Land expropriation: What could possibly go wrong?

Ernst Roets says the ANC only has to look at the Soviet Union to know what the likely consequences will be

Land expropriation: ANC should keep learning from the Soviet Union

It is no secret that the Soviet Union was (and probably still is) the single biggest influence in framing the ANC’s ideological framework. Much of the ANC’s rhetoric on the working class, transformation, monopoly capital and even land reform is taken directly from the terminology of the Soviet Union.

It has been so successful in this that many in the ANC regularly quote communist leaders like Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin unconsciously, thinking that they are simply expressing their own thoughts. During the past year, a great fuss was made by the ANC about the Bolshevist Revolution of 1917, in which Lenin and the Communists took power, eventually leading to the founding of the Soviet Union and Stalin’s dictatorship.

While Cyril Ramaphosa prepares for his first public speech as president of the ANC on 8 January 2018, he would do well to revisit the ANC’s Soviet influence, especially on the contentious issue of land reform – a matter that will certainly be addressed in his speech, given that the ANC has accepted a policy of expropriation without compensation immediately after his election to the position of president.

Some might argue that this policy decision was unfortunate and that it probably doesn’t reflect Ramaphosa’s personal view on the matter. This is doubtful. Ramaphosa has been outspoken about the need for more aggressive socialist policies, which the ANC paradoxically refers to as “radical economic transformation”. He has also claimed that there is a “hunger for (agricultural) land” among black South Africans.

All the available data indicates that this claim is false: Urbanisation is occurring at a rapid pace; 93% of those who have taken the effort to institute land claims have indicated that they do not actually want land and would rather have money; and only about 1% of people in South Africa believe that land reform would improve their lives – to name only a few figures.

Nonetheless, 8 January is a historical day. It is they day on which the ANC was founded back in 1912. As the ANC approaches this day, they would, however, do well to take some time on the 5th of January to consider the events that were triggered in the Soviet Union on that day in 1930.

The similarities between the ANC and the Soviet Union’s ideas on land reform are in many ways remarkable. So let’s take a look at what actually happened on farms in the Soviet Union.

Nationalising land, attacking the Kulaks

Stalin despised the idea of private property and land ownership by individuals, mostly because he wasn’t able to exercise full control over the property owned by individuals. In pure Marxist terms, his idea was to create some sort of utopia – or heaven on earth.

As a result, on 5 January 1930 Stalin announced that the policy of Collectivised Farms would be instituted across the Soviet Union. This was essentially a policy of expropriation without compensation; of nationalisation of land. The notion in the Soviet Union, as is currently the case in South Africa, was that the government should act as custodian of the land, in the interest of all the people.

The idea was that the people would produce millions of tons of wheat under this new state-driven policy, which the state would then sell to purchase machinery to build farming equipment, to invest in agricultural development. Farms were divided into Sovkhozy (state-run farms) and Kolkhozy (forced collective-owned farms, managed according to the notion of “socialist self-management”).

Members of the Kolkhozy didn’t have property rights, were treated as workers instead of owners and did not retain the right to exit – those who managed to do so could not take their share of assets with them. The means of production were completely “socialised”, meaning that it was removed from individual control. Not even private garden plots were allowed.

The projected goal was to increase agricultural production by 50% as a result of these policies.

In order to achieve this, the Soviet Union had to initiate an assault on private property, which resulted in a backlash from farmers who had to give up their farms. They were derogatorily referred to as the “Kulaks”. A Kulak was any farmer who used hired labour, who owned a mill, a creamery, a potato dryer, mechanical agricultural equipment with a motor or livestock.

Government clamped down with violence on those who resisted. The vague definition used to refer to the Kulaks was also very convenient, as it opened the door to false accusations, score settling and the use of violence against political targets.

Items taken from the Kulaks by force included their winter clothes, undergarments, shoes, pillows from under their children’s heads and even religious items – most of which were simply burned after confiscation.

