A journey through space and time

Land Reform All Over The World

By J Brooks Spector 12 October 2018

A Japanese tea farmer picks the first flush harvest of tea leaves at a mountain farm in Fujinomiya city, Shizuoka prefecture, Japan, 01 May 2013. EPA/Everett Kennedy Brown

Yes, land reform in South Africa is an urgent issue; the landless will almost certainly not be put off much longer for at least some movement in their direction. But what should be done – and how? Isn’t there some global experience that could be mined to help South Africa out of its dilemmas and difficulties and avoid some of the most painful pitfalls?

In the past several weeks, the writer has attended several conferences on THE LAND QUESTION. These events have been in addition to that much larger national consultative process in which many citizens and interested groups have presented their ideas and recommendations – often with great emotion. In dealing with this question, even someone like Donald Trump has seen fit to join in the rising tumult with his ill-advised, ill-informed tweets about a white farmer genocide that provoked an international outcry.

Whether the goal has been defined as expropriation without compensation or some other kind of fundamental land reform, the assumed landscape has been to speak about it in terms of the uniqueness of South Africa’s circumstances, paired with that urgent need to address its inequalities. The country’s land issues and its history of racially defined exploitation are always seen as sui generis; there is no way anything in South Africa’s circumstances are comparable with experiences elsewhere, or if lessons can usefully be drawn from the rest of the globe’s experiences with land reform measures in any form.

Instead, it almost seems as if – at least in the minds of most of the various conferees and presenters alike we heard – South Africa exists on a miniature continent, all by itself, almost as if John Donne’s lines about no man being an island, entire unto itself, can not apply to thinking about the applicability of other histories to South Africa’s circumstances. There is one exception on most people’s minds, of course. And that is South Africa’s next door neighbour – Zimbabwe, with its land invasions, extra-legal expropriations, the near-collapse of commercial farming and agricultural exports, the poverty, hunger and famines, and probably the majority of the 10 plagues from the Biblical story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, at least in the minds of some of Zimbabwe’s more fervent critics.

In fact, the global experience actually offers abundant examples of land reform and the resulting consequences. Nevertheless, discussions about South Africa’s land reform options seem largely fixated on Zimbabwe and its travails – and the chances of a far larger repetition – or an even worse one, unless something dramatic is carried out.

Still, it is mystifying that there have been so few efforts to draw on the important and clarifying experiences from comparative histories to illuminate South Africa’s increasingly clangorous debate on land reform. Certainly there has been no effort to ensure such information is made available to the broader interested public here.

Consider examples such as Russia, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the American South, just for starters. Collectively these represent many very different circumstances and outcomes, and successes and failures. Each may have useful lessons for South Africa and its policymakers.

Of course it is not the case that what was spoken about at those various meetings was unimportant. It surely was, and there was much information policymakers should pay close attention to in their future plans. Among other issues was the historical legal framework that got us to where we are now in terms of dispossession, including the establishment of the homelands and varieties of land tenure in and outside those areas. Then there were explorations of the difficulties in regularising and adjudicating the thousands of pending land claims for restitution, including overlapping, competing claims and notable administrative inadequacies.

There were useful descriptions of the difficulties and successes that have come from private efforts to build cohorts of successful emerging black agriculturalists and animal husbandry entrepreneurs. Also, there have been some very sobering presentations about the impending climatological impact on the country’s agricultural future from incipient, severe global warming, including increasingly severe pressure on water resources, and the need for real changes in crop selection, and methods of irrigation and cultivation.

Moreover have been discussions on the importance of consistent inputs in terms of agricultural equipment, available credit, and successful market access to lead new agriculturalists towards success and away from failure, as well as logical growth areas in terms of crops that can make maximum contributions to national economic circumstances and potential individual prosperity. All of these themes have been explored in these meetings.

Then, politicians from across the political spectrum have spent time speaking to the symbolic importance of land and its restitution and redistribution – in response to what is seen as a secular but near-holy commitment from the Freedom Charter’s words: “the land belongs to all who live in it”. Left unanswered by those same politicians, however, has been any unravelling of the Gordian knot of dealing with traditional leadership holds on land use, how to adjudicate land and farms already in government possession, and, most important of all, the ownership and the problems caused from commitments and promises made about the Ngonyama Trust, back at the dawn of nonracial democratic rule.

But nowhere did these discussions consider that broader global picture noted above. And yet, such real life experience and wisdom should not be discounted, lest South Africa construct policies solely from politicians’ promises.

