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What You Should Know About South Africa's Attempt To Redistribute White-Owned Land Back To Black People

The African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa is attempting to give white-owned land back to its Black indigenous population, after a legacy of colonization resulted in this theft, thus denying Black South Africans of many economic opportunities.

Now that corruption and scandal has forced the former President Jacob Zuma out of office, South Africans are looking toward its newly elected government leaders to make things right. The first issue to be addressed is fixing the economic gap between Black and white people in the country by following through on the promise of completing its white-owned land redistribution plan, which would place white-owned land back into the possession of Black people.

The fight over South Africa’s land began the moment that British and Dutch settlers arrived in the country around the late 1600s. After centuries of colonization and political wars, it is believed that white settlers wanted a way to ease tensions between white and Black people while also giving more agricultural land to white farmers. Then in the early 1900s, pivotal legislation ultimately set the tone for future race relations between white and Black people in South Africa.


The Native Peoples Land Act of 1913 was designed to segregate the indigenous Black population from the British colonizers, who had settled in South Africa. It separated the two races by designating certain areas of land for each group. However, the legislation gave more land to white settlers, and excluded the indigenous African population from millions of acres of land, carving out only about 7 percent of the country’s farming lands as reserves for them. It also made it illegal for indigenous Africans to buy or rent land outside of these designated parameters, unless permission was granted by the British governor-general, who acted as the representative of the monarch within South Africa.

Segregating the land helped sustain and maintain a power system that placed white citizens in a more advantageous economic and political position that their indigenous African counterparts, setting a precedent that indicated white settlers were ready to make the country their own. The preservation of white power benefitted both white landowners, who profited even more because of what they were given, and white miners, who wanted to keep the land and its resources intact for its profit potential. Many indigenous Africans had to rent land from white farm landowners to grow their own crops.

Under an all-white government, the stripping of Black-owned land continued under apartheid in South Africa, creating a lasting legacy that has continued to put Black South Africans in a worse economic situation than white citizens. According to the 2017 Land Audit Reportcreated by South Africa's Rural Development and Land Reform Department, Black people own about 4 percent of the agricultural land within the country, even though they make up over 80 percent of South Africa’s population. White people make up about 9 percent of the country’s population, but own over 70 percent of the country’s agricultural land, Reuters reports. As a result of systematic land theft, Black people in South Africa tend to be more poor than most white people, leaving few substantial economic resources in their possession.

Now the ANC is rebalancing the scales. During its annual conference last year, the ANC announced that in order to speed up the process and rectify past history, they would proceed to amend the country’s constitution. The constitutional amendment would make it legal to take land from white farm owners without compensation and redistribute it to Black people.

“The intention of the proposed amendment is to promote redress, advance economic development, increase agricultural production and food security,” President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa said in an official statement on behalf of the ANC.

There have been warnings from other African countries that speeding up the buying process will result in a similar response and outcome of Zimbabwe’s land redistribution, which occurred in the early 2000s under the former president Robert Mugabe. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s legacy is tied to his fast execution of land distribution. The quick property transfers led to bloody attacks, economic collapse and lack of knowledge from new Black landowners on how to manage the land, which led to further oversight from government officials. To avoid similar outcomes, the ANC is making it clear in its amendment that the land will only take land without compensation if the government feels it is necessary.

Many believe that the ANC is using the Constitution of South Africa as an excuse, blaming it for the lack of progress in regards to the land redistribution. However, prior to this political moment, the ANC was slow to create policies that catered to land redistribution. Since apartheid came to an end nearly 25 years ago, the ANC has abided by a "willing buyer, willing seller model," in which the government procured white-owned land to sell to potential Black buyers. Yet it has blamed the slow process on white farm owners, who have allegedly raised their prices. Due to the large amount of money allocated within the country’s budget to pay those prices, speeding up the buying process is instead seen as a lack of concern and political drive by the ANC. For instance, AgriSA, a federal agricultural organization, believes that the only reason the ANC is speeding up the land buying process is because some of the officials are desperate for re-election.

“SA needs more [B]lack farmers and [B]lack farms. Constitutional amendments — and even worst case expropriation without compensation — may make for good electioneering but it doesn’t make more black farmers,” AgriSA President Dan Kriek told reporters at BusinessDay.

Potential Black landowners have actually expressed interest in obtaining land in the city versus agricultural land. As of 2016, roughly over 60 percent of Black people in South Africa lived in or near the urban communities. Owning land near or in the city would be an economic boost. More Black people want a stake in the country’s economy and know exactly how they’d use the land. The opposition of white landowners is what is causing of all the friction in an already tense political climate that has permeated the country, especially following apartheid.

There has been a lot of opposition to this land redistribution, particularly by white nationalists who perceive it to be a racist practice. A lot of the perspectives gathered on the land redistribution — mainly from white landowners — has been focused on the lack of agricultural knowledge, maintenance money and Black owners’ perceived interest in owning the land. One survivalist, white nationalist group in South Africa known as the Suidlanders believes that this land redistribution is a sign that white people are under attack, thus they are preparing for a civil race war.

“Some people think we are racists. We are purely and simply a civil defence organization. We must tell the world what is coming,” Suidlander spokesperson Simon Roche told Reuters reporters.

When Trump commented on South Africa’s land issue, he ran to Twitter to announce that he had instructed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to examine the link between the previous land seizures from the ANC, and the murders that had been happening to white farm owners. Misled by incorrect information, Trump ended up inciting anger from many South Africans. They were concerned that his impulsive tweets would encourage a greater racial divide, validating the irrational, racist fears and beliefs shared by dangerous white nationalist groups, such as the Suidlanders and AfriForum.

“The best possible outcome that we hoped for was for a statement by the president of the USA, which we got,” AfriForum CEO Ernst Roetstold Reuters, in regards to his opinions about Trump’s statements.

Although Trump was misinformed, getting a response from the president of the U.S. was the stamp of approval these South African white nationalist groups were always looking for to legitimize their racist, anti-Black agenda. It enabled their ability to use the land grabs as an excuse to validate their hollow claims of “white victimhood.”

Those anti-Black sentiments have extended into concern that, due to new Black landowners’ lack of skills or and experience, the property would end up mismanaged. In turn, this would potentially lead to a crash in the economic landscape, affecting the country’s wealth as a whole. In an effort to secure property rights, these fears have led ANCto seize land from white landowners without compensation. However, instead of giving it to Black South Africans, the ANC will keep the land in their possession in order to keep the economy afloat.

“We’ve been clear that we don’t want to [collapse the economy],” ANC executive committee member says Ronald Lamola said an interview for Bloomberg TV. “This is not going to diminish or wipe out property rights.”

Holding the land under government control before redistribution brings up more concern that the land will potentially not be properly distributed and transferred into the full ownership of the Black South Africans who are entitled to it.

Although the complex land issue will determine the future direction of the country in terms of rebalancing power and establishing equality with Black South Africans, the ANC is ultimately in control of how it all plays out — and they are running out of time to make it happen.


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