With the arrival of a youthful political force in the name of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who have made the land ownership issue a central theme of their agenda, the unresolved land distribution question, 21 years into democracy, is reaching boiling point in South Africa. Our Johannesburg correspondent Pusch Commey contends the time for diplomacy is effectively over.
There is no doubt that the South African government, under its beleaguered President Jacob Zuma, is feeling the heat, as the EFF relentlessly remind the ruling African National Congress at every opportunity to resolve the question of disproportionate land ownership between the white minority and black majority South Africans. The EFF has not made a secret of their encouragement of potential land invasions. Their populism, a news headline and vote-catching stunt, has got the ruling party worried about a potentially explosive issue.
The most recent evidence as to what can happen if this unfinished business, which is closely linked to colonialism and apartheid, is left unresolved, is what students at the elite University of Cape Town did on 9 April. To cheers and jeers, they dismantled and took down the campus statue of one of Africa’s leading symbols of land and natural resources dispossession – Cecil John Rhodes. His adventures or misadventures in search of African resources and wealth stretched across Southern Africa, leaving in their wake festering injustices still being felt to this day. The statue had graced the campus since 1934. The university is built on the land that the arch-imperialist Rhodes had donated after he forcefully took it away from the indigenous population that lived on it for centuries before his adventures in Africa began. The protest spread to other campuses as far afield as the University of Kwazulu-Natal, 1600km away, where the statue of King George V was smeared with white paint.
The EFF has subsequently moved to burn a war memorial statue of a British soldier in the town of Uitenhage. The statue of former President Paul Kruger, an Afrikaner hero during the Anglo-Boer War, 60 years on Church Square in Pretoria, was next, with green paint. In Port Elizabeth, the statue of Queen Victoria also got a green paint treatment. And so did that of the Afrikaner General Louis Botha, in front of parliament in Cape Town.
Symbolism, and erasing “history”
The statues, symbols of colonialism and apartheid, still standing 21 years into black freedom, like the land question have become a thorny issue and subsequently there has been heated debate on what constitutes history (as opponents claim they are part of South African history and as such, removing them erases and dishonours that history). But to the 80% black majority, the land is a real legacy of economic exclusion and these symbols are a legacy of pain, both psychological and physical. They serve as constant reminders of subjugation and exploitation.
20 years on, who owns what?
Why the land question is of such crucial importance in South Africa is simple. Countries consist of land areas or territories. Resources from the land, in conjunction with labour, capital, innovation and sales, create wealth and well-being. Without control of land and resources, a pathway to wealth is severely hindered.
It is thus no mystery that colonial conquests were about territory and resources, and why over 90% of all wars in history have been fought over land. It is also no wonder that the first act of “legalised” dispossession by the white race after reconciliation following the bitter Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) was the 1913 Land Act, which brazenly confiscated 87% of African land and resources.
After some 100 years, the first real land audit in South Africa was completed in 2013.
The landmass of the republic was 122 million hectares. Of this the State owned 17 million hectares or 14%. It included the sites on which 192,000 low- cost houses for the poor are built, as the government is still the registered owner of these properties. There was a physical inspection of 1.15 million pieces of land throughout the country between October 2011 and March 2013 while 79% of the land was in the hands of private individuals and organisations.
The audit was unable to establish who owned 8.3% of the land. The 79% was overwhelmingly and effectively owned by whites, who currently constitute about 9% of the population. The patterns of ownership and its history continue to poison South Africa’s slow transition.
This history has meant that the 80% majority black population have been boxed into the role of serfs in a neo-feudal system. Inter-generationally this has been a major cause of poverty, as they have no access to land to leverage for capital or for other purposes. It is a recipe for big trouble if it is left to linger. This inequity has contributed immensely to the figures surrounding the percentage ownership of the South African economy.
Feeling the kitchen heat, the otherwise centrist ANC government, which has held out for so long, is being forced left. President Zuma caused some consternation when he announced that blacks only owned 3% of the economy. The controllers of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange were quick to react, claiming that the figure was actually 22% when taking into account pension funds and other black investments. But the government has stuck to its guns. The measure, they contend, was ownership and control, and not a nebulous calculation.
Land and wealth distribution
The difficulty has been how to overcome the challenges of a historical racial stratification without destroying the economy or food security. Apart from other land-based wealth creation resources like tourism, agriculture has been at the centre-stage of the discourse, because it takes up large portions of land space and contributes R84bn ($12bn) to the economy, about 3% of GDP. The food value chain is however worth 7 times more.
There was a lot of consternation in the agriculture sector, when President Zuma announced during his State of the Nation address in February that farmers would be forbidden to own more than one farm and that ownership of farmland would be limited to 12,000 hectares. Foreigners would be forbidden to own land and farmers would have to relinquish half of their farmland to workers.
