The road to Vrede

Terence Corrigan responds to Mahlatsi and Makhele on the land question

The contribution by Dr Lehlohonolo Kennedy Mahlatsi and Tiisetso Makhele (‘The land cannot remain in white hands’, 23 January 2018) argues … what exactly? Aside from describing the very real and sad history of land dispossession in South Africa’s history (which is true) and that the Democratic Alliance is beyond despicable (a matter of opinion), it is hard to know precisely what is being advocated. If it is that land reform is morally necessary and (potentially) economically empowering, that is true as far as it goes – and is not the subject of any real objection.

Perhaps the key idea here is not about whether land reform should take place, but its terms and objectives. ‘The “land question”,’ they write, ‘strikes a chord for many people and serves as a potent symbol of persistent poverty and structural inequality.’

This is true. But if land reform is to be dealt with as a symbol, it holds precious little potential to alleviate poverty and inequality. Sensitivity to the wrongs of the past, and a commitment to addressing them, need not – indeed dare not – preclude acknowledging the economic realities that will need to be considered if land reform is to play a role in socio-economic development and upliftment.

A successful land (and broader agrarian) reform programme needs to do more than merely transfer assets (symbols?) from one group to another. It needs to provide its beneficiaries with the means to prosper personally and to contribute to the overall prosperity of the societies in which they live. This is essentially the difference between successful programmes, such as those carried out in Taiwan and South Korea, and the less successful ones, such as those in Vietnam and China. It’s no coincidence, for example, that China’s ideologically charged agrarian ‘reform’ in the 1950s produced one of the greatest famines in history. A later turn to pragmatism – incentivising production, even if this meant doing away with the ruinous ideology that theoretically animated the Chinese state – started putting rice back on the table and pulling flesh-and-blood Chinese out of poverty.  

The need to look beyond the land as a symbol and an ideological avatar, to appreciate that land reform is about so much more than the transfer of acreage, is already recognised by the South African government and the ANC. In theory at least, official land reform policy is to leverage land redistribution to support livelihoods, food security and wealth creation. In fact, the contention that land reform is essentially about a racial transfer of assets – ‘the success of land reform shall be determined by the extent of the hectares of land transferred to the people of South Africa as a whole, the majority of whom are African and female’, the writers assert – seems out of kilter with both government and party policy.

Nevertheless, to the extent that Mahlatsi and Makhele are demanding greater urgency and focus on land reform, they are to be supported. But this entails looking at the hard evidence of what has gone wrong with our current land reform project. Once again, in blaming the so-called ‘willing buyer-willing seller’ model, and calling for expropriation without compensation, they miss the point.

The High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change, chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, did not support the notion that compensation was a barrier to land reform: ‘Experts advise that the need to pay compensation has not been the most serious constraint on land reform in South Africa to date – other constraints, including increasing evidence of corruption by officials, the diversion of the land reform budget to elites, lack of political will, and lack of training and capacity have proved more serious stumbling blocks to land reform.’

Here, then, are the real problems confronting land reform in South Africa. Indeed, a glaring example of this has been in the news lately: the Estina Dairy Farm in Vrede in the Free State. That a ‘project’ which ultimately delivered minimal benefit to the surrounding community but received enormous state largesse – some R220 million, according to the Sunday Times, much of which was evidently laundered abroad – is emblematic of the malaise into which land reform has fallen in South Africa. Then there are disconcerting questions about the role of senior politicians in the Free State in this saga. True concern for the fate of land reform demands that pathologies such as these – relating to weaknesses in South Africa’s governance and land reform bureaucracies – need to be dealt with.

Until they are, land reform is unlikely to be able to deliver anything more that symbolic and ideological satisfaction. Indeed, even these will seem transitory and bitter as they offer little to alter the ‘material conditions’ of the present.

So what kind of land reform do we want? One that seeks to empower the state rather than the people, that is so captive to its own ideological assumptions that it fails to recognise the problems for what they are, and inevitably produces distorted outcomes? This is the road that led to Estina. 

Or a land reform process that redresses past wrongs while empowering and uplifting those on the present, and is grounded on evidence from South Africa and abroad? This is the road to prosperity.

Terence Corrigan is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom