Weak Land Reform in South Africa -- A Failure
The democratically elected South African government (led by the African National Congress) committed itself to undertake broad and sweeping efforts to reverse the deprivations institutionalized by apartheid. These efforts were outlined in the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The RDP is a policy framework developed through extensive consultation between the African National Congress, its tri-partite alliance partners (Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party) and other mass organizations in the broader civil society.
Three years after the promulgation of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, its implementation has been both a spectacular success and an abysmal failure.
The successes of the RDP can be measured in several accomplishments that concretely improve the health and well-being of South Africa's poorest citizens. Free healthcare has been instituted for women and children; a nutrition program now reaches over 12,000 schools; over 550 new health clinics have been built and nearly 2500 have been or are in the process of being upgraded. More than 1.3 million new electrical connections have been made and the one-millionth water connection was completed in early 1997. Taken together, these are staggering accomplishments for a nation that teeters with one foot in the developing world and one foot in the developed.
In sharp contrast to the RDP success stories stands the nation's experiment with land reform. The RDP's land reform goals had three broad thrusts. The first was the strengthening of tenure rights for the rural poor. Second, land restitution was to be made to those who could prove that their or their family's land had been stolen under apartheid. And third, the nation was to redistribute 30% of agricultural land to the rural poor. All three goals were to be achieved before the year 2000. To date, South Africa is not on its way to achieving any of these goals.
After two years of parliamentary wrangling, new laws were passed to protect the tenure rights of the rural poor but the government is finding them almost impossible to enforce. White farmers who fear the increased legal rights being given to those who they once dominated with impunity have turned to violence and intimidation. Tens of thousands of labor tenants (basically sharecroppers) have found themselves illegally evicted. When they turn to the government for help they often find a bureaucrat who was appointed during the apartheid regime. Many of these apartheid bureaucrats were allowed to keep their jobs so the new government wouldn't lose the intellectual capital of their administrative expertise. That decision now haunts the rural poor who find that the face who is supposed to protect their tenure rights from unscrupulous white farmers is the same face who denied their very humanity under apartheid.
The land restitution program has bogged down under the sheer weight of the task it is charged with. Beginning with the 1913 Natives Land Act, non-white South Africans were subjected to periodic waves of land confiscations. By the time of the democratic transition in 1994, approximately 60,000 white farmers owned over 80% of agricultural land while 11 million non-whites lived in rural poverty. The Department of Land Affairs estimates that over 3.5 million people and their descendants were victims of racially-based land dispossession and forced removal during the apartheid era. Currently the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights estimates it could take up to 15 years to complete the adjudication of the 13,000 pending land claims affecting more than one million people.
The final component of the RDP's land reform program is land redistribution. The RDP targeted 30% of land for redistribution to the rural poor before the year 2000. As of June 1997, less than 2% has changed hands.
Although the RDP calls for land expropriation "where appropriate," only .29% of land has been transferred to the poor though this mechanism. Instead, the government has relied upon a "willing-buyer/willing-seller" mechanism for land redistribution.
The Settlement/Land Acquisition Grant is the primary instrument that the government relied upon to facilitate the land transfer visualized in the RDP. The grant program provides a 20% subsidy for the purchase of land by the poor. This program has failed to effectuate its design because the rural poor have found it quite difficult to come-up with the other 80% of the purchase price and even more difficult to find a willing seller of prime agricultural land.
If the white farmers were content to own the farms while the non- white landless were forced by economic depravation to work for them under the apartheid system, why would they wish to change that relationship after the dismantling of apartheid? Indeed, very few have. The willing-buyer/willing-seller approach to land reform is dependent upon the willingness of white farmers to divest themselves of their land. However, for the most part today's white farmers are the children and grandchildren of the white farmers who actively supported the apartheid policies that drove non-whites off of their land. Such forced removals benefitted these white farmers by opening-up land for them to farm and providing an agricultural labor pool composed of the now landless non-whites.
Given the dismal results from the willing-buyer/willing-seller approach to land reform, it is clear that adhering to this approach is unrealistic if the goals of the RDP are to be achieved. As a broad policy framework, the RDP provides a wide channel through which the African National Congress can steer the ship of state. However, so far the government's land reform efforts have steered well to the right. The RDP explicitly acknowledges that reliance upon market forces will not remedy the unjust wealth distribution created by apartheid and the government should amend its land reform program to acknowledge this reality.
Tepid market interventions such as providing 20% subsidies on land acquisition are wholly inadequate to alter the maldistribution of agricultural capacity that is the result of apartheid. Even if there is a willing-seller, the government may find that its subsidies simply contribute to land price inflation leading to further enrichment of the current property holders and providing little net benefit to the landless millions.
The current stage of social transformation in South Africa is ideal for land expropriation and redistribution. The populace is eager for substantial change. If the government delays this fundamental prerequisite to a successful land reform program, they may miss their chance to institute such a program with the minimum of negative consequences. Domestic and foreign investors are made nervous by instability. However, everyone expects that fundamental economic restructuring will be necessary to fully dismantle apartheid. The time for such fundamental change is now. Five to ten years in the future, land expropriation will not be perceived by the international community as the correct and just remedy for apartheid land policies. Instead, delayed land expropriation will be perceived as destabilizing and threatening to international investment.
There are currently 500,000 subsistence farmers and an additional 11 million rural poor who are the potential beneficiaries of a successful land reform program. A successful transfer of agricultural land to those who actually till the soil would ease unemployment, crime and overcrowding in the cities (by stemming the immigration of rural jobless) and provide the foundation for just and equitable development in the countryside. The government gave voluntary land redistribution a good faith try and it is now time for a comprehensive expropriation program.
from the Social Justice E-Zine, January 1998