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To Bend and Not Break: Land Reform and South Africa’s Democracy

Philipina Ndamane holds up some of the vegetables she has grown in the Abalama Bezehkaya garden in Guguletu, Cape Town, South Africa on the 9th June, 2009. The Abalami Bezehkaya project, teaches people better farming techniques and sells fresh produce weekly to generate incomes for the farmers involved.

South African President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address February 12 was largely overshadowed by the violence that erupted during it, with the live television signal cutting out as parliamentarians threw desks, seat cushions and hats, scuffling with each other and security officials in a chaotic parliamentary brawl.

When President Zuma rose to deliver his speech, opposition members of Parliament rose to challenge him, repeatedly questioning him about his latest spending scandal. Armed police hauled most of the protesting members of Parliament out of the chamber, and those with minor injuries went to the hospital. The members of other opposition parties walked out, ultimately leaving President Zuma to deliver his State of the Nation speech to the members of his own party, the African National Congress (ANC).

“This was more than an assault on members of Parliament,” said Mmusi Maimane, parliamentary leader of leading opposition party Democratic Alliance (DA) during a heated debate five days later. “It was an assault on the very foundations of our democracy.”

Amidst the chaos of the State of the Nation address, President Zuma introduced a plan for land reform that would ban foreigners from owning South African land and limit locals to owning a maximum of 12,000 hectares, roughly the equivalent of two farms.

Following 300 years of colonial rule and apartheid, the vast majority of South African farmland still rests in the hands of a relatively tiny white minority, and land ownership and inequality remain highly emotive issues.

“Land has become one of the most crucial factors in achieving redress for the wrongs of the past,” President Zuma said.

But President Zuma’s proposal has already come under fire from many who claim the bill would scare away foreign investors, threaten food security and open up land that rural black South Africans cannot afford only to be ultimately snatched up by large trust funds. To many critics, his land reform proposal represents nothing but a populist statement that would undermine development but help the President dodge bullets in the aftermath of a corruption scandal. And perhaps most ironically, while President Zuma claims to be seeking redress for the wrongs of the past through land reform, many are now seeking redress for Zuma’s corruption and the ensuing parliamentary breakdown in what many see as his disregard for democratic values.

After repeated attempts at land restitution that have done injustices to South Africa’s black majority, it is imperative that South Africa’s government put forth a just and realizable plan for land reform. A year after Nelson Mandela’s death, South Africa has reached a critical point in which land reform can no longer be put on the backburner. But it is also a crucial time in which its relatively new democracy is being put to the test. Land reform must go hand in hand with broad-based support and the solidification of South African democracy, and for this reason it is unlikely that the proposal from President Zuma will be the right one.

Although many predicted that South Africa’s democracy would crumble without Mandela at the helm, on the night of his passing multiracial crowds took to the streets in a display of peace, unity and celebration of his political legacy. South Africa had lost the man who steered the country from apartheid to democracy, but this showing of support seemed to signal that it hadn’t lost allegiance to the democratic values he had left behind. That allegiance has since endured significant strains, most recently in the ongoing battle over land reform.

Twenty-one years after the end of apartheid, however, South Africa is still one of the most unequal societies in the world. Economic growth has widened the gap between the rich and the poor and left a third of young black people unemployed. Failed attempts at land redistribution have calcified rather than transformed the current economic order. According to Oxfam, the two richest people in South Africa are as wealthy as the bottom 50 percent of the population combined.

As a result of colonial and apartheid-era land theft, whites constituted just over 10 percent of the population but owned about 87 percent of South Africa’s total land when the first democratic election was held in 1994. In previous flawed attempts at land reform, the government has attempted to compensate those whose land was taken as a result of racially discriminatory laws. Of 80,000 claims filed mostly by blacks, the state settled roughly 70 percent with a Standard Settlement Offer, a “symbolic monetary compensation that is unrelated to the current or past market value of the property confiscated,” and seemed to dole out far more compensation to whites than blacks.

Although President Zuma announced in 2009 that land reform would be at the top of the ANC’s agenda, such efforts have been chronically underfunded. Just a year after his announcement, the Land Restitution Commission ran out of money and had to back out of sales agreements into which it had already entered and place a moratorium on land purchases under the reform program.

In the context of extreme inequality and the failure of prior land reform efforts due in part to insufficient funding, information surfaced regarding President Zuma’s spending scandal, in which over £12.9 million in taxpayer money — allegedly going towards state security renovations — was used to pay for upgrading his own private residence, including the construction of a swimming pool, amphitheater and children’s playground.

“You are willing to break every democratic institution to try and fix the legal predicament you find yourself in,” said Maimane in a speech directed at President Zuma. In reference to President Zuma’s response to the protest in parliament, he continued, “Our freedom to communicate was violated by an order to jam the telecommunications network,” and “not long after, armed police officers in plain shirts stormed into this sacred chamber and physically attacked members of this House.”

On the other hand, while corruption and the recent parliamentary breakdown has strained South African confidence in its institutions, democracy has in some ways endured. President Zuma’s abuse of power was checked by an investigation led by Thuli Madonsela, South Africa’s powerful public protector praised for her unwavering scrutiny of powerful and corrupt elite. Additionally, the country has held five free and fair elections since independence. The most recent election saw more than a million citizens vote for the Economic Freedom Fighters, a new party that has criticized the ANC’s so-called Black Economic Empowerment policy for continuing to defend white minority interests and has advocated for nationalizing land, banks, and mines, and returning properties to their rightful owners.

If President Zuma is serious about economic empowerment and social emancipation through land reform, he needs to prove his commitment to implementing a plan on the ground, and to showing greater regard for democratic processes. In particular, he might start with prioritizing support for emerging black farmers already on land to become more productive and successful and by soliciting public input in a step toward finding a scheme that has the buy-in of all parties.

The solution for rectifying the wrongs of South Africa’s past remain ambiguous, but it’s clear that land reform is crucial and urgent. Even more crucial, however, are the means by which a new plan is proposed and implemented. Rather than being used as a populist statement to distract from corruption, South African land reform should be treated seriously and put into action in a way that will solidify confidence in the 21-year old democracy’s capacity to bend rather than break.

About the Author

Katherine Lamb '16 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review, concentrating in International Relations and Middle East Studies.