Land reform: South Africa’s burdensome evergreen

Posted on | juni 16, 2011 | No Comments

Zuma; UN Photo/Marco Castro

Land reform South Africa is and will continue to be one of those evergreen issues that pops up regularly until someone (in other words: The ANC) actually does something about it. Land reform is also one of those frustrating policy issues that everyone knows needs to be addressed but no one really has a coherent plan for how to do it.

The ANC also has a pretty clear template for how NOT to do it, as evidenced by the situation in Zimbabwe where Mugabe for years used land reform as a Damocles’ sword that he held over the head of white farmers and other opposition. And then when he finally did engage in land reform it was largely incoherent, characterized by capriciousness and the use of force by so-called war veterans whose sole claim to legitimacy oftentimes seemed to be their ability and willingness to use force to take land.

And there are really two types of land reform on the agenda. One is the more traditional post-colonial reform that looks to shift land from the minority of white, usually settler, colonialists to black masses. But the other is the attempt to move land from foreign ownership to South African hands. President Jacob Zuma has both forms on his plate now, but so has every South African president since 1994. The current parliamentary session has the government looking at enacting a Land Tenure Security Bill that leaves as many questions unanswered as it addresses.

Naturally someone has to play the role of Mugabe-esque demagogue in this scenario. Perhaps equally naturally it appears that person will be ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema. Speaking to the Youth League’s provincial council at the University of the Western Cape, Malema insisted, “Willing-buyer, willing-seller is not an alternative… The alternative from the youth league is that we take the land without paying. That is what we are proposing.” (Malema has recently been similarly provocative about nationalizing mines.)

It is in the nature of Youth League leaders to court controversy, none more so than Malema. But it seems to me that his plans would be disastrous for South Africa. I have long rejected the knee-jerk “South Africa-as-Zimbabwe” narrative that conservative whites like to toss around, and I will continue to reject it even if Malema’s vision on land reform comes to pass. But Zimbabwe’s experiment with land reform is also quite clearly one not to emulate. But if the government doesn’t come up with a plan to tackle the issue(s), Malema’s appeal to emotion will appear increasingly attractive to growing segments of the ANC electorate.

AUTHOR: Derek Charles Catsam
E-MAIL: derekcatsam [at]


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