More on the politics of land redistribution in South Africa (Guest Post)

Ongoing student protests in South Africa over university fees are a reminder of the political risks facing South Africa in light of its levels of income inequality and general economic hardship. Last month I wrote on inequality and its likely political consequences in South Africa.

Friend of the blog and Harvard-trained historian Matthew Kustenbauder read the post and wrote this thoughtful response. I am posting it with his permission.

I agree with you, Ken, that the implementation of Mugabe’s land reform in Zimbabwe was a disaster.  I also agree that South Africa must reorganise its political economy or risk stability and the dividends that come with it.  It is the latter observation – that stability brings dividends – that gives me pause, however, when you suggest that the same situation of land inequality holds true in South Africa.  Despite recent comments by rockstar economist Thomas Piketty at this year’s Mandela Lecture, land and land redistribution is not the central issue upon which South Africa’s economic future hinges.  In the South African political context (about which Piketty knows little), the land question is a stalking horse.

First of all, farmers in South Africa ­ just like those in Zimbabwe today
get little support from their current governments (unlike the old
Rhodesian and Afrikaner governments, or the governments of the EU, which highly subsidise farmers) and are generally not members of the country’s super-wealthy elite.

Second, the only thing standing in the way of constitutional (emphasis
needed here, because the limits of land rights and conditions under which land reform is to take place in ZA is enshrined in the constitution) land reform progress in South Africa is the ANC.  The ruling party has refused to complete a land audit for years, while simultaneously entrenching the power of traditional authorities who hold sway over great swaths of land.

The largest landholder in KwaZulu-Natal, for instance, is the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini.  As far as land rights and restitution go, the single greatest thing the ANC could do would be to grant legal title deeds to all those people living on “tribal lands” so that they can break free from feudalism and the shadow economy.  For instance, some of the students presently protesting the high cost of university fees that put tertiary education out of their reach could, if their parents had collateral such as a land title, obtain a loan that would allow them to get an education and skills they need to get a better paying job.

Third, when all of this business about percentages of land owned by whites 
in South Africa at the end of 1994 and today is quoted, it deceptively 
excludes vast tracts of land owned by tribal chiefs and kings because this is technically considered government land.  Again, there is a fundamental problem that the ANC has never addressed – land ownership and type has not been audited, even to this day.  The political opposition has repeatedly asked for a land audit to be completed, and they are ignored.


As Jonny Steinberg recently observed: “The current government is twisting communal tenure into new forms, creating large blocs of ethnic power, giving rural aristocrats scandalous control over the distribution of land. This is a barely modified version of what Mahmood Mamdani described, a degradation of the citizenship of rural people.

Which brings me to the stalking horse bit.  Land reform is a useful
political tool, because, in addition to locking up rural votes for the ANC
just when its urban vote share is haemorrhaging,  it also serves to mask
the ANC¹s failure to address the country¹s real economic problems by
pleading to historical grievance and identity politics.  First, it is a
stick with which the black intelligentsia and political ruling class can
beat Œprivileged whites¹.  Second, it is an issue that stirs up strong
feelings among black voters and distracts from the real question people
should be asking in a democratic capitalist economy: Why hasn¹t the ANC produced more jobs and cleaned up crime and corruption?  Third, it takes the spotlight off the mining companies and other monopoly industry in ZA that enjoy far too much protection from government already, employ more workers for better pay than the agriculture sector, and contribute a far greater percentage of national domestic product than agriculture does.

A final point, one informed by an academic who, unlike Picketty, is doing real research in South Africa.  A colleague of mine is writing her
dissertation on land issues, labor disputes, etc. on farms in KZN, which
has one of the highest rates of farm murders among the provinces.  After extensive interviews and field research, she has found that, almost
without fail, when black farmworkers are offered either land or cash as
compensation for land claims filings, they take the cash ­ they simply
don’t want to farm.  So this land obsession is really more of a
psychological and opportunistic symbolic issue for the ruling bourgeoisie than a real concern of the working poor.  What people really need are decent-paying jobs, and flushing land rights down the toilet in the name of settling historical grievances or scoring political points against the opposition during election season will only leave South Africans poorer and hungrier in the end.

Incidentally, following Piketty’s call for land redistribution in South Africa Michael Albertus wrote a piece in the WaPo on why the ANC is unlikely to redistribute land.

Energy to top the African Development Bank’s agenda

The FT reports:

Akinwumi Adesina, who took over as president of Africa’s lead development lender in September, has said that his flagship project aims to raise $55bn of investment to close the energy deficit in the next decade.

He says the bank will take a leadership role, coordinating with existing multinational initiatives and pushing member states to move faster to privatise and liberalise their energy sectors.

More on this here.

The paper also has a neat report on African economies’ adjustment to China’s slowdown, US pension funds’ move into the PE space in Africa, the grievances that fuel extremism in Africa, among others.

Full report is here (unfortunately, gated).

Africa’s looming debt crises

The 1980s are calling. According to Bloomberg:

Zambia’s kwacha fell the most on record after Moody’s Investors Service cut the credit rating of Africa’s second-biggest copper producer, a move the government rejected and told investors to ignore…..

Zambia’s economy faces “a perfect storm” of plunging prices for the copper it relies on for 70 percent of export earnings at the same time as its worst power shortage, Ronak Gopaldas, a credit risk analyst at Rand Merchant Bank in Johannesburg, said by phone. Growth will slow to 3.4 percent in 2015, missing the government’s revised target of 5 percent, Barclays Plc said in a note last week. That would be the most sluggish pace since 2001.

The looming debt crisis will hit Zambia and other commodity exporters hard. As I noted two years ago, the vast majority of the African countries that have floated dollar-denominated bonds are heavily dependent on commodity exports. Many of them are already experiencing fiscal blues on account of the global commodity slump (see for example Angola, Zambia and Ghana). This will probably get worse. And the double whammy of plummeting currencies and reduced commodity exports will increase the real cost of external debt (on top of fueling domestic inflation). I do not envy African central bankers.

Making sure that the looming debt crises do not result in a disastrous retrenchment of the state in Africa, like happened in the 1980s and 1990s, is perhaps the biggest development challenge of our time. Too bad all the attention within the development community is focused elsewhere.

Mbembe on the State of South African Politics

Rainbowism and its most important articles of faith – truth, reconciliation and forgiveness – is fading. Reduced to a totemic commodity figure mostly destined to assuage whites’ fears, Nelson Mandela himself is on trial. Some of the key pillars of the 1994 dispensation  – a constitutional democracy, a market society, non-racialism – are also under scrutiny. They are now perceived as disabling devices with no animating potency, at least in the eyes of those who are determined to no longer wait. We are past the time of promises. Now is the time to settle accounts.

But how do we make sure that one noise machine is not simply replacing another?

That is Wits professor Achille Mbembe writing on the state of politics in South Africa. The whole piece is definitely worth reading (also liked this response from T. O. Molefe).

Economic elites in South Africa (both black and white) are playing with fire. The lessons of Zimbabwe were not learned. The implementation of Mugabe’s land reform project was a disaster, but there is no question that the levels of land inequality in Zimbabwe were simply politically untenable. Something had to give.

One need not be against everything neoliberal (whatever that means) to acknowledge that the same situation holds in South Africa, and that something will have to give. Consider Bernadette Atuahene’s observations on the land situation in South Africa:

When Nelson Mandela took power in South Africa in 1994, 87 percent of the country’s land was owned by whites, even though they represented less than ten percent of the population. Advised by the World Bank, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) aimed to redistribute 30 percent of the land from whites to blacks in the first five years of the new democracy. By 2010 — 16 years later — only eight percent had been reallocated.

In failing to redistribute this land, the ANC has undermined a crucial aspect of the negotiated settlement to end apartheid, otherwise known as the liberation bargain. According to Section 25 of the new South African constitution, promulgated in 1994, existing property owners (who were primarily white) would receive valid legal title to property acquired under prior regimes, despite the potentially dubious circumstances of its acquisition. In exchange, blacks (in South Africa, considered to include people of mixed racial descent and Indians) were promised land reform.