The announcement was interpreted more as politicking than anything else, following pressure from the Malema’s EFF. But a bold statement it was. However, the farmers’ organisation AgriSA is already up in arms, arguing that farms thrive on economies of scale and cutting them up will make them globally uncompetitive. Meanwhile, half a million farm jobs have been lost over recent years, partly due to exploitative wages, and a decline in farming activity. Many potential black farmers are confined to being low wage earners, when actually, with proper support and if granted access to land, training, capital and access to markets, that have been monopolised by a few whites, they could themselves become successful farmers. And the country’s massive unemployment could be reduced if the black population was given access to land, to earn a living.
National food security has falsely been equated with large-scale commercial farming, yet the potential for millions of black smallholders to increase production, raise incomes and create much-needed jobs has been overlooked. The rapid economic growth of most Southeast Asian economies was premised on land reform and agricultural transformation. Rural unemployment, standing at 52%, twice the national average, and rural urban drift could be seriously tackled with a properly managed land reform and support that does not jeopardise the industry. But the how, and co-operation from all and sundry, is what is giving the South African government and experts sleepless nights. It seems economic transformation will be far more difficult than the political transformation in 1994, which in itself was hailed a miracle. All this is down to the fact that land in South Africa still remains in the hands of a few.
The Bafokeng example
Of course, Cecil Rhodes epitomises the challenges of the resource sector and the land question when left in the hands of a few. His De Beers Mining Company (founded in 1888) has loomed large over the resources of Southern Africa for decades, all on the back of cheap black labour, though.
But an illustration of the potential of capital formation for black people and its inter-generational effect, can be seen in South Africa’s own Bafokeng ethnic group. They managed to hold possession of land they bought back from colonisers and kept in Trust during the days of colonialism and apartheid and are today worth $4bn, following the discovery of massive deposits of platinum on their land in 1925. After the demise of apartheid in 1994, they had to fight bitter battles with mining giants to claim a 22% share of the spoils, and are now reputed to be Africa’s richest ethnic group. It is testament to the argument of what land ownership can do.
Another area where land, resources and racial capitalism have converged with wealth distribution is tourism, where in game farms and hospitality in South Africa, as across the board, blacks are at the periphery, performing the role of low-wage earners.
Then there are issues of rights, licenses and the rapid devolution of assets to whites, as happened immediately prior to the dismantling of apartheid rule in 1994.
A problematic constitution
South Africa’s constitution has often been touted as one of the finest in the world. For property rights to be amended, it will require a two-thirds majority of seats in parliament. An amendment of the entrenched Bill of Rights requires 75%. Besides, such changes must pass a test of constitutionality at the Constitutional Court. The ANC has wielded that two thirds majority, during the Thabo Mbeki Presidency in 1999, but it did little to rock the boat on the land issue. The fear has always been about capital flight and also, the lack of skills in the black community largely denied them by apartheid. With the ANC’s majority now sitting at 62.15%, it is going to need the assistance of other parties to bring about a constitutional change. Its arch enemy the EFF has offered to help, with their 6.25% of the votes. But will the ANC take this?
It is widely accepted that Section 28 of the constitution represented a compromise between the ANC and the now defunct National Party during the transition to democratic rule 21 years ago. Its interpretation gave rise to what is known as the willing buyer-willing seller principle.
That principle, which evolved from what may be an interpretation or misinterpretation of the constitution, is currently under serious criticism as things come to a head. Various leftist political formations in the past have passed it off as unworkable as it leaves room for various frustrations of the process. Julius Malema and his EFF have called for the expropriation of land without compensation, citing public interest. He likens the land issue to someone stealing your car and pimping it. When caught, he then says, you must buy it back at market value.
Although the ANC government has tried in the past to rest the land question for good, setting a cut-off date for land claims to 1998, the year came and passed. And since then, it has been dismal failure after failure, while the few landowners become more well equipped to legally frustrate any process.
The statistics are dire. In 1996, two years after the end of apartheid, some 60,000 white commercial farmers owned almost 70% of agricultural land and leased a further 19%. The ANC pledged to redistribute 30% of white-owned agricultural land to black farmers by 1999, and to restore property lost as a result of racist legislation. By 2012, some 7.95 million hectares had been transferred, only about a third of the 24.6 million originally targeted. An estimated $3.2bn was spent on the land reform programme between 1994 and 2013.
Now the government is speaking left, suddenly waking up to the dangers of letting the land issue fester any further. A law has been passed allowing an extension of land claims up to June 2019. Like the EFF, the government is now also singing the expropriation song in the public interest, even throwing in the appointment of Valuer General to determine fair land pricing. Hitherto the willing seller-willing buyer approach had led to massive inflation of land prices earmarked by government, as well as corrupt practices.
What next for South Africa?
The land question is just one of the many unresolved issues in a post-apartheid South Africa. With the passing of Nelson Mandela and the intransigence of the economic status quo, tensions are rising, with a hardening of attitudes. There is a new generation of disgruntled youth who feel short-changed economically by the reconciliation narrative. They see Pan-Africanism as the solution to a just order. But will those who hold the purse strings and those that wield global power sit idly by as the youth give them this wake-up call, which calls for very cool heads?
As Cecil Rhodes is quoted to have said on his deathbed: “So many things to do, and so little done”