South Africa Wants to Transform Itself By Redistributing Land By Race

Could radical land reform foster racial harmony?

Flickr / celso FLORES

Reparations for the descendants of slaves has been a hot-button issue in the United States since Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations in The Atlantic’s June 2014 issue, but thanks to the country’s recent politics and continued systemic forms of racism, reparations are hard to envision in America’s immediate future. In South Africa, however, the government has moved one step closer to issuing a controversial form of reparations in an attempt to make up for the effects of colonization and apartheid in the country. That proposal is land redistribution.

In a statement Wednesday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that South Africa’s ANC government would push through a constitutional amendment that would make land redistribution without compensation easier — implying an impending redistribution of land, presumably from the historically favored white, rich population to the historically discriminated against black population.

If acted upon, the change would be a radical, potentially transformative policy shift in South Africa, and also offer another data point for countries debating reparative policies.

South Africa’s Plan

According to Ramaphosa, the amendment will outline “more clearly the conditions under which expropriation of land without compensation can be effected.”

Ramaphosa goes on to say that “a comprehensive land reform programme that enables equitable access to land will unlock economic growth, by bringing more land in South Africa to full use, and enable the productive participation of millions more South Africans in the economy.”

“The intention of this proposed amendment is to promote redress, advance economic development, increase agricultural production and food security,” he went on.

While not completely explicit, Ramaphosa’s statement implies that the ANC intends to embark on a land redistribution project that would take land away from mostly white landowners and redistribute it more equally. South Africa is highly unequal, with 95 percent of its wealth being held by 10 percent of its population. 72 percent of farm acreage, which makes up 97 percent of the country’s land, is held by white individuals. The policy would overwhelmingly favor South Africa’s black population, which was systemically oppressed through colonization and apartheid.

While this isn’t the first time the country has embarked on a redistribution effort — the state has bought 4.9 million hectares of land for redistribution since 1994, given out monetary redistributions, and started a program to subsidize the partial purchase of farmland by laborers — it will be the first time the country has redistributed without compensation, a method of coping with the fact that paying farmers for land would require an excessive amount of funds.

The move could be a radical boon for equity, or a complete disaster.

Utopia or Distopia?

While the plan comes out of a vision of a more equitable, fair society — addressing the massive racial disparity in land ownership — the actual results that would come of large, uncompensated land seizures and redistribution isn’t entirely clear in the context of South Africa.

In 2000, Robert Mugabe began what would become a chaotic uncompensated land seizure and redistribution program in Zimbabwe, that took 23 million acres from white landholders to give back to the once subjugated black people of Zimbabwe. What seemingly started as a promise of equality quickly turned into a nightmare, eventually killing five in violent conflict. By 2010, agricultural production had fallen 60 percent, and exports had declined by nearly $1 billion, according to a report from Zimbabwean news site ZimOnline. The report found that nearly 40 percent of land redistributed had gone to Mugabe himself and his political cronies. Much of what used to be farmland went unattended by individuals who simply weren’t interested or couldn’t keep farms. What’s worse, was that the land seizure sparked financial crisis in the form of hyperinflation. It’s speculated that indebted farmers paying mortgages were not able to pay loans following the loss of their land — creating losses for banks.

All of this came on top of clear human rights issue of taking people’s possessions and leaving them with nothing.

Now, there are signs of recovery in Zimbabwe despite high unemployment: corn production in the country are at their highest points in decades and tobacco crops are flourishing, but the questions remain whether Zimbabwe will find stability, and whether the years of economic turmoil were worth it.

Another Possibility

While radical land redistribution could be positively transformative or a disaster, it could also not happen at all. Leonid Bershidsky suggests in Bloomberg that perhaps the amendment is simply a political move to maintain power through next year’s election as a movement for redistribution grows.

Of course, this possibility still poses risks. If the constitution is amended to facilitate radical redistribution, who’s to say it won’t happen in the future.

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