The complex path to land reform

2018-03-12 01:26

The ANC’s elective conference last December resolved to amend section 25 of the Constitution, to achieve expropriation of land without compensation.

This, according to the resolution, will be done in a way that does not threaten food security. The president has reiterated this.

The question of land reform anywhere is complex. Land reform, more than any other issue, shaped Latin America in the 20th century.

Even with Guatemala’s Decree 900, which is seen as one of the most successful land reform programmes in history, there is no land reform process which has not produced political and socioeconomic controversy.

In the Central American country, major land owners joined hands with anticommunist alarmists, which included the US, against President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán’s regime.

Historically, the world over, at the centre of land reform controversy is national and global capital, and the poor masses, working class, middle class and political elites.

All these groups gather around three political questions and a fourth economic one.

The first relates to land justice.

In South Africa this manifests in arguments around land restitution and land tenure.

The second question involves facilitation of current land owners out of the land, and in some cases out of the sector.

The “without compensation” part of the proposed expropriation is the contagious issue in this question, considering some of the current debts of these farmers, which are estimated at R160 billion in 2018.

There are no straightforward answers on who in the end would carry this debt.

The third question, also political, is the facilitation of new owners on to the land and into the sector.

Alongside the poor masses, other groups who scramble to benefit from land reform are the middle class, the ruling elite and capitalists.

Even in crises, the capitalists seek opportunities for profit maximisation, and the middle class stands behind the ruling elites for a stake in the process.

Most of these groups are ill-informed about the dynamics of the agricultural sector.

The fourth question, which is economic, relates to sustaining and improving agricultural production in the context of a politically charged process.

The ongoing land reform debate in South Africa involves all the above stakeholders: capital, the poor masses and working class, the (black) middle class, and political elites.

Global and national capital, in the form of land owners, banks, stock markets and some right wing politicians around the world, are nervous following the parliamentary vote for amendment of the Constitution last month.

The Kingdom of Swaziland has also thrown its hat in the ring, claiming that it should expropriate parts of Gauteng, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal.

The expectations of the poor masses are rising, and illegal land occupations are likely to gain momentum as the debate rages.

Of course the ruling elite mainly drawn from the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters, will try to extract as much political capital as possible in the approach to the 2019 elections.

In fact, inevitably, land reform will be the most prominent political issue before the elections and beyond.

The delicate balancing and trade-offs of the interests of each of the above groups will shape the success or otherwise of the land reform programme.

Those who predict a Zimbabwe-like crisis ignore how different Robert Mugabe’s dictatorial regime was from Cyril Ramaphosa’s social democratic regime, while those who argue that South Africa cannot go the Zimbabwe way ignore how Guatemala’s land reform ultimately imploded into civil war, even after preliminary political and economic success.

The pathway to South Africa’s success in land reform does not lie in a narrow political approach of land expropriation, and neither will it be found in linear economic argument that ignores the country’s brutal political history.

South Africa’s land question will have to be settled and, the more this process is delayed, the closer we get to the explosion of a ticking time bomb. So the new momentum is welcome.

Below I make five propositions that could assist in mapping out an otherwise complex land reform pathway.

First, there should be a clear understanding among all stakeholders that this is not low-hanging political or economic fruit; it will be a long and winding process.

Second, the land reform programme might work more effectively if it relocated away from the political centre to a more objective technocratic commission.

Third, political elites should not underestimate the power of capital to fight back.

In Guatemala, after an American multinational corporation known as United Fruit Company lobbied the US government to help overthrow President Guzmán’s regime, the new regime reversed 95% of the redistributed land, which included all the land owned by United Fruit.

Fourth, there should be no illusion that, regardless of political promise, the transition leading to a different farm management system will inevitably impact negatively on domestic agricultural production.

Finally, policymakers should be aware that the more subtle but dangerous factor will be to keep unintended beneficiaries out of the reform process.

Musyoka is a postdoctoral fellow based at the Human Economy Project at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria

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December 9 2018