The unresolved land question in South Africa is a time bomb. An entirely different approach is required if democracy is to survive in our country. By LUNGISILE NTSEBEZA.
The recent passing of a motion for land expropriation without compensation in the National Assembly brought by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and supported with an amendment by the African National Congress (ANC) was overwhelmingly adopted.
After years of supporting a market-led land reform programme and not heeding criticisms of this policy, the ANC leadership has suddenly changed gear, at least at the level of rhetoric, to advance a radical thesis of expropriating land without compensation.
Expropriation without compensation was endorsed as policy at the 54th conference of the ANC that was held in Nasrec, Gauteng between 16 and 20 December 2017. Three weeks later, on 7 January 2018, Cyril Ramaphosa, the new President of the ANC who is now also the President of South Africa, visited the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini, at his Osuthu Palace at Nongoma to introduce the top six members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC).
He conveyed to the monarch the newly adopted policy of the ANC in these terms: “Taking land should not be equal to destroying our economy. Taking land should be equal to making our economy grow, and farm production grow.” He went further: “In fact, it is possible for us to begin a process of working the land and improving agriculture – making it a very successful factor in our country.”
Ramaphosa made an undertaking that the ANC would build on the “enormous potential of agriculture to promote industrialisation, create employment and transform our economy”, an economy that would be open for business and investment.
Ramaphosa did not give details as to how this ambitious and seeming contradictory project would be achieved. We are, as I write this article at the beginning of March, still awaiting these details.
King Zwelithini is reported to have endorsed Ramaphosa’s position, indicating that he looked to Ramaphosa “to act … with speed”. It was reported that this was followed by an exchange of “gifts of cattle.”
It is interesting to note that hardly two months after endorsing the ANC policy, the monarch is up in arms, seeing the policy as a threat to his Ingonyama Trust which owns the rural land of the former KwaZulu Bantustan.
The ANC-led government inherited an extremely skewed, race-based distribution of ownership, access and use of land. This was as a result of a brutal and violent dispossession of the land of the indigenous people of what is now South Africa by Europeans who decided to settle in the land.
By 1913, when the Natives Land Act was passed and enforced, the immense majority of the indigenous people, the Africans were restricted to “reserves” which constituted a mere 7% of the land, where they were afforded rights of occupation. The size of the reserves was later increased in legislative terms when Native Land laws were passed in 1936.
The turning point was the discovery of minerals, especially gold in the second half of the 19th century and the subsequent need for cheap labour. For this to be achieved, the defeated Africans were to be starved of ownership of and access to land. Black farmers and peasants that were emerging in the late 19th century were discouraged by being denied land and support. Without adequate land and support, Africans were forced to sell their labour, cheaply, in the mines, on farms and the emerging white controlled towns and cities.
More than 80% of South Africa’s agricultural land was in the hands of white commercial farmers, who received enormous support from the state in the form of extension officers, marketing strategies and state subsidies – all of which were denied to their African counterparts. There were about 55,000 white commercial farmers in 1994, but the number has dropped to about 36,000 currently.
The above, in broad strokes, is what the ANC inherited in 1994. It did so under conditions of a compromise, with the ANC clearly a junior partner in the control of the economy in particular.
Soon after taking over, the ANC adopted a land reform programme which has three components: land restitution for those who lost their land rights on and after 19 June 1913; land redistribution to redress racial imbalances in ownership of commercial land; and land tenure to protect the rights of farm workers and dwellers, labour tenants and those residing in the rural areas of the former bantustans. The goal of the ANC in 1994 was that 30% of agricultural land would be transferred from white to black hands.
A feature of the land reform programme was that the land would be purchased from white commercial farms. The ANC government even went so far as to commit itself, unforced, to a willing seller, willing buyer policy.
The land reform programme has been a dismal failure. Despite the promise that 30% of agricultural land would be transferred to black by 1999, less than 1% of land had exchanged hands by that year. This prompted the ANC, then under President Thabo Mbeki, to change the date to 2014. As things are at the beginning of 2018, only about 8% of the land has been transferred to black under the land reform programme.
The emergence of the EFF and specifically their stance on the land question puts pressure on the ANC. The EFF demanded expropriation without compensation, a policy that had and has an appeal especially to the youth in urban areas. The EFF was clearly capitalising on so-called service delivery protests which have been a feature of South Africa since the turn of the century, under the Thabo Mbeki presidency. Further, the EFF’s rise occurred in the context of deep divisions within the ANC and loss of confidence in the ANC, evidenced by the results of the 2016 local government elections. It is, I would argue, against this background that we should understand the ANC’s about-turn on the land question.
It is former president Jacob Zuma, at the time president of the ANC and South Africa, who set the ball rolling. He might have seen the land question as yet another instrument at his disposal that would extend his lease of life in the ANC. He expressed his intention as early as 8 January 2017 when he delivered the ANC’s anniversary statement in Orlando, Soweto, Gauteng. He had this to say on the land question: “It is time to return the land to our people. Our land reform and land redistribution programmes have shown measurable success … We must show courage and determination to ensure that the land is returned to the people … The Constitution allows for the expropriation of land for a public purpose and in the public interest. This year, we shall begin to utilise the Expropriation of Land Act to pursue land reform and land redistribution, with greater speed and urgency, following the prescripts of our Constitution.”
Zuma would take up the issue of expropriation in his State of the Nation (Sona) address on 9 February 2017 when he admitted that: ‘It will be difficult if not impossible to achieve true reconciliation until the land question is resolved’. Less than two weeks later, in a speech on 24 February 2017 where he was outlining policy on agriculture, Zuma, for the first time, announced that South Africa was going to change its laws to allow government to expropriate land without compensation. According to him: “We are busy amending (laws) to enable faster land reform, including land expropriation without compensation as provided for in the Constitution.”
