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.

Why? 

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.

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