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.

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.

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%. 

Summer Reading List

For only the second time in the last 10 years I am spending the whole summer in North America (and terribly missing the Jamuhuri). Which means I’ll have a little bit of time for some reading beyond my immediate research work. Here are some books that I have started reading since the beginning of the year or plan to read this summer. I’ll write reviews on a few of them over the next two months.


We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo

Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote – Ahmadou Kourouma

Nervous Conditions – Tsitsi Dangaremba (I am deeply embarrassed to say I’ve never finished reading this classic)

Stoner – John Williams

Political Economy:

The Settler Economies (Kenya and Zimabwe, 1900-63) – Paul Mosley

Medieval Africa, 1250-1800 – Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore

Democracy in Africa – Nic Cheeseman

Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival – Derek R. Peterson

Economic Crises and the Breakdown of Authoritarian Regimes – Thomas B. Pepinsky (If you are a Comparativist, read Pepinsky often)

The Mind of the African Strongman – Herman J. Cohen

Political Order and Political Decay – Francis Fukuyama (Volume I was epic. Very few people do the big picture stuff the way Fukuyama does)

Bonus (time permitting):

The Firm – Duff McDonald (It’s crazy how many of my close friends work for McKinsey or are alums of the firm)

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Philosophical Breakfast Club – Laura J. Snyder

Stanford Africa MBA Fellowship

The deadline is June 8th, 2015.

Stanford Graduate School of Business is excited to offer the Stanford Africa MBA Fellowship for the 2015-2016 application cycle. The Fellowship supports up to eight promising African students with financial need in obtaining an MBA at Stanford each year.

The Stanford Africa MBA Fellowship will provide financial support for tuition and associated fees for the two-year MBA Program (approximately $140,000). Within two years of graduating from the MBA Program, Stanford Africa MBA Fellows must return to Africa for at least two years of employment. This is an important aspect of the Fellowship because it assures that recipients will leverage their new skills to make an impact on the ground in Africa.

You can apply here.

Looks like succession planning in private companies is just as bad as in non-democracies

I was fascinated by this piece in the Times about the impending retirement of Steven Ballmer as the chief executive of Microsoft. The piece notes that:

Succession planning is a delicate issue for many companies, particularly one like Microsoft, where Mr. Ballmer has been a senior employee since 1980 and chief executive since 2000, and his longtime friend, Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, remains chairman.

“Particularly for a person like Ballmer, who really is one of the founders, leaving is almost like death, so it’s extremely difficult to have an orderly process,” said Joseph L. Bower, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “It requires a very grown-up relationship between the chief executive and his board.”

Microsoft is certainly no dictatorship but does this remind you of the delicate question of when a certain founding president in southern Africa will retire?

The most interesting paragraph notes that: 

Developing a succession plan is one of a board’s chief responsibilities, but only half of companies actively groom executives, according to a 2010 study by Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance and Heidrick & Struggles, the executive search firm that is leading Microsoft’s search. Boards spend only an average two hours a year on succession planning, the study found.

One of the lessons here is that absent term limits, no one really wants to openly plan for succession (It’s obviously destabilizing, and worse, might result in internal splits and conflict). And the longer the incumbent stays, the harder it becomes to remove her; for those around them actually become invested in maintaining the status quo.

So in the end, the timing of a transition becomes not just the prerogative of the incumbent, but also of those around her – which results in the boards of private companies behaving more or less in the same way as Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s praise-singers in the military and ZANU-PF establishment. 

Why are Kenyan politicians politicizing the military?

Botswana, Gabon, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe are the only continental sub-Saharan African states to have never experienced military rule. Each country has managed to do so via well orchestrated coup-proofing strategies of ethnic balancing and material payoffs to the men and women with the guns and tanks. 

Kenya, in particular, has perfected this art. Because of its fractious ethnic politics, ethnic balancing within the officer corps has been key to Kenya’s coup-proofing. Kenyatta (who spoke Kikuyu) had a bit of a hard time in the beginning with a Kamba and Kalenjin speakers dominated military but eventually succeeded in having his co-ethnics in key positions. But before he did so he ensured Kikuyu dominance over the paramilitary force, the General Service Unit (GSU) to balance the military. Through the 60s and 70s, Kenyatta ensured that the GSU and police could handle their own against the military in case stuff hit the fan. Moi continued along this path, so much so that for a while in the media the typical accent of a security officer – whether police or military – became an accent from the North Rift. Under Moi the Kenyan army became “Kalenjin at the bottom, Kalenjin at the middle, and Kalenjin at the top.”

