In his 2011 book, Civilization, Scottish historian Niall Ferguson singles out “six killer apps” that led to the establishment of Western power on the globe. Briefly, they are science, medicine, competition, the consumer society, the work ethic and the one that concerns us now – property rights. Ferguson does an analysis of the colonisations of North and South America and proposes one key idea that differentiates them. “Some people make the mistake of calling that idea ‘democracy’ and imagining that any country can adopt it merely by holding elections,” says Ferguson. “In reality, democracy was the capstone of an edifice that has its foundation in the rule of law – to be precise, the sanctity of individual freedom and the security of private property rights, ensured by representative, constitutional government.” While Ferguson’s book is a little too much of a whitewash at times for my liking, the idea of land rights being central to the economy and democracy is a point worth considering.

The week before the the passing of the 100-year anniversary of the Native Lands Act of June 19 1913, Nedbank’s appropriately named political analyst JP Landman presented on the land issue. As Sol Plaatje famously wrote in 1916: “Awakening on the morning of June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.” Rectifying the past 100 years of South African land rights history should be the country’s top priority.

The Current State of Play

According to the South African government, R16 billion has been paid out for restitution and R14.7 billion worth of land has been redistributed. That’s a total outlay of R30.7 billion. Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti announced this during his budget speech in May this year. Nkwinti said that since 1995, 79 695 claims had been lodged and 59 758 had been finalised. A total of 1 443 million hectares have been accounted for in the restitution process and 4 123 million hectares have been redistributed. “There were numerous disastrous socioeconomic consequences of the 1913 Natives Land Act, not least the destruction of a fledgling class of African farmers, destruction of the environment, and the deliberate impoverishment of black people,” said Nkwinti. “This is the legacy we have to reverse.” But there is still a problem with the productivity of redistributed land. Nkwinti recently told Parliament that 90% of the redistributed land was lying fallow. “Lost productivity is the price you have to pay for restoring equity,” says Landman. “First the one then the other.” “I don’t subscribe to the argument that land reform is a failure … Organised agriculture only want to talk about efficiency. They should embrace the equity argument … White farmers must get rid of this idea they have that they have to own the land to farm it. In 18 years we have learnt a hell of a lot – either you help black farmers but not the poor, or you help the poor but you don’t give them property rights.” “It doesn’t matter what you do – you’re fucked, and that is the bottom line,” he said. Landman calls this the “unlearning and learning” of land reform.

Economic Freedom in Our Lifetime

But wrapped up in that unlearning and learning is the issue of property rights. Without the handing over of land, how can there be real economic transformation? Landman talks about huge land claims that were awarded in northern KwaZulu-Natal, where the land is communally run. Landman says there is a strong push in these communities for title deeds. “That’s the basis of all economics. If you don’t have property, you can’ take part in the economy.” The issue of exclusion of black South Africans from the benefits of the economy lies at the heart of the cries of former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and his then leadership when they called for “economic freedom in our lifetime” and is at the heart of Malema’s new politcal party too. Whatever your thoughts on Malema, there is no denying that what he is talking about is a crucial discussion that needs to be had in South Africa. As ANC Spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said recently in City Press, “the land question remains a thorny issue for the basic reason that from the land sprouts all sorts of economic, political and social-development opportunities.” “Elsewhere on the continent, especially in Zimbabwe, the issue of land dispossession triggered a political conflict that led to economic decline, violence and economic hardships for many Zimbabweans,” said Mthembu. “The Zimbabwean example cannot be taken lightly. It represents a school of thought that at times found expression in radical circles in South Africa, which suggests that since the land was taken violently, it must be repossessed violently and without compensation.”

As Ruth Hall, an associate professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape wrote in the same edition of City Press, “the  displaced legacy of urban poverty and inequality that resulted from the Native Land Act can not be ignored.” “The legacy of this act is not purely rural,” said Hall. “Over the years, many of the people themselves, their livelihoods, and a vast proportion of the wealth their dispossession enabled, have urbanised.” “A child growing up in poverty in Khayelitsha may be a victim of the act as much as a child growing up in poverty in Lusikisiki or a child growing up in poverty on a white-owned farm in the Natal Midlands.” “And the wealth of the cities, of the mining, industrial and technological hubs, is as much the product of the labour reserves and cheap migrant labour as the commercial farms.” “Now, much of the capital accumulated on farms, factories and mines is either sitting in the stock exchange or has left the country.” “Yes, wealth is still evident in the rich countryside, but it is a mistake to consider the land itself, the symbol of dispossession and accumulation, as holding in totality the key to the reversal.” “In thinking about the idea of “reversing” the legacies of the act, I think we should remain aware that this is not a simple matter either of restoring the land, or some kind of turning back of the clock. The legacy itself must be displaced.”

The cries of the miners and farmworkers as they fight entrenched slavery, the heart of the apartheid machine, are another reminder of the importance of these issues. Landman says that often the criteria used to judge redistributed land in South Africa are unrealistic. He says that there are more than 1 500 Afrikaans farmers in Mozambique and he has heard reports that 80% of these farming ventures have failed. “Worldwide, farmers are reducing. Eighty percent of farmers fail – it’s a tough business,” says Landman. “This is the reality of agriculture, so we must have realistic expectations.” In the 1990s there were 66 000 farms in South Africa. By 2004 this had dropped to 44 000, and current estimates put the number at 35 000. However, production increased by 10% between 1994 and 2004, and in 2012 it was sitting at a 29% increase since 2004.

Government Intervention vs the Free Market

Landman talks about ways to assist farmers in South Africa. “Do we need a government agency to help black farmers?” asks Landman. “Not one black farmer will be helped, but a lot of beaurocrats will be well off.” But then he talks about the reinstitution of co-ops and agricultural organisations. These structures were the ones used to run apartheid’s farming production, the ones that transformed into businesses, owning significant shareholding in companies that recently have been outed for rigging the prices and markets for many key foodstuffs like bread, poultry and eggs. They also rigged prices for wheat, maize and the storage of it, as well as fertiliser and other key farming inputs. Apartheid may have ended in 1994, but the white corporate South Africa continued to pillage well into the next decade and in many cases still does.

On top of this, these “efficient” white South African farmers are still using models built on the cheap labour model implemented under apartheid. The recent strikes and violent protests in the agriculture sector have cast a light on farming conditions and the minimal wages farm workers are paid. Take as an example the profession of sheep shearing, an industry built on the back of apartheid’s slave labour. In April this year, the sheep shearers who were meant to compete at the national championships went on strike, arguing that the prize money was too little. South Africa and Lesotho’s domination of the sport of blade shearing has a significant relation to South Africa’s apartheid legacy. Globally, there has been a move away from blade shearing to machine shearing in the wool industry, but in South Africa a cheap migrant labour force from Lesotho makes machine shearing costly in comparison. In South Africa, a blade sheep shearer earns R3 per sheep and can shear between 100 and 120 sheep a day. At best, that’s R360 for a whole day of backbreaking manual labour by a highly skilled shearer. Board, lodging and transport are all paid for, but this seems scant consolation. Shearing machines can cost as much as R15 000, but in South Africa you can kit out a blade shearer for an outlay of about R2 000. “All you need is a bench grinder, an oilstone and a few odds and ends,” explains Izak Klopper, a national trainer for the South African Sheep Shearing Federation. This example is merely to illustrate that conversations about farming efficiencies are loaded because of the apartheid legacy of South Africa’s farming sector.

Efficiency vs equity

Landman says that there are already signs there is a shift from equity to efficiency in the ANC body politic. Nkwinti announced in his budget speech that the government had set a deadline for making all redistributed land sustainable by 2015. With just one and a half years to go till the beginning of 2015, it’s clear that the South African government and the ANC are going to have to show significant political will on this issue if land reform is going to lead to economic freedom for many black South Africans.


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