Land Defended: The Land Reform Policy in South Africa

By Mmanoko Jerry Mathekga



During the last decades of apartheid capitalist system, social and economic relations have changed. Neoliberalism was never simply a market driven process but also a shaping of other social and economic relations, and institutions, especially the government. The state, private corporations, public discourses, and many aspects of everyday life were changed towards economic and international competitiveness. Aspects such as (re)distribution or social solidarity play a small role. As these societal changes have occurred, the administration and distribution of land have changed in South Africa. Land is increasingly becoming a valuable resource to be assessed for their value and incorporated into the capitalist accumulation process. In South Africa, the land reform policy, the willing buyer/willing seller policy, is the neoliberal policy that wants to keep land ownership in the hands of very few individuals, especially the existing white farmers and the emerging black elites. As Mangaliso Sobukwe once put it, African people have been effectively robbed of their land. This paper examines how the willing buyer/willing seller policy has protected the land from being redistributed in South Africa.

Land has always been very important in South African subsistence society for many reasons. To name a few, land provides crops for food, supports cattles and other animals, which were used for food, clothing and labour (Callinocos, 1924: 1). Land also provided materials for clay, bricks and thatch for building houses. Without access to land, people in South African subsistence society can hardly survive, except selling their labour to those who took their land. From the use of land, people were able to produce their basic needs (Callinocos, 1942:1-2). Land is very important to the pursuit of development in South Africa. It does play a key role in addressing issues of unemployment, inequality and poverty (APRM, 2007:276).

It is the single most key factor in social, political, and economic empowerment. In rural areas, land is considered a major asset and input in the agrarian system, and one cannot start farming without land. Agriculture continues to be the main source of income for many people in the country. Land redistribution is a very important component of agrarian reform, as it involves the redistribution of wealth in rural areas. Above all, land has a central role to play in wealth and income redistribution in Africa as a whole (APRM, 2007:276). Land and labour are not just connected, but also integrated elements of the livelihood activities and outcomes of both men and women. Beyond agriculture, land has a wide range of uses in the organisation of livelihoods and is also the basis of social and political power, and therefore at the heart of gender inequalities in the control of resources.
Then, by the end of the last century, most of the land in South Africa had been taken over by white farmers, mining companies and apartheid government from black people (Callinicos, 1924:24). After the discovery of diamonds and gold in the 19th century, indigenous farmers were forced off their land, and converted into cheap labourers. In addition, measures such as taxes, legislation and hostel migrant labour system were put in place to make sure that cheap labour is available (Cairncross, 2011:18). The mining industry had brought a new mode of production in South Africa, industrial capitalism. Industrial capitalism’s impact on the character of the country and on its future was decisive, and extends beyond the boundaries of South Africa (Jordan, 2010:51).

The Native Land Act was passed to disallow black people the rights and legal authority to own land outside the designated reserves, which constituted about 7% of the land area (Cairncross, 2011:19). The Act denied black people much of the land they owned before. The main aim of the Act was to guarantee that white farmers, especially in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, own as much land as possible as compared to Africans, and to protect them against the competition of successful African peasants. Terrablanche (2002:260) pointed out that it was truly a rock on which not only the political alliance between a section of farming elite and the English business elite was built on, but also a rock on which the particularly unequal system of racial exploitation was built and maintained until 1970s.

The Act denied South Africans an opportunity to be involved in cropping, tenant farming, and squatter farming in white South Africa. As a result, it was an impediment for economic independence of many Africans. Africans were regarded as servants under the Master and Servant Act (Terrablanche, 2002:260-64). The discrimination and forcibly removal of blacks from their land was done through the law. Black South Africans were forcibly removed from their land by the 1913 Land Act which gave the apartheid government so much authority to do so. By denying African farmers much of their land, and ending share cropping and tenant farming on white-owned land, a crucial agricultural and entrepreneurial traditions and store of indigenous farming knowledge was seriously destroyed (Terrablanche, 2002:264). If the African agricultural tradition had not been destroyed, but given more government support (financially and technologically) just like whites farmers during apartheid, South African agriculture and economic history could have been completely different today (Terrablanche,2002:164).