Beyond the ethnic balancing, Kenya has also coup-proofed by keeping the generals wealthy and OUT OF POLITICS – at least not overtly. The generals in Kenya are probably some of the wealthiest on the Continent. I went to high school with the son of an Air Force Major General whose family was always taking foreign trips to exotic places and always made a big splash on visiting days. The only estimates I could find are from the 1960s when nearly “two thirds of the military budget went to pay and allowances, most of it to officers.” A lot of them also got free land for cash crop farming and lucrative business deals (some illegal) from the Kenyatta and Moi governments. Keenly aware of West Africa’s junior officer problem following 1981 Moi extended land grants to junior officers as well. 

But despite their importance as leaders of a key national institution, most Kenyans, yours truly included, do not know much about the top generals in the army. The one chief of staff that I remember hearing a lot about in my childhood days was Gen. Mahmood Mohamed, the man who played a big role in quelling the 1982 coup attempt. For the most part I only saw these guys in the media on national holidays when they rode on the president’s Land Rover. 

In other words, I think it is fair to say that, contrary to arguments made by N’Diaye, for the most part the Kenyan military has historically been fairly professionalized and depoliticized relative to other countries in the neighborhood. There is no evidence to suggest that ethnic balancing has severely interfered with the process of professionalization. Kenyan presidents’ preferred agents for dirty political work have always been the intelligence service, the police and paramilitary units, but never (to the best of my knowledge) the military. Indeed the US and British militaries have had very close technical cooperation with the Kenyan military through training, material assistance and more recently joint operations, resulting in a relatively highly trained force that has for the most part stayed clear of politics.  

But this consensus appears to be slowly eroding. Before the 2013 General Elections the former Prime Minister Raila Odinga accused the military and the intelligence service of colluding with his opponent, Uhuru Kenyatta, to rig the presidential election. And now the heads of the military and intelligence service are reportedly contemplating suing a former aide to Mr. Odinga for defamation. Increasingly, the military is being dragged down to the level of the marionette-esque GSU and Police, perennial hatchet men for whoever occupies State House.

This cannot end well. 

Coup proofing is hard. And the thing with coups is that once the genie is out of the box you can’t take it back. Coups just breed more coups.

This is why the generals must be left fat and happy and in the barracks, or busy keeping the peace (and hopefully not facilitating charcoal exports) in Somalia’s Jubaland State. Do your ethnic balancing and all, but by all means KEEP THEM OUT OF POLITICS (I am glad the current Defense Minister has no political constituency).

The last thing Kenya needs is a Zimbabwe situation in which there is open bad blood between the military and the opposition. 

Plus Kenya, based on its per capita income, ethnic politics, and minimal experience with genuine democratic government, is still not beyond the coup trap to be able to safely play politics with the military. If you doubt me, go find out the last time Brazil, Thailand and Turkey had generals in charge. 

Nairobi to Lusaka, Part II

Dar es Salaam is a pleasant town in late June. I had only been there once before, back in 2011 when I stayed for a day and a half to catch the Tazara. I didn’t like it then because of the heat and humidity (humidity is up there with cats – I am allergic – on the list of things I cannot stand). But this time round it was nice, I managed to walk around town marveling at the pillars of concrete and glass that are rising up in every corner of the city. The construction boom puts even Nairobi to shame, enough to make me think that the suggestions that Tanzania may soon eclipse Kenya as the place where all the action is in East Africa are not that far fetched after all (see image and this piece).  Image

My only complaint was that a prime section of the beach front still remains under-utilized, although this might be because of the presidential palace nearby. I hear you can’t drive there at certain times of the day (Stop channeling Mugabe, Bwana Kikwete. Also, let Chadema be). Oh, and I did manage to drive on the Kibaki road. I thought it was a new road, but it is not. Sections of it are actually pretty bad. Apparently, the Tanzanian government is planning an upgrade soon. I also drove past Mwalimu Nyerere’s home. It made me respect the man even more.

I arrived in Dar late on Tuesday night after many hours of travel by bus. On Thursday morning I was scheduled to continue with the second leg of the journey to Lusaka. I was at the bus stop by 5:45 AM, still sleepy. I had stayed up late the previous night, watching the Confederation Cup matches of the day, reading and writing my Saturday column. I fell asleep as soon as I got to my seat.


Dar’s public housing units. For a moment I thought that the choice of color was meant to discourage applicants. Until I saw the pink public housing headquarters. Some of the units are in really nice parts of town.

The bus left the station promptly at 6:15 AM. Tanzania is huge. From Dar es Salaam to the Tunduma border is about 931 kilometres. The drive to the Zambian border took a total of 16 hours.

As I said in the previous post on this trip, I regretted taking the bus. If you want to travel overland between Dar and Lusaka, take the train. It is a million times more pleasant. There is a restaurant and a bar (that serves Tusker) on the train. There are bathrooms. And you have a bed. Plus the train is just slow enough that you can read and truly appreciate the empty Tanzanian countryside.

But the trip wasn’t all gloomy. The scenery was still enjoyable. Sections of Tanzania are quite hilly, with amazing views of cliffs and rivers and rock formations. At some point past Iringa I saw what seemed to be the biggest tree plantation in the world. For miles and miles all I could see were rows and rows of trees. And when there were no trees there were rows and rows of sisal. Someone is making bank off the land in that part of the country.

Also, western Tanzania is a lesson on how hard it is to achieve economic development in the context of a sparsely populated country. Such situations make it impossible to reach everyone with the grid and water pipes. Either the government has to wait for demographics to work its magic (again, see figure above – and be sure to check out this story on the Africa-driven demographic future of the world) or provide smart incentives to accelerate the process of urbanization.

For those who went to high school in Kenya, journeying by land through Tanzania reminded me of Ken Walibora’s Siku Njema. I felt like I was retracing the steps of Kongowea Mswahili. Some day I would like to go back and spend some time in Morogoro and Iringa. By the way, Siku Njema is by far the best Swahili novel I have ever read (which reminds me that it has been eight years since I read a Swahili novel. Suggestions are welcome, preferably by Tanzanian authors). It is about time someone translated it into English for a wider audience.

We reached Tunduma some minutes past 10 PM. The border crossing to Nakonde on the Zambian side was closed. Some passengers on the bus left to rent out rooms for the night. I decided to tough it out on the bus with the crew and a few other guys. Desperate for something warm to eat, I had chicken soup and plain rice for dinner. The “restaurant” reminded me of the place in Tamale, Ghana where Vanessa and I got food poisoning two months earlier. But I was desperate. I quickly ate my hot soup and rice and hoped for the best.

ImageI crossed the border early in the morning on foot. The bus had to wait in line for inspection and to pay duty for its cargo (It is at this point that I learned that the bus was actually going all the way to Harare in Zimbabwe). I am usually very careful with money changers, but perhaps because of my tiredness and lack of sleep the chaps in Nakonde got me.

If you ever cross to Nakonde on foot wait until you are on the Zambian side to exchange cash at the several legit forex stores that line the streets.

The bus finally got past customs at noon (on Friday). In Nakonde we waited for another two hours for more passengers and cargo.

I took the time to get some food supplies. Lusaka was another 1019 kilometres away. 

By this time I was dying to have a hot shower and be able to sleep in a warm bed. It was cold. Like serious cold. And Lusaka was still another 14 hours away.

I slept lightly through most of the 14 odd hours. In between I chatted with two Kenyan guys that were apparently immigrating to South Africa, with little more than their two bags. They said that this was their second attempt. The previous time they found work in Lusaka and decided to stay for a bit before going back to Nairobi. They were part of the bulk of passengers from Nakonde who were going all the way to Harare. Apparently, this is the route of choice for those who immigrate from eastern and central Africa into South Africa in search of greener pastures.

Before it got dark we saw several overturned trucks on the road. I slept very lightly, always waking up in a panic every time the driver braked or swerved while overtaking a truck just in time to avoid oncoming traffic. My only source of comfort was the fact that the driver was a middle aged man, most likely with a family to take care of and therefore with a modicum of risk aversion.

I arrived in Lusaka at around 4 AM, more than three days and 2871 kilometres since leaving Nairobi.

I said goodbye to my two Kenyan countrymen and rushed out of the bus as soon as I could. On the way to my hotel I couldn’t stop thinking how much I would like to read an ethnography of the crew of the bus companies (and their passengers and cargo) that do the Dar to Harare route.

At Lusaka Hotel that morning I had the best shower I had had in a very long time. And slept well past check out time. I had two months of fieldwork and travel in Zambia to look forward to.

The 2013 Resource Governance Index

The 2013 Resource Governance Index (published by the Revenue Watch Institute) is out. The top performing African countries include Ghana, Liberia?, Zambia and South Africa, with partial fulfillment. The bottom performing countries are Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique.

The 58 nations included in the report “produce 85 percent of the world’s petroleum, 90 percent of diamonds and 80 percent of copper.” Ghana, where we are doing some evaluation  work on extractive sector transparency initiatives, is the best performing African country on the list. Image

More here. 

And in related news, The Africa Progress Report was released last week. The report details the massive loss of revenue by African governments through mismanagement – either by commission and/or omission – of extractive resources. For instance:

The report details five deals between 2010 and 2012, which cost the Democratic Republic of the Congo over US$1.3 billion in revenues through the undervaluation of assets and sale to foreign investors. This sum represents twice the annual health and education budgets of a country with one of the worst child mortality rates in the world and seven million pupils out of school.

The DRC alone is estimated to have 24 trillion dollars worth of untapped mineral resources.

The most bizarre case of resource management in Africa is Equatorial Guinea, a coutnry that is ranked 43rd on the global per capital GNI index but ranks 136th on the Human Development Index (2011).

Below is a map showing flows related to Africa’s vast resources: