South Africa’s Big Land Problem
The question of land is putting South Africa’s prospects for peace and economic growth at risk, and needs to be solved with urgency and wisdom. Since parliament voted in February to place on the discussion table the option of expropriating privately-owned land without compensation, polemic on the issue has intensified, too often taking on racist dimensions.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, the memory of Zimbabwe’s disastrous land redistribution programme looms large in the concerns of many people — and international investors. The numbers on farm attacks that are being circulated are problematic for the methodologies of their calculation and cannot be seen as accurate. Moreover, the victims of farm attacks cover all population groups.
The debate is complicated by the ongoing incidence of farm murders. There can be nothing but utter condemnation for the robbery and murder of farmers and farm workers, and for the sadism that frequently accompanies these crimes. Government must be held accountable for its failure to protect farms from crime.
However, the fact is that farms — be they commercial or smallholdings — make easy targets because they are so difficult to protect. These criminal acts do not constitute a “white genocide”, as some claim, neither statistically nor in the proper sense of the word.
The numbers on farm attacks that are being circulated are problematic for the methodologies of their calculation and cannot be seen as accurate. Moreover, the victims of farm attacks cover all population groups.
Genocides are orchestrated campaigns against particular ethnic or race groups. In South Africa, whites are still much safer from violent attack than other population groups, and the suggestion that there is a systematic persecution of whites is self-evidently preposterous.
Farm attacks must not be used to spread racial discord, neither by those who trivialise them nor by those who claim a genocide to spread fear and conflict. Reasonable people who disseminate these forms of propaganda must consider carefully their role in those reprehensible agendas.
Indeed, both forms of propaganda — the frenzied claims of genocide and the false narrative which suggests that all white land ownership is intrinsically lacking in moral legitimacy — serve only those who seek to sow racial conflict. Reasonable people who disseminate these forms of propaganda must consider carefully their role in those reprehensible agendas.
We must beware that the land question does not serve as a catch-all pretext for verbal and physical violence — including xenophobic attacks. Nor must it serve as a valve for venting frustrations about other issues. Here politicians like Economic Freedom Front leader Julius Malema bear a responsibility to provide leadership that promotes peace, even at the cost of potential votes. Mr Malema is correct to point out that in almost 25 years of government, the ANC (which he served for nearly 18 of those years) has dismally failed to deal with South Africa’s unequal distribution of land ownership
For all his dangerous rhetoric, however, Mr Malema must also be taken seriously as somebody who articulates the disaffection of many people. He must form part of the public discourse.
Mr Malema is correct to point out that in almost 25 years of government, the ANC (which he served for nearly 18 of those years) has dismally failed to deal with South Africa’s unequal distribution of land ownership.
Moreover, President Ramaphosa’s sober assurances that land redistribution will take place justly within the constitutional framework and without harming the country’s food security are undercut by the long record of incompetence and industrial-scale corruption in government under his party’s leadership.
As the Catholic Church in South Africa has long said — and practically implemented — fair land reform is an imperative for the country. Colonial land grabs and, more crucially, the 1913 Land Act have created an intolerably unjust distribution of land.
Finding a solution will be difficult, especially where there are equally legitimate claims of ownership, for example where land expropriated from black ownership under colonial or apartheid regimes has since been sold on to new owners, who bought it in accordance with the law. By some calculations, around 3,5 million South Africans were at some point forcibly removed from their homes, many from prestigious suburbs
This will be an issue also in the rather neglected question of restitution for forced removals, also in urban areas, under apartheid’s Group Areas Act.
By some calculations, around 3,5 million South Africans were at some point forcibly removed from their homes, many from prestigious suburbs. Of those who were removed from the land they owned, very few received fair compensation. To this day, many families are still seeking proper restitution and justice.
The land issue is exceptionally complex, and the polemic around it is becoming an obstacle to the social cohesion which South Africa so desperately needs.
The time is now to spell out clearly how land reform will be executed; for the sake of our economy — which suffers in conditions of uncertainty — and, above all, for the sake of peace.