Land and Inequality / Southern Africa

South African Land Reform for What?

On June 30, South African President Jacob Zuma signed legislation re-opening the process of land restitution in South Africa. After the democratic transition in 1994, the South African government made plans to compensate people who had been forcibly removed from their land because of the racist land policies enacted in the twentieth century. (Never mind, of course, that most people in South Africa had been dispossessed long before.) The legislation gave black South Africans until 1998 to file claims in order to have land returned to them.

Along with establishing this process for restitution, the government set a lofty–albeit World Bank-approved–goal of redistributing 30% of South Africa’s land to black people by this year. The legislation re-opening the process of land restitution is one sign that that they have come nowhere close to meeting that goal. A number of problems have hampered land reform over the past twenty years. Determined to prove its market friendliness to international investors, the South African government adopted a “willing buyer, willing seller” approach to land reform. Lest South Africa be mistaken for another Zimbabwe, this policy allowed the market and white farm owners to dictate land prices to such an extent that the government could seldom afford to buy land for restitution projects. Uncertainty about who should benefit most–black commercial farmers or small holders–also led to some policy cul-de-sacs. And, finally, the complicated procedures involved with filing claims have left many cases in limbo for more than a decade.

Although it is not clear that the new legislation will fix long-standing problems, I find myself ambivalent about it for other reasons. On one hand, I’m glad to see policies reinforcing the idea that reconciliation in “the New South Africa” does not mean forgetting about much needed economic restitution and redistribution. It’s easier to forgive the wrongs of the past when you have the resources to feed your family, among other things.

On the other hand, I wonder if land will continue to have the economic potential needed to make a difference in the lives of black South Africans. This concern arises because South Africa’s climate change forecast is not pretty. Major water shortages and drought seem imminent. Will this new bill put people on land destined to become unproductive in just a few decades? I think the answer is, almost inevitably, yes.

Of course, land in South Africa is about more than economics. It is about homes and history, identity and justice. But, ideally, the South African government would be investing scarce resources into projects that involve economic restitution too. It might be time to think beyond land redistribution in order to do that.

Lauren V. Jarvis is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Utah. Her research focuses on the history of religion in southern Africa and the African Diaspora.  

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