For example, consider Japan. Actually, Japan has had two separate experiences with land reform, both far-reaching and comprehensive, but also with unintended consequences. Back in the 1860s, Japan was still a feudal regime with landholding (not ownership) based on a hierarchy of power and position. The Shogun (on behalf of the emperor) granted large areas – virtually whole provinces – to top supporters, the top samurai lords, the daimyo.

In turn, those daimyo successively granted landholdings to supporting samurai, and those warriors granted holdings to subordinate samurai, all the way down the food chain until the peasant farmers who held no land outright, but who farmed on behalf of samurai warriors, and then conceded a big chunk of their harvests to those above them, and those above them to those yet higher up. Peasants owed corvée labour to their betters, and samurai warriors owed their respective liege lords service as fighters on behalf of their lords. (By the 1860s, the constant warfare between samurai lords had ended and samurai fighters spent their time practising their ancient fighting arts, preparing for the last war.)

When the Shogunate ended and the modern Meiji era began from the late 1860s onwards, Western-style titled land ownership was introduced. The traditional landholding class was assigned a price for their land rights and paid off in long-term, low interest government-backed bonds. And the lands themselves were sold to farmers and small-scale landlords. The inevitable happened, of course. The value of the bonds shrank due to inflation, and those former samurai families had to enter other productive enterprises beyond passive coupon clipping.

The rapid industrialisation of the country attracted millions to the cities from rural areas for factory work, now that they were no longer bound to work the land for the samurai class; and the army had a ready supply of cannon fodder for a new-style industrialised military, suitable for warfare in East Asia and beyond.

Then, after defeat in World War II, a second, more far-reaching land reform was carried out as large landholdings were broken up by the new government (with a goading from the US occupation forces who had initially hoped to carry out a far-reaching social revolution in Japan to forestall a return to militarism). No individual could own more than a certain number of hectares and government financial institutions and government offices offered low cost credit, and other support that thoroughly mechanised Japanese agriculture.

Between 1947 and 1949, approximately 5,800,000 acres (23,000 km2) of land (approximately 38% of Japan’s cultivated land) was purchased from the country’s big landlords under the reform programme, and then resold at extremely low prices (after inflation) to the farmers who were actually working those fields. By 1950, some three million peasants had acquired land, dismantling a power structure landlords had long dominated.

One unexpected side-effect, of course, was that the countryside became progressively more and more depopulated as the second and third sons of farmers opted to try their luck in the rapidly growing urban economy from the mid-1950s onwards. Now, the average age of a Japanese farmer is somewhere around 65, and although farmers still represent a potent political force in some districts, the percentage of people who actually work the land continues to decrease.

Land reform, at least the second time around, has meant the rural population has less and less political heft, even if the average person may romanticise the peaceful life of the rural hinterland. Still, the country’s total land area is largely mountainous and unsuitable for farming, leaving under 20% for farming, and there is no chance of a reversal of population flows. The magnetism of the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka keeps attracting migrants.

Meanwhile, there was Taiwan, once a backwater held loosely by the Chinese, then Chinese pirates and rebels, followed by Dutch colonialists and then the Japanese after 1895. The Japanese quickly made Taiwan a kind of agricultural colony, producing crops unsuitable for the main Japanese islands further north. The land was progressively alienated from its traditional holders and given over to Japanese commercial landlords. But, post-1945, when sovereignty over Taiwan reverted to China, Japanese landlords were expelled and a far-reaching land reform, redistribution programme commenced. As with Japan and the other East Asian “Little Dragons” such as South Korea, however, rapid industrialisation and urbanisation took off, especially in the growth years of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, and thus rural constituencies have had less and less weight in national politics as the island’s politics have progressively democratised.

Russia has also had various, very different alternatives. Pre serf emancipation in 1861, the vast bulk of the peasantry lived in a legal circumstance closer to slavery than yeoman farmer. They were at the mercy of landowners who could, legally, physically punish them for infractions and even prevent their departure from working the land. Post-emancipation, while their legal status changed, their share of landownership largely did not, save for increasingly prosperous independent farmers in rich agricultural areas such as the Ukraine, or in areas like Russian Poland or the Baltic states where older land use patterns still prevailed.