Rapid economic growth and mass job creation could have masked the structural inequalities that exist in South Africa. Instead the country got Jacob Zuma and a super wealthy deputy president (and BEE beneficiary), both of whom are singularly out of touch with the vast majority of South Africans.

There is no doubt that South Africa needs a complete reorganization of its political economy. The question is whether the process will be managed by a “moderate” outfit like the ANC; or whether leaders will continue to sit on their hands and allow voices of less moderate groups like the Economic Freedom Fighters to gain traction.

ps: Just in case it is not obvious, South Africans are unambiguously better off now — as a people — than they were under apartheid rule.

Does Kenya have too many MPs?

An article in the Daily Nation asked this provocative question. In the article, the author examined the cost per capita of legislatures in several countries; and concluded that legislatures in OECD democracies tend to be relatively more representative (seats/million people) as well as cost effective (per capita cost/east) than their counterparts in the developing world.

Of course, linking per capita income to the density of representation has its pitfalls. An assumption that countries with smaller economies should have smaller assemblies, regardless of population size, implicitly undervalues the political voice (and rights) of citizens of poor countries. At the same time, setting an arbitrary upper bound on the remuneration of legislators (and general resourcing of legislatures) has the potential to limit the continued professionalization of legislatures in emerging democracies. Under-resourced legislatures find themselves in a bad equilibrium of high turnovers, weak institutionalization (lack of experience), inability to check the executive or effectively legislate, and a whole lot of dissatisfied voters who invariably choose to go with erstwhile challengers.

How break out of this bad equilibrium is one of the key questions I grappled with in the dissertation (and in the ongoing book project). But I digress…

legseatsThe standard metric in Political Science for comparing the density of representation was developed by Rein Taagepera in the early 1970s. The Taagepera formula predicts that assembly sizes tend to approximate the cube root of the total population of states. In the dissertation I looked at how African states faired according to this metric (see figure) and found that the vast majority of countries on the Continent have relatively smaller assemblies than would be predicted by their population sizes (the figure only captures the sizes the lower houses). Somalia, Uganda, Sudan, the DRC, South Africa, and Ethiopia are the clear outliers. Incidentally, Kenya’s National Assembly is right on the parity line.

The usefulness of this metric (at the national level) diminishes beyond a certain population size. For countries with hundreds of millions of people or more, it makes more sense to apply the formula with respect to sub-national assemblies, if they exist. This is for the simple reason that beyond a certain number of seats the legislature would become too big to reasonably be able to conduct its business (see Nigeria).

The politics of unemployment numbers

I just discovered the website Africa Check. It’s a fantastic resource dedicated to “sorting fact from fiction.” Three posts caught my eye, on unemployment numbers in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

In Zimbabwe:

Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate is 4%, 60%, or 95% depending on who you ask. The ruling ZANU-PF, in a campaign manifesto, admitted that the rate was 60%! You know things are really bad when a ruling party (in an election year!) says that this big a proportion of the working-age population is unemployed. The World Bank apparently claims that the rate is closer to 5.4%.

In Nigeria:

The state stats agency controversially claimed that the unemployment rate is only 7.5% (for the last quarter of Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency). Tolu Ogunlesi then offered this explainer on how the government arrived at the number. The numbers suggest that the actual figure varies from 7.5 to 24.2 depending on the choice of cut-off for what it means to be employed. 

And in South Africa:

ANC claims that the unemployment rate at the end of 2013 was 21.9% but skeptics insist that the actual figure closer to 24.1%. 

A slightly different story on administrative unit proliferation

The emerging stylized story about administrative unit proliferation in the developing world is that it is often a result of political machinations by national and local elites intent on creating new units for marginalized groups and for the ruler to buy votes; and that such proliferation only serves to re-centralize actual power — see for example these really cool papers by Grossman and Lewis (on the specific case of Uganda), Mai Hasssan (on the use of new districts to buy votes in Kenya) and Kimuli Kasara (also on how heightened electoral competition after 1992 accelerated the process of administrative unit proliferation in Kenya).

But there is also a slightly different, and in some ways complementary, story.