Lahiff (2007:1578) points out that at the end of apartheid, approximately 82 million hectares of commercial farmland were in the hands of white people, and concentrated in the hands of the 60 000 white owners. Over 13 million poor black people remained overcrowded into the former homelands, where rights to own land were not clear. Poverty in those areas of blacks is very high, and the place is not developed (Lahiff, 2007:1578). On privately owned white farms, more and more workers and their dependents are experiencing tenure insecurity, and they live without decent basic facilities (Lahiff, 2007:1578). Communities and people that wanted to live in peace in their own land find their rights ignored and their livelihood and culture jeopardised.
After 1994, the ANC government wanted to redistribute land to previously disadvantaged people. In order to do so, the ANC government came up with the willing seller/ willing buyer policy. This policy has been a shift towards a market-led approach (Lahiff, 2007:1577). The willing buyer, willing seller principle is a policy choice that fall squarely in the neoliberal system adopted by the ANC in 1996 (Lahiff, 2007:1580). Basically, it is a market-led land reform based on redistribution of land through willing seller-willing buyer transactions (Centre for rural legal studies, 2003). Under the willing buyer, willing seller principle, South African government does not have the rights of first refusal, and beneficiaries have to compete for available land on the open market at market prices. The policy simply means that farmers are not required and forced to approach the government first to offer land for sale.

However, the government has to find some money and go to the open market just like any other ordinary individual buyers and buy the land when it is available for sale (APRM, 2007:264). The willing buyer, willing seller policy (WSWB) has led to a situation where the government seems to have adopted a “hands-off approach to land reform in the country(APRM, 2007:264).” By doing so, the government removed agricultural marketing support, including agricultural price stabilisation, tariff protection and agriculture subsidies (Atkinson, 2010:366). Basically, in theory, the government has the authority and the resources to enter the land market on behalf of poor people, but it has chosen not to do so.

The willing seller, willing buyer policy (WSWB) deliberately protects the interests of the existing landowners, as it does not force them to sell land against their will nor at the price with which they are fully satisfied (Lahiff, 2005:2). There is no guarantee offered to would-be beneficiaries, who are dependent on government approval of their grant applications and willingness of landowners to transact with them. Landowners are at liberty to sell or not to sell their land property, to whom they will sell, and at what price (Lahiff, 2005:2). If the landowners do not want to sell their land, there is nothing that can be done under the willing seller, willing buyer policy to change the situation. If landowners want to sell their land, but not to reform beneficiaries (previously disadvantaged people); they have got the rights to do so. Landowners are at liberty to choose the prices they feel satisfied, as they are free to choose their own buyers (Lahiff, 2005:2). Basically, landowners are the determining factor when it comes to land redistribution programme, as they have so much power under the willing seller, willing buyer policy (Lahiff, 2005:2).

Under willing seller, willing buyer policy, the government has a minimal role to play, no matter what people without land express their land demands. As Lahiff (2005:2) put it, the government’s role has been limited to processing grant applications from people capable of following the approved procedure, and releasing funds, subjected to the reaching agreement with landowners and the availability of funds within a specific year. Regardless of funding the land reform process, the government does not take responsibility for identifying land on behalf of the people without land, and it failed to negotiate the land with the landowners, but it gave landowners total freedom to enjoy their land rights (Lahiff, 2005:3
The native land act of 1913 was only repealed by the abolition of racially based measures Act N0 108 of 1991. Since ANC government took over in 1994, it tried to transfer land through the willing buyer, willing seller policy, but they transfer of land has been very slow. When South African attained democracy and freedom in 1994, 13% of land was in the hands of blacks, while the enterer 87% of land was in the hands of white people. The present ANC government promised that it will redistribute close to 30% of the land in the first twenty years so that black people will own 43% of the land. But, thus far in 2013, the ANC government has managed to redistribute only 5% of the country’s land.

