John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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South Africa’s Land Issue Not So Simple

by John Campbell
July 2, 2012

A worker walks between rows of vegetables at a farm in Eikenhof, south of Johannesburg, April 24, 2012. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters)


Zuma must walk a fine line, especially on land.

Much or most of South Africa’s land remains in the hands of whites, and land reform proceeds at a snail’s pace—making it a source of grievance among many blacks. When Nelson Mandela was president, his plan stated that blacks would own thirty percent of land by 2014; today, they only own eight percent. It has been exploited by Julius Malema, the former head of the youth league of the governing party. (Proposals for the seizure without compensation of white-owned land and for the nationalization of the mines have also been floated by parts of the African National Congress.) Malema is a political enemy of President Jacob Zuma, who will likely face a leadership challenge at the December party conference.

Zuma, his government, and the senior leadership of the ANC recognize that Malema’s proposals would have disastrous consequences for attracting domestic and foreign investment the economy needs if it is to grow. South Africans also know that President Robert Mugabe’s seizure of white-owned land in Zimbabwe destroyed that country’s commercial agriculture and subsequently the rest of the economy and led to widespread hunger. But, interest in land seizure and nationalization of the mines reflects slow South African economic growth in the context of an expanding population. Too slow growth has resulted in soaring levels of unemployment (about a quarter of the workforce) and has left most of the black majority in poverty twenty years after the end of apartheid.

At a June 26 ANC policy conference, Zuma stated that the current “willing buyer, willing seller” model of land reform “must be reviewed.” ANC spokesmen often say that this model is enshrined in the constitution – which, therefore, must be changed.

In response to Zuma’s remarks, the opposition Democratic Alliance shadow minister of justice and constitutional development has pointed out the constitution in fact has no such requirement for any particular model for land reform. He said the constitution’s property clause provides that the government may expropriate land subject to compensation, whether the seller agrees or not. The court sets the amount and must strike a balance between the public interest and the interests of those affected. So, the shadow minister concludes, the failure of land reform is caused by the ANC government, not the constitution.

The reality is that land reform is inherently expensive, and no government since the establishment of “non-racial democracy” has chosen to divert scarce resources to accelerate its pace. Further, South Africa’s commercial agricultural sector – though heavily subsidized by the state – is a significant contributor to the country’s economy. So the challenge is land reform that preserves the economic viability of the agricultural sector.

But, for the poor and the aggrieved in the townships or in rural settlements, land distribution is yet another injustice that the ANC government has failed to address.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Andrew

    It’s interesting to me that 30% of redistributed land in South Africa has been sold back to the original white owners. And there is also a good portion of the redistributed farm land that becomes idle and unused.

    So, in my view, any land reform must include agricultural training for the new owners (if it’s farmland). In turn, the owners must demonstrate an ability and willingness to cultivate the land.

  • Posted by John P. Causey, IV

    Great post! I hadn’t read this perspective on the constitution ALREADY perhaps allowing for the forced sales.

    The issue of land is something I’m watching closely, here. I firmly believe that agriculture in Africa -and throughout the world- will be big business one day soon for several reasons. Farmers will soon be driving Lamborghinis, and sipping fine champagne. When this happens, the situation in SA could explode. The whites on the farms are very isolated, and exposed; they won’t have a chance.

  • Posted by James

    Your claim that “blacks… only own eight percent” of the land in SA is misleading. 25% of SA’s land is owned by the state, this includes historically black owned communal land. The 8% figure refers to agricultural land (the other 75%) bought by the state for the purposes of restitution and redistribution. It does not include land bought privately by black South Africans over the past twenty or so years (for which the govt does not have any figures.) It’s worth remembering that SA’s land is generally of poor quality. About 12% is moderately arable. It is also false to claim that SA’s agricultural sector is heavily subsidised. In fact, the opposite is true.

  • Posted by Franklin Nnebe

    Land is an emotional subject for the dispossessed but with 70% of South Africa’s population living in urban areas, it is ironically not the most critical issue for the black population. What is more important is providing decent housing for the South African underclass most of whom are black. And here is where the ANC government needs to explore a tradeoff of agricultural land in exchange for urban land and housing.

  • Posted by Niall McCabe

    Hi John.

    In your opening paragraph, you state that only eight per cent of land in South Africa is owned by blacks. Is that eight per cent referring to ALL land ? …or merely farming land (which itself is only a fraction of the total land). It is important to get the metrics right on such a sensitive issue.
    Best regards

  • Posted by Paul W

    Most land is not in the hands of whites. Most land is in the hands of government -controlled by the ANC. The ANC has made no effort to do a proper audit of land owned by government. As individuals or business most land is in the hands of whites. The issue of land is emotional and not logical. There is no shortage of land. The real problem is a lack of housing.

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