A Repeat of Zimbabwe?: the problem of land reform in South Africa

In 1979, Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF comrades came to power in Zimbabwe, ending almost a century of white-minority rule in what had been the British colony of Rhodesia. An immediate policy of the new black government was to begin the sensitive process of land reform. This involved redistributing land to poorer black communities, who owned a disproportionate share of the country’s territory in relation to the white minority.

Initially land reform was successful, with the British government even paying 50% of the costs to transfer formerly white-owned land into smaller, tenanted plots for the black population. This redistribution was carried out under the “willing buyer, willing seller” principle, whereby white farmers were only encouraged to sell their land if they were inclined to and were under no compulsory obligation to do so.

This all changed in 1992, however, with the passing of the Land Acquisition Act, created in the hope of speeding up the land reform programme which Mugabe had long-promised his loyal followers. The Act allowed the Zimbabwean government to buy any land it wanted for the purposes of redistribution, provided a satisfactory compensation was paid to the landholder. This clause, unsurprisingly, was the target of abuse, and white farmers began to receiving appalling compensation for their best lands. Consequently, as the 1990s progressed, opposition to the Land Acquisition Act increased, bringing the farmers into direct conflict with Mugabe and his cadre of supporters.  Further complications arose as Mugabe expected the British government to pay a substantial amount of aid for the buying-up of land. The British declined on the grounds that the land reform programme had become increasingly unfair.

As British money dried-up, the land seizures began. White farmers (and some black farmers that were political opponents of Mugabe) were forced from their homes with minimal or no compensation provided. Gangs of black peasants took the initiative and forcibly evicted many families, at the cost of a number of lives. Mugabe turned a blind eye and, indeed, tacitly supported this act of “black empowerment”. Never mind the fact that these once productive farms were either laid to waste or opened to the worst cases of mismanagement by unknowledgeable black farmers, Mugabe did nothing to stop the atrocities. The subsequent hyper-inflation and economic collapse that followed was no surprise, for Zimbabwe had stopped producing enough food. Therefore, instead of providing a means of social advancement for black people, many found their impoverishment increased and some even starved to death.

Violent land reform led to hyperinflation - the Zimbabwean currency became worthless

This foolhardy desperation to rush land reform as part of an independence pledge should serve as a warning. Nevertheless, there are fears that the same thing could befall neighbouring South Africa. As with Zimbabwe, the policy of land reform was one of the earliest initiatives implemented by the ANC on its ascendancy to power in 1994. Also like Zimbabwe, land redistribution has so far proved both a lengthy and costly process in South Africa and has been largely unsuccessful.

Why this is such a pertinent issue now revolves around the internal dissension within the ANC. President Jacob Zuma has faced open criticism from firebrand Youth League leader Julius Malema, whose attitude to wealth redistribution is simple: go and take it. Zuma has manoeuvred the banning of Malema from the party for five years, causing uproar amongst Malema’s own substantial group of supporters. The worry remains that, if Malema is reinstated, or Zuma becomes anxious to dispel the opposition towards his leadership from the poorest segments of society, a similar programme of land reform to Zimbabwe might emerge. There have already been violent threats to white farming communities in the Transvaal and the Cape, with many farmers responding with equal force. Despite the positive rhetoric, could South Africa go the same way as Zimbabwe?

 

Farm Attacks and ANC Inclusivity

As Zimbabwe experienced from the 1990s into the 21st century, attacks on white farms in South Africa have increased in prevalence in recent years. With many agricultural homesteads being situated in far-flung districts of the country’s vast Northern and Western Cape provinces, these attacks have gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream media in the cities. It is therefore difficult to attain an accurate comparison between the two, disparate states, in terms of precise figures.

However, the murder of far-right agitator Eugéne Terre’Blanche on his farm near Ventersdorp in April 2010 gave the issue of white “farm attacks” a higher profile. For, despite the condemnation of the attack as a “terrible deed” by President Zuma, it came amidst a controversial debate surrounding Julius Malema. As a means of rousing the crowds at his ANC Youth rallies, Malema had orchestrated the singing of a song containing the lyrics “shoot the Boer”, a now derogatory term for white South Africans. Malema has remained unapologetic to this day over his decision to publicise the song, and it contributed greatly to his sacking from the party. Whether intentional or not, the song fits Malema’s mantra of “go and take it” perfectly, and is understandably an issue of great concern for farmers and liberal activists alike.

The murder of Terre'Blanche brought attention to attacks on white farms

Whilst in Zimbabwe Mugabe was happy to allow the violent removal of white farmers from their lands, the ANC is loath to take such a vindictive stance. From the time it came to office under Nelson Mandela in 1994, the ANC has preached inclusivity between all races and ethnicities. Therefore, whilst the ZANU-PF continues to see whites as the oppressors, the ANC theoretically supports a multi-racial society.

This laudable stance cannot, of course, prevent individual criminals from attacking white-owned property and the farmers have responded to these threats with force of their own. Support Groups and security companies have been established that often resemble posses, sent to track down threatening outsiders in an expression of vigilantism. Whilst farmers’ desire to protect their lands is understandable, the Support Groups are an expression of the disdain with which the majority-black law enforcement services are held by many whites in South Africa. When the rule of law breaks down in any state it spells danger. Consequently, the potential for the Support Groups to overstep their remit is a constant threat.

Other farmers, like their counterparts in Zimbabwe, have been more pragmatic, deciding to leave their ancestral homes behind. Although done with great reluctance, many white South African farmers no longer see the incentive of staying in a nation they no longer feel is their own. Many depart for the English-speaking world, whilst others have been driven further into the depths of Africa, where schemes in the Congo and Zambia are trying to entice skilled agrarians to their under-productive countries.

Violent land grabs may not have reached anywhere near the level they did in Zimbabwe at the beginning of the century. Nevertheless, the persistent failure of land reform, coupled with an increasingly-agitated black working class in rural areas, could see this change. Whilst the ANC continues to trumpet the importance of multiracialism, populists like Malema threaten to destabilise any notions of ethnic tolerance with their impulsive preaching.

 

A Nervous Future

What must be concerning a majority of South Africans, white and black, is the rapidly deteriorating health of Nelson Mandela. Now 93, Mandela is becoming ever frailer and is unlikely to survive too long into the future. Not only would this be a sad loss of a great anti-apartheid figure and democratic agitator, but it may also have a tangible impact on ANC ideology.

The policy of inclusivity, whereby the former white oppressors were incorporated peacefully into the “new” South Africa, was an initiative of Mandela. Whilst he remains alive, the party hierarchy is unlikely to change this official stance. However, after his passing, the possibility for change is strong. With the forcefulness of Malema and other young radical politicians who shun the corrupt ANC hierarchy and preach power to the black masses, the party has the potential to turn the way of ZANU-PF. The black working class that still reveres Mandela today will no longer be shackled by their former leader’s doctrinal desires when he’s gone; Malema’s message will become their new guiding light.

Of course, the institutionalisation of democracy in South Africa means the decrees handed down by Mugabe in Zimbabwe are unlikely to be repeated here. Nevertheless, succumbing to the demands of impoverished blacks may be an inevitable step for a leadership that wants to remove attention from its pork-barrel politics and rent-seeking tendencies. With one of the most vehement demands of the black working class being an access to land, much of which remains in white hands, the potential for unauthorised “land reform” is a strong one.

The future of South Africa rests on the power struggle between Zuma and Malema

South Africa is now the most unequal country in the world (except for Namibia), even surpassing Brazil in the “rich-poor gap”. With the ANC unable to deliver on its independence promises of an era of prosperity for all blacks, the leeway for political manoeuvring is becoming greatly reduced. With Mandela’s demise will come greater demands for a black assumption of power in all areas of life, whether through legal or non-legal channels. Unless President Zuma can control Julius Malema, white farmers and landholders will continue to worry. Zimbabwe’s land attacks may have had presidential approval. The same will not be necessary in the unbalanced and ideologically-confused Republic of South Africa.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

1 thought on “A Repeat of Zimbabwe?: the problem of land reform in South Africa”

  1. In RSA, this will lead to civil war and the Boers will not just sit still and be killed. In the end, everyone will feel pain and death, except if we make the right(but hard) choices now.

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