By the year 2014, much of the land would not be distributed, and the percentage will stand at 5% if the country continues with the same policy and pace of 5% distribution every 20 years. Then, only 25% of land would be distributed in hundred years. So, what does this mean? It’s simple, in hundred year’s time, the country’s inequality in terms of land property between Blacks, coloured and white people will still remain high, and this will lead to racism and economic exclusion of blacks and coloureds by white people and the very few black elites. Since 1994, the land reform and land redistribution programs have transferred less than 2% of white-owned land to blacks. Thus far, under 1996 SA constitution and the practice of successive government since then, the pattern of land ownership dating back to the 1930s has essentially been preserved through to the present (Cairncross,2011:19).

In the rural areas, home to about 50% of the population, successive ANC administrations not only failed to protect farm workers from exploitative conditions, but failed to protect hundreds of thousands of farm workers and their families who got evicted, turning these workers into seasonal and casual workers without access to land. Land reform is essentially non-existent, as may be expected under the willing buyer/willing seller policy that the ANC accepted during the pre-1994 negotiations (Cairncross, 2011:19). Thus far, the goal of redistributing certain amount of land to previously disadvantage people is impossible to reach and the progress is very slow, and it will continue to move very slowly as long as the willing buyer/willing seller policy is in place.

The ownership of land not only remained concentrated in the hands of handful of capitalists as in the past, but it has been transferred to foreign capital, either directly or through the liberalised stock exchange (Cairncross,2011:21). The state did not meet its target of 30%, and the target has been postponed to other years ahead (Lahiff, 2007:1581). Those who have benefited from the willing buyer, willing seller policy are males, especially those with access to income, and those with demonstrable assets such as agricultural equipments, livestock and cash. Basically it has favoured better-resourced individuals (Lahiff, 2007:1587). Where agricultural land was distributed, there was no systematic support from government and existing commercial farms to land beneficiaries. Lack of access to land pushes both men and women to seek alternative livelihood that further undermine their position in the society.

Large amount of African farmland are being allocated to investors on long-term leases, and at a rate not seen for decades. The fact that much of this land is being acquired to provide for the future food and fuel needs of foreign national has led to allegations that neo-colonial push by more wealthy and powerful nations is underway to take over the continent’s key natural resources (Futureagricultures,2011:1). However, new mining investments are planned or underway in most part of South Africa. Some local communities have been forcefully dispossessed their own land and make way for mining. For example, major new platinum mines are being established in the northern regions of Limpopo province by mining houses including Anglo platinum. However, purchase of white-owned farms for the new mines is impeded by awaiting land restitution claims, many of the new mining developments are on communal land in the former Batustans of Lebowa, Gazankulu and Venda (Hall, 2011:198). Those communities had no choice, but to be forced to open ways for new mining companies.

These have resulted in violence clashes with police, acting on orders from political leaders, and led local communities to form solidarity groups with other mining affected communities under the rubric of the “jubilee south Africa” campaign, and with legal support human rights organisations (Hall, 2011:198). In 2010, seven villages were involved in noisy violent disagreements with police brought in by local councilors who had allegedly been paid by mining companies to facilitate their forced removals from their own land (Hall, 2011:198). Close to 45 million hectares were under negotiations for allocations during 2009 alone, of which 70% (about 32 million hectares) was in Africa (Future agriculture, 2011:1). The figure could increase, at around 80 million hectares, 64% (about 50 million hectares) of those in Africa (Future agriculture, 2011:1). This means, sadly, the previously disadvantaged people will have to wait far too long for the realisation of their land rights, as their property rights.
However, small-scale farmers have been displaced, pastoralists have lost their grazing land, and rural people continue to loss access to crucial common property resources. The discourse about empty land in Africa is deeply and dangerously misleading (Future agriculture, 2011:3). Now, much attention has been given to foreign companies acquiring farmland. In other words, a range of actors have come forward, including multinational companies (Future agriculture, 2011:3). The institutionalisation of private land as alienable private property has substituted traditional communal ownership and land tenure system. The land ownership right by indigenous people is now claimed by superior powers from outside the country (Harris and Lauderdale, 2002:424). As a result, indigenous inhabitants of Africa, who were self-sufficient and culturally different, are in many instances forced to leave their productive land. Agricultural land and valuable natural resources are expropriated by and exploited for the benefits of the foreign countries, countries out of Africa (Harris and Lauderdale, 2002:424).

South Africa is still regarded as one of the most unequal society in the world in terms landownership that still largely fall along racial lines (Bauler and Taylor, 2005:239). The South Africa’s 4.5 million whites continue to dominate industry, commercial agriculture, the financial sector, mining sector and the vast majority of agricultural lands and resources (Bauler and Taylor, 2005:271). As Bauler and Taylor (2005:272) put it, “economic deprivation in the Black community remains the Achilles heel of the post apartheid state: it makes plain the absence of substantive democracy and imperils the genuine gains of the 1994 miracle (Bauler and Taylor, 2005:272).” So far, a small number of Blacks have joined the ranks of the new middle class, but poverty and inequality remain high, and has deepened in many part of the country. If South African people are denied access to land or land ownership, as it was the case during apartheid period, then the state is destroying the very foundation of their existence and their economy which needs state assistance. Based on the above information, the struggle for land reform and transfer of land is long overdue. As Robert Sobukwe once put it, Indigenous people have lost control over their land. Then, there is a need for a policy that calls for equal distribution of land. There is a cry ringing throughout the African continent crying for their land. “Africa for the Africans! Izwe Lethu IAfrika (PAC, 2000).”


Reference list
1. African Peer Review Mechanism (2007) country review report N0.5. Republic of South Africa.
2. Atkinson, D. (2010) breaking down barriers: policy gaps and new options in south African land reform, in Daniel J, Naidoo P, Southall R and Pillay D (eds) new south African review 1. 2010: development or decline? Wits university press. Johannesburg.
3. Bauler, G, and Taylor, S, D. (2005) politics in southern Africa. State and society in transition. Lynne Rienner publications. Boulder London.

4. Callinocos, L. (1924) a people’s history of South Africa: gold and workers. Volume one. 1886-1924.
5. Centre for Rural Legal Studies (2003) briefing paper: expropriating land for distribution. January 2003.
6. Cousins, Ben 2010. “The politics of communal tenure reform: A South African case study”, in: Ward Anseeuw and Chris Alden (eds), The Struggle over Land in Africa. Conflicts, Politics and Change. Cape Town: HSRC Press (55-70).
7. Future Agricultures (2011) land grapping in Africa and the new politics of food. Policy brief 041. June 2011. www.future-agricultures.org
8. Jordan, Z.P. (2010) historical origins of the African National Congress, in new agenda: South African journal of social and economic policy. Issue 40 fourth quarter 2010.
9. Lahiff, E. (2005) “from willing seller, willing buyer” to a people-driven land reform. Policy brief, debating land reform, natural resources and poverty. N0.17. September 2005. PLAAS.
10. Lahiff, E. (2007) willing buyer, willing seller: South Africa’s failed experiment in market led agrarian reform, in third world quarterly, Vol 28, No. 8. P1577-1597. Rutledge Taylor & Francis Group.
11. PAC (2000) speeches of Mangaliso sobukwe, adopted at the 6th National Congress held in Gamatlala, on 7-9 April 2000
12. Terrablanche, S. (2002) the history of inequality in South Africa. 1652-2002. university of Natal Press. Pietermaritzburg.
13. Wichterich C. (2009) women peasants, food security & biodiversity in the crisis of neoliliberalism, in development dialogue: postneoliberalism – a beginning debate. N0. 51. January 2009.

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3 comments:

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