Former President Jacob Zuma and the foundation that bears his name has served a notice of intent to submit a land claim. Perhaps it’s because in many quarters the former president is not seen as a respectable political presence – somewhere between a caricature of venality and an accused-on-the-run – this has not attracted much attention.
The claim in question is for the entire ‘sovereign territory’ of South Africa. No half measures here. It wants to place the whole country under claim, or at least that part not held by ‘black indigenous’ people.
It’s unlikely that this will succeed, but it’s worth taking note of it as an exemplar of the debased order of politics that pursues issues of land and property rights. In the latter respects, it is a revealing document.
The first point to note is that it is inherently backward looking. Given that it is effectively a mass restitution claim, this is to be expected. It is also entirely unnuanced, attributing all landholding by white people – or perhaps that should be nonindigenous people – into conflict and dispossession. This is of course part of South Africa’s story, but not its totality.
Equally devoid of any nuance is the actual role that land plays in the economy. Consider this: ‘It has been pointed out to myself recently by my learned friends and Comrades, that Land has pillars, which are Dignity, Education and Economy. These lead to the Tripple [sic] challenges, namely Poverty, Inequality and Unemployment.’
This is clumsily expressed, but it gives the impression that land – ‘Land’ or ‘the Land’ in the ideological syntax – is the root of all prosperity and development. This is patent nonsense. Land is one aspect of economic activity and not necessarily an especially important one. Land-deprived Singapore, for example, is exponentially more prosperous than land-bounteous Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even where land is essential, in farming, its value is tightly associated with the investment in it, in terms of the skills of the farmer and farm employees and the capital sunk into it.
So, is land the key to dealing with those ‘Tripple’ challenges? Well, that would depend on how exactly it was used, and in South Africa there is precious little to suggest that mass land reform offers anything like a solution. Agriculture accounts for less that 3% of South Africa’s GDP, and the country is not a propitious one for farming. For the most part, farming is a tough, low-profit business, buffeted in South Africa by failing infrastructure and generally inept governance. It takes considerable resilience and innovation, not to mention business acumen to make a success of a farming operation.
In reality, much land reform has failed to deliver prosperity to its beneficiaries. The numbers around this are disputed, with some claims of the ‘failure’ of projects at 90%. This has not been backed by solid research and probably overstates the case. But even more optimistic assessments, such as a 50% success rate, point to widespread problems.
And that is perhaps the reason that there is very little evidence that ‘the land question’ is a motivating one for most South Africans. The Human Sciences Research Council found that while there was a good deal of support for land reform – reasonably enough, as there are real historical injustices associated with it – there was relatively little demand by South Africa’s people for gaining land or much expectation that this would provide any personal benefits for them. ‘Symbolic support’ is how the HSRC described it. Data from Afrobarometer and the Institute of Race Relations support this in showing that land reform is a priority for a small part of the population.
And this would be a good description of what the former President and his foundation are engaged in – only their apparent goal is to weaponise this symbolism, and to use it for political ends. This has been a long-running strategy, driven into high gear (perhaps ironically) as then President Zuma was being ejected from office. It has featured strongly in President Ramaphosa’s incumbency (‘Expropriation without Compensation’), and in the politics of the Economic Freedom Fighters. One-time (and possible future) ANC Presidential hopeful Lindiwe Sisulu wrote in a widely noted piece last year that ‘the land is where it all begins.’
Central to this narrative is a rather dark impulse of division and exclusion. This is intrinsic to what we call populism, an approach to politics that posits an unresolvable struggle between the reprobate and the virtuous – and it’s an old technique, usefully deployed by the badly compromised. In this case, the idea is that the country is split between those with a legitimate claim on it and on its resources, and those without.
Part of this narrative has been the stigmatisation of commercial farmers, more specifically ‘white’ farmers. If the ‘land question’ is a largely symbolic matter to most people, and an important political symbol to the political class, the ‘white farmer’ is a symbol invoked of much of what is wrong and unrepentant about South Africa’s political economy. Farmers can be presented as a handy ‘out group’, land thieves, oppressors of rural communities and abusers of their employees.
Unsurprisingly, then, this document makes it clear where a primary target is: ‘Our Notice of intent of Land Claim seeks to address the significant proportion of land which remains in the ownership of white farmers.’
There is a corollary to this. The Notice of Intent is submitted on ‘behalf of the Black indigenous peoples’. Note that while this excludes white people outright, it does not include all black people. South Africans of Indian heritage are pretty much out by that description, and whether coloured people qualify is a matter of debate. Black people from outside South Africa – or whose historical presence might be disputed by some – would presumably not qualify either. Racial nationalism (or should that be chauvinism?) and xenophobia, in other words. These two pathologies that have gained some mainstream traction in recent years.
Then there is the prickly matter of how the ‘Black indigenous peoples’ would hold the land so restored to them. This is unclear, but it’s a safe bet that a claim made on behalf of a non-specific set of nominal beneficiaries would receive their rewards on equally non-specific terms. The former president has himself recommended a custodial option – in other words, all land would vest in the state and private ownership would be impossible; access to land would be granted by a benevolent state. This is the model that applies to water and mining resources, the impact of which is for the observer to judge.
This is also in any respects how land held by ‘traditional’ communities and households is made available, typically through traditional leadership structures, of which the Ingonyama Trust would be the prime example. Interestingly, during the heyday of the EWC debate, figures in the ANC were at pains to assure traditional leaders that the land they held would not be touched.
So, it is possible to surmise that this is a measure seeking to destroy property rights in land, targeting in the first instance commercial agriculture, to satisfy a fundamentally political demand. As far as the ‘Tripple’ challenges go, it offers very little at all. Quite the contrary: that 3% of GDP may be relatively small, but it is strategic, if for no other reason than it is reflected in food prices for a rapidly urbanising population. From the fastnesses of the Nkandla homestead and its firepool, this may seem esoteric; for those bearing the brunt of poverty, suffering unemployment and on the bad end of inequality, this is existential.
South Africa’s farming community is an asset. It should be valued and protected, not threatened.
Indeed, the denial of property rights and the view of land reform not as a rational process of economic expansion but as an ideological statement has placed a great burden on aspirant black farmers – whom, incidentally, the country needs as the current cohort ages and retires. There is a limit to the benefits that land reform can confer, but these have largely been squandered by the manner in which it has been designed and implemented.
Nor are South Africans particularly inclined towards racial animosity. Polling by Afrobarometer and the IRR show that racism remains a relatively low priority concern. Stats SA, in a 2019 report, found that just under 7% of respondents – of a sample of close to 19 000 – had experienced racial discrimination over the past two years. Other pollsters, including Afrobarometer, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and the IRR, show a somewhat more common perception of racial or ethnic discrimination, although it is clearly the experience of a minority.
The IRR has also asked respondents directly whether South Africa’s people need those of different races for progress and security. Some 72% agree with this proposition; 9% disagreed; and 19% were non-committal. One may be concerned that a quarter of South Africans are ambivalent or indifferent towards a common, interdependent future, but it is heartening that an overwhelming majority of the country are in fact so committed.
These are the muscles and sinews for the successful future of a diverse and challenged society. There are, however, those who would rather seek a different and darker course. This ‘Notice of Intent’ reflects that.