These recent findings are consistent with earlier surveys. An IRR survey three years ago found that only 2.1% of all black Africans saw land reform as the best way to improve their lives, whereas nearly 78% wanted more jobs and better education. And in an IRR survey conducted by Lawrence Schlemmer in 2001, unemployment was already the most pressing issue – while land reform did not feature even as a low priority.
Strange, then, that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a minister in the presidency, last month described denial of land rights as a "time-bomb". The deputy president, David Mabuza, recently said that land injustices "continue to threaten our peace and stability". And earlier this month, Pravin Gordhan, minister of public enterprises, said in London that "our priority is to get people both inside and outside the country to understand that colonialism and apartheid left us with a terrible legacy".
That they left such a legacy is true. Mr Gordhan is no doubt doing some international damage control after Mr Ramaphosa threatened expropriation without compensation. But it is odd that anyone "inside" South Africa needs to be made to "understand" about the terrible legacy. Odd, that is, until we take into account all the opinion surveys which show that land reform is very low on the list of voter priorities. Or until we remember that various bigwigs in the ANC, including Gwede Mantashe and Gugile Nkwinti, have bemoaned the lack of enthusiasm for farming among black people, and black youngsters in particular.
What is happening here? Though a sizeable minority of voters would like whites to be dispossessed of their land, the vast majority of voters are more concerned with jobs. Land reform of any kind is simply not a major issue for them.
The ANC, on the other hand, has no policy that will result in significant generation of jobs, as the recent "job summit" showed and the forthcoming "investment summit" will confirm. Indeed it gives no sign of abandoning any of the policies that have the opposite effect. Instead, President Ramaphosa and his colleagues seem determined to keep fighting the last war.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.