Zuma repeated his call for expropriation of land without compensation on 3 March 2017, at the opening of the National House of Traditional leaders. He would eventually take this position to the ANC’s national policy conference that was held in Johannesburg on 5 July 2017. He announced, in his closing remarks: “We agree on the imperative to accelerate land redistribution and land reform. Again, we had robust discussions on the modalities to achieve this. We agree that using the fiscus for land redistribution must be accompanied by other measures if we are to achieve the goal at the required pace… Where it is necessary and unavoidable this may include expropriation without compensation. The Constitution provides for legislative changes to be effected in the democratic process.”
It is important to note that Zuma made this announcement against the backdrop of the run-up to the December 2017 conference. His position on land could thus be seen not as an expression of ANC policy, but as the position of his “slate”. Indeed, some members of the ANC rejected the notion of expropriation without compensation when Zuma first raised it, some labelling him a populist as land expropriation without compensation was not the party’s policy.
Analysts at the time saw Zuma’s move as “a massive ambush for Cyril Ramaphosa”, whose aim was a big win at the ANC policy conference in June 2017, “and from there to create an unstoppable wave heading for the elective conference in December” 2017.
As we now know, Zuma’s preferred candidate did not win the presidency of the ANC. However, on the issue of the ANC policy on land, he emerged the winner with the adoption of expropriation of land without compensation as ANC policy.
It is not possible to expropriate land without compensation under the current Constitution. Section 25 of the Constitution is very clear that “Property may be expropriated only in terms of law of general application … subject to compensation”.
What this means is that the Constitution would have to be amended, which, despite the fact that Parliament has adopted the motion of expropriating land without compensation, will not be easy. For example, a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and six out of nine provinces in the National Council of Provinces are needed.
Further, there is the question as to how investors are likely to respond and also the possibility of litigation – a very costly business. There is also the threat that is posed by the Zulu monarch who is mobilising against the disestablishing of the Ingonyama Trust.
The unresolved land question in South Africa is a time bomb. An entirely different approach is required if democracy is to survive in our country.
The starting point must be an acknowledgement and recognition that the former bantustans were established in order to control the indigenous majority and to advance a racialised form of capitalist development in South Africa. Dismantling the former bantustans must be a priority, something which the ANC government does not seem to take as their priority. On the contrary, there is a perpetuation of this system in the countryside at both the level of land tenure and governance. The Ramaphosa administration is not offering anything refreshing given his attempt to woe chiefs at the potential expense of muzzling the voices of residents under the jurisdiction of chiefs.
Linked to the above is the need to do research on the state of agriculture in South Africa, the main purpose of which would be to identify unused and under-utilised farms, as well as those which are in debt. It is these farms that should be targeted for expropriation so as to put them into production.
A concern that is often raised whenever the land question in South Africa comes up is that the productive capacity of agriculture will be endangered. But this concern does not take into account the reality that not all of the agricultural land is under production. It is precisely for this that I propose that the initial drive would be to target and expropriate unused and under-utilised farms, as well as farms that are in debt. Under these circumstances, expropriation may well lead to increase in production.
With regard to the thorny issue of compensation, there would, in the first instance, be no need to compensate farmers that are in debt. As far as those farms that are unused and under-utilised are concerned, the legal owners of these farms would have to be persuaded that they should donate the land they are not using. The key issue here is that the discussion on land would be conducted in accordance with the constitutional requirement that land reform should “bring about equitable access to all South Africa’s natural resources”, with the state taking “reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis”. This formulation does not give priority to the dictates of the “market”, which encourages landholders to hold back unused land.
Expropriated land would be used to address land hunger primarily in the former bantustans, but also for the benefit of farm workers and farm dwellers. Priority would be given to those who have demonstrated commitment to a land-based lifestyle and are growing crops and fruit in the gardens of their residential plots and keeping stock. Crucially, these individuals should be organised into producer co-operatives in order to avoid monopoly of land by a few individuals.
What about governance? Democratic governance and development structures should be promoted so as to do away with unelected and unaccountable individuals such as chiefs and, in some provinces, headmen. The latter should be replaced by democratically elected and accountable leaders both in development and in political initiatives.
While it is important to focus on the former homelands, it is also necessary to ensure that these areas are not treated as isolated islands quite apart from the rest of the country. They remain differentiated by a distinctive form of land tenure and by the continued role of traditional authorities in local government, but they still form an integral part of the body politic. Moreover, the economic linkages with neighbouring areas through labour and commodity exchanges, suggest that an inclusive approach is necessary to understand how to transcend the geographies of apartheid. How to integrate the bantustans with the rest of South Africa and create a unitary approach in respect of land tenure and citizenship across the country is a major challenge.
On the question of agency, my well-considered view is that purely statist and technocratic solutions which do not take account of the struggles from below will simply not be able to deal with the abiding problems of land. It will take pressures and mobilisation from below, with those directly affected at the heart of the struggles, to ensure that the land question is taken seriously and implemented. Given the power of global capital and a state that acts in its interests, organised social movements become a necessity.
Of course, these struggles from below are indeterminate, uncertain and unpredictable, but they hold the promise of affording ordinary people the chance to participate in the making of their own futures. Just as popular struggle from below brought formal apartheid to its knees, the ongoing and widespread protests in the country are a powerful portend of the continuing crises of poverty and social reproduction. DM
Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza is the National Research Foundation (NRF) Research Chair in Land Reform and Democracy in South Africa and AC Jordan Chair in African Studies at the University of Cape Town
Photo: A picture dated 31 March 2007 shows a view of ‘Die Eiland’ farm in the Oudtshoorn district of South Africa’s Western Cape Province. Photo: EPA/JON HRUSA