South Africa at Crossroads: Land Reform and Redistribution

By: Cooper Stewart

Controversy erupted in U.S.-South African relations recently when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharply criticized South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decision to enact his plan for distributing land to the country’s black majority. Although Pompeo and Ramaphosa both believe that land redistribution will impact the South African economy, they are divided on whether the move will result in a net positive or negative effect. Secretary Pompeo falls into the latter camp, stating that government seizure and redistribution of private property without compensation will have disastrous effects on South Africa’s industrialized economy just as has occurred after land redistribution policies were enacted in African countries, such as Zimbabwe. President Cyril Ramaphosa disagrees, countering that land redistribution would ultimately be a boost for the economy because “land reform is an essential part of inclusive growth.”

Despite appearing recently in the news, the issue of land reform and redistribution has dogged the South African government for over two decades. The African National Congress (A.N.C), the party of Nelson Mandela and the most dominant political party in the Republic of South Africa, has had land reform as one of its top priorities since the founding of the republic in 1994. During the apartheid era, white farmers possessed 85% of South Africa’s arable land due to restrictive policies and laws put in place by the ruling apartheid government. The most egregious and discriminatory of these laws was the Natives Land Act of 1913, which limited black South Africans to owning only 13% of the arable land. The situation has not changed much since the end of the era. and ownership rates remain extremely skewed towards whites, which still own 72% of arable land despite comprising only 9% of the population. As a result, the A.N.C continues to view land redistribution as a means to remedy the past injustices perpetrated by the Aparthied system. The question now remains, if this issue has been so paramount for so many years, why has seemingly nothing changed? 

The A.N.C’s attempts over the last 30 years to redistribute land to black South Africans have largely failed. They have only redistributed 8% of the country’s farmland to blacks in the last three decades due to the fact that many of their government initiatives were toothless with respect to land acquisition. The most prominent of these programs was the land-claims court, which was supposed to distribute land back to farmers who had been dispossessed of their property under apartheid. Additionally, the “willing buyer, willing seller” policy enabled the government to buy back land from participating white farmers. Both these programs failed to bring about meaningful change. But perhaps one of the most enduring reasons for a lack of change is the South African government itself, which continues to struggle with corruption since its founding. In 2018, the now infamous ex-president Jacob Zuma resigned after he was accused of appropriating millions of dollars in public funds for his private interests. Stories such as this one highlight how often South African government funds are abused by public officials, hampering the effectiveness of their policies and programs, such as land redistribution.

Of course, no discussion of land reform in South Africa would be complete without talking about the racial component of this issue. Black South Africans argue land redistribution is justified to remedy apartheid’s legacy. President Ramaphosa himself even cited this reasoning as his basis for pushing for land reform. White farmers are much more skeptical about these reforms. Many fear racially motivated violence towards them could occur if the government implements these plans. They also fear a severe economic downturn similar to that of Zimbabwe in the early 2000s, when its government implemented a land redistribution policy.

For South Africa to implement a successful land redistribution program, it must institute one that simultaneously addresses the long-running injustices toward black farmers and pacifies potential racial violence between white and non-white farmers. The South African government will be responsible for the creation, implementation, and management of such a program, which, given its track record of corruption, is fairly concerning. It will be a difficult policy to put into action, and the stark divide between the polarizing consequences and benefits of land redistribution means there is no room for the South African government to make the wrong choice.  If correctly implemented, the policy could dramatically boost the economic fortunes of many struggling rural communities and alleviate the massive inequality in the country. If implemented incorrectly, however, the program could result in a severe economic crisis in the agricultural sector that could cripple South Africa as similar policies did in neighboring Zimbabwe, which is still suffering from the economic fallout to this day. Lastly, the future of race relations within South Africa hinges upon President Ramaphosa’s decisions about land reform. If he and his government fail to assuage the overarching racial tension that surrounds this issue, then the inevitable outbreak of racial tension could set South Africa back decades in terms of race relations. If the program is successful, then the scars of apartheid may truly start to heal. Ultimately, when it comes to land reform policy, South Africa has everything to gain, and everything to lose. No pressure.