The rallying cry of the Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1917 had been “Bread, peace, land” in recognition of the demoralising impact of losing the war on the Eastern Front, the growing scarcity of foodstuffs in cities, and the continuing desire of peasant farmers to have their own share of the country, rather than being in harness to landlords as hired workers or sharecroppers. In the following years, collectivisation of agriculture put things on their head, decreased output, and led to forced seizures of land, crops, draft and meat animals, and, of course, the mass killings of that relatively prosperous farming class in the Ukraine, often by starving them. After the end of communist rule, collectivisation has been unravelled considerably, and agricultural production has risen. Yet another version of land reform.

In Mexico, historically, in the centuries following the Spanish conquest of the 16th century, land increasingly passed into the hands of Spanish landlords and the Catholic Church, at the expense of aboriginal peoples. By the 1867 revolution under Benito Juarez (himself substantially a man of native Mexican heritage) that overthrew a short-lived French empire installed while the US was embroiled in their Civil War, much of the popular support for Juarez’ revolution had come from landless farmers who had become little more than indentured servants or serfs on the expansive, inherited estates on much of the productive areas. Thereafter, many large estates were broken up and vast church lands confiscated and redistributed.

Eventually, however, political power has shifted from the rural peasantry to the vast urban conurbation of Mexico City and the cities along the northern border, cities that have benefited from the industrialisation encouraged by the North American Free Trade Area, where products crisscross the US/Mexico border duty-free, in the process of production. The more isolated regions of the country, areas largely populated by Mayan indigenes in the south, remain the poorest. The instability of those areas has opened the way for violent gangs, drug smuggling and trafficking in people, as well as a path for the migration of people from yet more desperate regions in Central America.

And then, of course, there is the experience of the American South. Following the end of the Civil War, many blacks and military officials argued that land reform was vital for survival. With millions of newly emancipated former slaves, few had the wherewithal for any real economic autonomy. After several hundred years of forced labour, the argument was that land redistribution was a way forward and for reparations.

Due to political divisions, deep reforms in landholding were varied, but, by and large, not long-lived. The popular phraseology had been for redistribution along the lines of “forty acres and mule” for each former slave family, based on an initial military order by General William T Sherman in the coastal areas of the Southeast in order to redistribute lands previously held by white planters. Subsequently, the newly established Freedmen’s Bureau had been granted authority to redistribute confiscated or abandoned farms, although radical redistribution efforts were eventually thwarted.

(Meanwhile, some Native American lands still held in common by them in accord with various treaties signed with the national government, were, in the late 19th century, divided into individually held lands or sold off as surplus. Eventually, in 1934, much of the land still held by recognised Native Americans was recollectivised.)

In the years during World War I and then much more extensively during the Great Depression and then World War II, millions of black (and white) Americans migrated to the cities of the North and Midwest, leaving the very hard life of share-cropping or tenant farming across the South, and lured by the possibilities of jobs in defence industries and other factories.

The end result was one of the great population shifts in the US, and one that helped trigger an age of agribusiness across the South and eventually the Plains states, as fewer and fewer Americans were prepared to live and work as farmers. In many respects, the migration to the cities in America is mirrored by the migration of Afrikaners to the cities in South Africa in the 1920s and ‘30s, as economic depressions, low farm prices and agricultural competition from elsewhere increasingly drove them from their traditional farm lives.

In sum, global patterns of land reform, unexpected consequences, and impacts on a nation in the larger picture, seem to have been given little consideration yet, even by the most enthusiastic of South Africa’s land reformers. Instead, it is almost as if they have said that, once the lines and title deeds are redrawn, everything will work out just fine, almost like that moment at the end of the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit where it suddenly goes from black and white to colour – as birds sing and the butterflies flutter.

Thus our immodest proposal. Unlike Jonathan Swift’s outlandish A Modest Proposal designed to point to the cruelty of current English policies in Ireland, ours is meant to have real impact. The South African government should issue a global call for economists and historians from every nation with a substantial land reform history, perhaps three or four dozen nations, to come to South Africa to make serious presentations of the successes, the pitfalls, the unexpected consequences, and the larger social, economic and political outcomes of their various land reform programmes. It could be an eye-opening moment for many engaged with land reform proposals, as well as for the larger public. To help with this, the major news media could be called upon to carry special supplements on this collective experience, as well as non-specialist discussions of how such issues might apply to South Africa.

And there should be calls for economists and policy analysts who work out the costs of such proposals and the benefits. This might delay the final plans, but it may also provide a better basis for understanding of what is really to be done, and how it can work best. And South Africans can find that others have had to confront similar problems and draw upon their experiences. DM


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