Regarding the creation of new provinces in Vietnam, Edmund Malesky notes:Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 12.30.20 PM

The timing of provincial separations after Party Congresses, the dominance of Non-state Provinces despite little change in national output, and the decisive political outcome of this dominance at the 2001 Party Congress bolster the argument that reformers had an explicit electoral strategy in calling for the splitting of provinces in 1996. By creating new Non-state Provinces, modernizers believed they could influence the outcomes of future CCOM debates about
grand strategies and smaller NA debates about implementation of these new policies. While rhetorically it was easier to argue for new provinces based on efficiency, it would seem they were studying maps of
district economic composition and creating new reform-oriented
provinces out of SOE-dominated areas.

The key difference between administrative unit proliferation in Vietnam and Uganda (and Kenya before 2010) is the electoral connection (an aspect that, in my view, is missing in the current literature). Because the provinces had votes (in party congresses and plenums), the creation of new Vietnamese provinces had significant implications for the de facto distribution of power in both Hanoi and the periphery (and in Malesky’s story, made reforms possible). Provincial splits in Vietman were therefore not just about patronage and marginalized groups, but also about securing a win for the reformist bloc at the centre.

This might not be the case in countries where new units can be created without altering the balance of power in the party congress or parliament — either because such action does not create new electoral districts; or the president gets to nominate or can credibly influence the election of the representatives of the new districts. For this reason, I would predict that Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa (whose subnational units are electorally significant and have a fair amount of fiscal autonomy) are unlikely to create new primary subnational units willy-nilly.

Private security guards outnumber the police and army in South Africa

South Africa fact of the day:

In 2013, it was reported that there were 400,000 security guards in South Africa – more than the numbers of police and army combined. Some of the people setting up private security companies are ex-police or ex-military, and the guards are often well armed and trained in how to use automatic rifles and handguns.

Also, in case you missed it, here is the video footage of the SABC reporter who was robbed this week on live TV in Jozi outside a hospital.

More on crime in South Africa here.

Residents of Johannesburg also worry about not having enough bike lanes. One wonders whether fixing the security situation by addressing the root causes of crime ought to precede any public expenditure on enabling people to bike outside – it’s easier to rob cyclists than motorists, no?

Hundreds of South African Mercenaries Fighting Boko Haram

The New York Times reports:

Hundreds of South African mercenaries and hired fighters of other nationalities are playing a decisive role in Nigeria’s military campaign against Boko Haram, operating attack helicopters, armored personnel carriers and fighting to retake towns and villages captured by the Islamist militant group, according to senior officials in the region.

The Nigerian government has not acknowledged the presence of the mercenaries, but a senior government official in northern Nigeria said the South Africans — camped out in a remote portion of the airport in Maiduguri, the city at the heart of Boko Haram’s uprising — conduct most of their operations at night because “they really don’t want to let people know what is going on.”

This does not look good for the $2.3-billion-per-year Nigerian military. It also shows a complete lack of tact on the part of the Goodluck Jonathan administration. I mean, how hard could it have been to launder the South African mercenary involvement through some AU joint task force?

The way I see it, the problem here is not that Nigeria is using foreign fighters (even the mighty U.S. uses mercenaries, and as Tolu Ogunlesi writes in FT, the tide is turning against Boko Haram). The problem is in how they are being used. Is their use short-circuiting accountability chains between Nigerians affected and their government? How is it affecting civilian-military relations? And what will be the long-run consequences on the professionalization of the Nigerian military?

Africa’s Billionaires in 2014

Only 9 out of 54 African countries are represented on the 2014 Forbes billionaires list. There are certainly more than 29 dollar billionaires on the Continent (most of the rest being in politics). Let’s consider this list as representative of countries in which (for whatever reason) it is politically safe to be publicly super wealthy – which in and of itself says a lot about how far Nigeria has come.

Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 12.24.39 PM

Source: Forbes

Some will look at the list and scream inequality. I look at the list and see the proliferation of centres of economic and political power. And a potential source of much-needed intra-elite accountability in African politics. For more on this read Leonardo Arriola’s excellent book on the role of private capital in African politics.

See also this FT story on the impact of currency movements on the wealth of Nigeria’s super rich. Forbes also has a great profile of Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man.