About five million Kulaks were sent to concentration camps and over three million were shot, or died in exile or in these camps. Children who betrayed their parents by giving them up to the government were celebrated as national heroes, while their parents were murdered. The state eventually took over all the land, which was then to be farmed collectively in large units.

By 1940, 96.9% of Soviet agriculture was “collectivised”.

The consequences of nationalisation

While this policy was somehow promised to result in a massive upsurge in agricultural production, its consequences were the exact opposite: Agriculture collapsed.

Between 1928 and 1950, the total amount of cows in the Soviet Union declined by 26%, pigs by 20%, sheep by 18% and horses by 65%, as is shown in the table below.






33,2 million

27,8 million

24,6 million


27,7 million

27,5 million

22,2 million


114,6 million

91,6 million

93,6 million


36,1 million

21,0 million

12,7 million

Table: Decline in livestock during the Soviet Union’s land reform policy.

The result was an unprecedented famine. Over five years about seven million people died of starvation as a result of this project. Bodies were piled on wagons and dumped in mass graves. “Corpses were piled up like bales of straw,” remembers one survivor. Many of these “bodies”, however, were still alive, moving and talking to authorities, but when people were viewed as near dead, they were treated by the authorities as dead bodies in any case.

The more the project failed, the more the Kulaks were blamed and the more it was proclaimed that the desired result would be achieved if only the policy was implemented more aggressively. According to official Soviet statistics, some 24 million Kulaks disappeared from rural areas, of whom only 12,6 million moved to state jobs.

Stalin himself was said to have confided to Winston Churchill in 1945 that about 10 million people have died as a result of his land grab policies. The death toll for the entire project was somewhere around 12 million: double that of the Jewish holocaust in Nazi Germany.

Chasing the communist utopia

Similar policies were implemented in virtually every communist-inspired country, all with their own unique flavour, adapted by their local communist leaders. This includes China under Mao Zedong, Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, Cambodia under Pol Pot, Cuba under Fidel Castro, North Korea under Kim Jong-il and more recently, Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe and Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.

The similarities between these cases were that they were all state driven, that private property was despised, that violence eventually erupted as a result of a backlash by those whose property was targeted, that agriculture and food production collapsed and that famine was experienced. Almost all these leaders are in some way regarded as heroes by the ANC and other left-wing movements such as the EFF, who hail these leaders as heroes and their policies as “inspirational”.

Despite this, we are still frequently confronted by political commentators and left-leaning journalists who respond to criticism of the ANC’s land reform policy with: “But how will we know whether it will work or not if we don’t at least try it.” This is reckless talk, to say the least. State-driven reform programmes in which the right to own private property is targeted have been tried and tested repeatedly and have resulted in disaster without exception.

Not counting the murderous campaigns, the Soviet project back in the 1930s can perhaps (only) partly be excused, as it was still a new idea at the time. It was an attempt to realise the philosophy of Karl Marx and an to create the communist utopia that Marx envisaged.

History will, however, not forgive the ANC for trying to duplicate disastrous communist utopian policies. It isn’t a new idea or an experiment anymore, but rather a tried and tested recipe for disaster, not only for those who owned the property in the first place, but for all who live in the country.

Ernst Roets is deputy CEO of AfriForum. Follow Ernst on Twitter at @ErnstRoets


Fainsod, Merle (1970). How Russia is Ruled (revised ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr (1973) The Gulag Archipelago. Éditions du Seuil: Paris.

Iordachi, Constantin & Bauerkämper, Arnd (2014) The Collectivization of Agriculture in Communist Eastern Europe. CEU Press: New York.

Davies, Robert William (1980) The Soviet Collective Farm 1929-1930. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980), p.59.

Nell, Guinevere Liberty (2010). Rediscovering Fire: Basic Economic Lessons from the Soviet Experiment. Algora Publishing: New York.

Apocalypse: Stalin (2015). Documentary film by Clarke, Isabelle.

Sotsialisticheskoe sel'skoe khoziaistvo SSSR, Gosplanizdat, Moscow-Leningrad, 1939.