Loose ends from the raging land reform debate

American author Jeff Herbst claims that precolonial states in Africa had all the incentives to control people instead of land. Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/African News Agency (ANA)

Yesterday I was driving home from our church picnic.  I noticed a new phenomenon – gleaming new rust-proof razor wire fences.  Not just along the top of the fence, but four horizontal rows of partially un-spooled razor wire, standing about two meters tall.  This went on for kilometers, and I marveled at the cost of new fencing like this, in a country with 27 percent unemployment.  Are farmers now mortgaging their farms to secure the ramparts?  So that if they do lose their land, they will default on the bonds and take the Banks down with them?  This defense mechanism was used in Zimbabwe.

So much has been written about Land Reform, that I only want here to list a few loose ends.  There are some questions that have not been answered – yet.  One good thing is that people are talking, so here is some food for thought on seven loose ends…

First, will there be a limit to the proportion of land owned by a farmer that can be expropriated? For example, can a farmer lose all of his or her land?  Or can only 25 percent be taken?  Or 50 percent?

In countries of the North, they don’t understand the term “state capture”.  But they do speak about “state larceny”.  This is the term used when tax rates exceed 50 percent.  When government skims off more of what you earn, than you can keep for yourself, tax-payers get angry.  Will we be committing “state larceny” while we are fixing “state capture”?  No one has put a ceiling on expropriation.

Except perhaps COSATU, which has indicated that no politicians should be eligible for re-distributed land.  This shows that citizens are thinking about HOW it will work.  Now, can somebody address the issue of capping the proportion of land taken from any one farmer?  Let us avoid “state larceny”.

Secondly, is there a co-ownership model that can be more inclusive, without shaking the nation’s Food Security too much?  The Solms-Delta model comes to mind, but the jury is still out on whether or not it is worth replicating. Our flag has two lines merging into one.  Can we do that with farming somehow?

Third, can political parties (and other actors) commit to non-violence in the roll-out of Land Reform?  Some sound very abrasive, like the EFF.  Others are more conciliatory in tone, like the ANC.  Yet even internally, the ANC has voices like the working paper for the Thabo Mbeki Foundation that surfaced recently, saying that the ANC’s commitment to non-racialism has been tarnished.  And the Tribal Chiefs seem to be beating the drums of war, even more so than the boers. This could lead to confrontation or “partition” (like India and Pakistan), instead of rapprochement.  Not all Afrikaner voices are intransigent; there is a sense of recognition that a Year of Jubilee is inevitable, even needed.

Fourth, with a track record of Land Claims that is so slow, can we trust the same ruling alliance to suddenly speed it up on Land Reform?  Would it not be better to establish a non-partisan multi-lateral process to handle land re-distribution?  Sometimes out-sourcing can address an institution’s inertia.  They say that “a politician only thinks of the next election, but a statesman thinks of the next generation”. Is the ANC’s sudden concern about speeding up land reform just pre-election posturing?  Land Reform is way too important to leave in the hands of mere politicians. Let’s put it in the hands of statesmen and women.

Fifth, they say that opposites attract.  On the political spectrum in South Africa, the Red and Blue seem to be the opposite poles, with the space in the middle between them coloured Yellow.  The 2019 elections look like a three-way race that no one can win outright.  Coalitions are the order of the day.  At first, the EFF was threatening to team up with the ANC to change the Constitution. But that has become somewhat redundant with the recognition that changing the Constitution is not a prerequisite to expropriating land.  That can be done as the Constitution stands.

This raises the prospect of a Blue and Red Coalition to push out the ruling party that was once the liberation movement. Even though the coalitions in our big metros have proved to be unhappy marriages, living in the same house but sleeping in different bedrooms. The success formula could be in the double-jeopardy of Jobs and Land.  Which do we need more? Under ANC leadership, the economy is still shedding jobs. Perhaps we need a coalition with a dual mandate – job creation and agrarian land reform. In fact, the reason to re-distribute land is really to create jobs, isn’t it?  So there is one thing that a Blue-Red coalition can actually agree on!  It’s a good starting point. Both the DA and the EFF want to get citizens working again.

EFF is focusing on the rural horizon – Agrarian land reform. The DA wants to energize the Informal Sector and Small Business. Those are the sectors that do create the most employment. Even cottage industries are the starting point for economic regeneration. Whereas the ANC’s approach of make-work programmes is just a quick fix that is not sustainable in the long run. The key to unlock prosperity is getting citizens to be economically active – not hooked on hand-outs and not just cash-for-work infrastructure programmes. Business!

Sixth, what does private ownership by the people even in the Tribal Authorities do to the Chiefs? They did not like being called “village tin-pot dictators” by Kgalema Motlanthe recently.  But how democratic are these Tribal Authorities? What about if we upgrade the Provinces by holding provincial elections as well as national and municipal?  Right now, the PR system means that provincial legislatures basically just reinforce central control instead of devolving power, especially the cadre deployment embedded in the selection of Premiers. They should be elected by the people, and some particular governance remits devolved or at least concentrated in provincial governments. One of these could be Land Tenure.  Different models could emerge – for example in Kwa-Zulu Natal the solution to Land Reform could look quite different than the one in the Western Cape (a k a Krotoa province). Looking for a single one-size-fits-all solution to Land Reform could be an impossible dream?

Which brings us to the seventh and last loose end – what about the Ba Boroa? No party seems to seriously represent the interests of the Khoi-San people. This is a genocidal omission. Only Bantu and European languages made it into the multi-lingual mix, which was very unfortunate.  Are we going to repeat this mistake in the Great Debate about land reform? The blacks complain that their land was “stolen” by the whites. The Ba Boroa answer that it was their land in the first place, which was stolen by both blacks coming in overland and whites coming in by sea. And when two elephants are fighting, it is the grass that suffers.  Any solution or mechanism, or one solution of a set, must address this issue of our aboriginal people.


Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity