The South African Land Debate Is A Reflection Of A Failed And Confused Nation

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An entitled black population, centuries old white capital and high political stakes are at the heart of the land debate. Is this still only about land or there are several issues South Africa needs to deal with?

Over the past few months, debate has erupted in South Africa over the land question. Prominent politicians such has Zindzi Mandela have also fearlessly weighed in their views on the contentious issue. But is this the issue South Africa needs to deal with or just a cover for deep underlying issues the nation is struggling with?

Rushing to treat a disease without understanding its cause and working towards prevention will cause it to recur over and over again. South Africa has demonstrated over the last two decades that it is failing to fully understand the cause of its inequality.

The apartheid legacy which is still evident within South Africa has been simmering the debate for the two decades the country has been under majority rule. According to a 2017 land audit by the South African government, 72 percent of the country’s arable land remains in the hands of whites, who account for fewer than 10 percent of the total population. 

Since the ruling African National Congress (ANC) came to power in 1994, under the stewardship of Nelson Mandela, one of its central undertakings has been to relieve this disparity. But to date, the spotty efficacy of the ANC’s land-restitution efforts has seen barely a quarter of such land restored to black farmers, according to the farmers’ organization AgriSA. Only a paltry 0.3 percent of the national budget of South Africa has been set aside for land reform in the past 20 years.

A significant number of South Africans have begun questioning the message of reconciliation that Nelson Mandela preached. His whole legacy has come under scrutiny as many of those struck by poverty have accused him of being a "sell-out."

Noble as the idea of land reform has sounded, the previous incarnations have been poorly managed government programs only done for political mileage. You need not look further than Zimbabwe to understand how the script may play out.

Zimbabwe's land reform has neither delivered the outcomes the government intended nor reduced the economic inequality as its touts preached. It has resulted instead in violence, a lack of legitimacy in land ownership, and a chronic weakening of the country’s agricultural infrastructure, all of which have contributed to Zimbabwe’s deteriorating social and economic conditions.

So why would South Africa want to imitate such a failure after having witnessed firsthand the horror Zimbabwe descended into?

Around 14 percent of South Africans live in informal housing on the peripherals of urban cities. In most of these cities and towns, the black townships have shared borders with farmland. 

Just outside Stellenbosch, some 1,400 illegally built homes have been erected on the Watergang property, a wine farm. It belongs to a trust held by members of the Smit family, which has owned farmland in the area for generations. 

The rise of these informal settlements point out two large problems that South Africa has failed to deal with.

The first problem is the central government and local government failure to coordinate planning. Many analysts pointed out to this disjoint and discord in policy. For instance, the farms owned by Smit and other farmers near Stellenbosch were taken on 50 year leases on the promises that the farmers would make investments in public infrastructure. Now cornered by the political interests of Pretoria, the municipality finds itself cornered to pay out of their own funds for the land. 

The bigger problem are the growing social welfare obligations of the government. The pro poor programs have been a noble gesture of reducing inequality in South Africa after the 150 years of Dutch and English rule. However, the demons that accompany such a heavy welfare oriented policy have become a heavy burden for them. 

Issues include the widespread belief that grant beneficiaries abuse the money, that social grants encourage teenage pregnancies and dependence on the state. Yes, dependence on the state. You want housing? The state will provide. Healthcare? The state will provide. What will the state not provide to a black population with a high sense of entitlement?

Recent local and national election campaigns also show how social protection can be used by the ruling party for its electoral gain. The discourse among politicians in the ruling party during the 2014 election campaign was that grant beneficiaries who voted for the opposition were betraying the hand that feeds them. Grant beneficiaries were also unsure as to whether their grants are protected if they voted for another political party.

The ANC has been facing increased pressure from the right-wing Economic Freedom Fighters who have campaigned expropriation without compensation as opposed to the willing buyer and willing seller method. Activists like Midas Wanana, a leader of a squat on a wine farm outside Stellenbosch, say it's time to take more radical steps. This has put the Cyril Ramaphosa-led party in a tight corner to act.

However, all the facts on the ground show that they are still ill-prepared to duly handle the process and make it bear the intended results. 

Many of the farms that have been transferred to black farmers, including former farm laborers, through past ANC-supported restitution programs now lie fallow. New farmers installed on expropriated land have received scant financial, operational, or infrastructural support, despite promises from the state. Others are never installed, because of woefully slow processing, as many as 4,000 farms bought by the government have yet to be distributed to new owners.

Most proponents of land reform have argued that the land under negotiations is land that is not under any use at the moment. However, they forget that farms like any other business work based on plans. Not all land is brought into use at once. The farmers work based on plans and not all of their land is brought into use at once.

What's at stake is South Africa's record of respecting property rights and investors. If anything was learnt from Zimbabwe, it's that the black man still is not in control of his economic interests. The produce that they intend to produce from grabbed farms is intended for a white company for processing, or a foreign market through a shipping company owned by the kin of the same man. There is a whole value chain that is at risk which can bring the economy to its knees.

Another issue under consideration is South Africa's social contract. That is if there is any at the moment considering the racial tensions, tribal tensions as well as xenophobic tensions. Failure to establish any, or cut the ropes which have been holding it, will result in economic meltdown such as or much worse than what was seen in Harare (Zimbabwe's capital). The public debate about land expropriation without compensation in SA had already precipitated a decline in real terms of capital formation by more than 7% over the past eleven quarters.

As far fetched as Donald Trump's tweet last year seemed, it resembled the sentiments of most of the whites within and outside South Africa. The land reform process is one not to be rushed and taken without caution. Political capital is much more than appeasing local voters, it involves understanding  power dynamics.

An entitled black population whose appetite for government welfare can never be appeased, on the other hand white monopolistic capital that keeps the nation a jewel of Africa. The end of apartheid was not the end for South Africa, it was the rude awakening to the realities of the world for its freedom fighters.