When in February Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Jacob Zuma as president of South Africa, he said that land reform became a major priority. The ANC (African National Congress) government had campaigned on land reform when the apartheid regime, which separated blacks and whites and discriminated the former group, was abolished in 1994. Back then whites made up 9% of the population and owned 85% of the land, while today they are only 8% of the population but still own 73% of all the land. There has been some expansion of black-owned land as in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo (Crowley 2018), but the sad reality is that nearly half of all black South Africans are living below the poverty line of 992 rand (75 dollars) a month, about 20% of colored people (i.e. mixed race), and negligible proportions of Asians and whites (Chutel 2017).
The slow pace of land reform comes from the government policy of “willing buyer- willing seller”. The government was unwilling to force white landowners to surrender their land. But the slow pace of reform and the electoral pressure for the ANC to accelerate the pace of land reform resulted in calls for land expropriation as early as 2006. These calls for land expropriation were not formally taken up until December 2017, when an ANC conference stated that they wanted to amend the constitution to allow for land expropriation without compensation. This move has a precedent in Zimbabwe in the early-2000s, which had deleterious effects on the economy, as the land was primarily reallocated to the cronies of the government, who used it for their personal patronage, i.e. leasing it out to other people without caring whether these farmers were competent in running the farms. The attendant economic decline (reinforced by giddy foreign investors, who don’t like expropriation of private property) convinced the Mugabe regime to put on the printing press to pay its bills, which resulted in hyperinflation and the abandonment of the Zimbabwe currency in favor of the US dollar.
Even in South Africa itself, land reallocation that has taken place the past 25 years have not borne much fruit. 5% of white-owned land had been transferred to blacks (Lahiff 2008). The government invested 60 billion rand in land reform projects, which had resulted in a 79% decline of crop production and job loss of 84-94% (Wikipedia, “Land Reform in South Africa”). Without sufficient equipment, financing and know-how, land reallocation to blacks is not going to result in economic stabilization. Ramaphosa and his government have promised that they are not going to repeat the mistakes of Zimbabwe, but how can they be so sure about it?
The white farmers are naturally outraged about the proposal for land expropriation, though they are politically sidelined. Within the South African parliament only the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition, is a vocal opponent of land expropriation, and two of the past three leaders of the DA have been whites. The DA emerged out of the white liberal, anti-apartheid political opposition against the ruling National Party, which held onto power until the end of apartheid. The DA has therefore been considered a white party, though for obvious reasons (whites are only about 8% of the population) they deny this claim. With Msumi Maimane, the DA received its first black leader in 2015.
The presence of another political party shook up the political process. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) was founded in 2013 by a faction of the ruling ANC, which championed far-left black nationalist causes and felt that the ANC was too accommodating to the interest of the wealth-owning whites. In their first parliamentary elections, they promptly took 25 out of 400 seats, which made them the third-largest party. To effectively prevent a loss of votes in the next elections, the ANC has begun to copy the rhetoric of the EFF and accepted their demand for land expropriation. This political dynamic is very troubling for whites, who might still hold most of the economic property, but no longer wield a dominant influence in the political process.
The struggle over land reform allows for a brief examination of South Africa’s troubled racial history, which has been even more oppressive than in the US, which will also make it clear how land expropriation has arrived on the national agenda.
2.5 million years ago, the territory of what is now known as South Africa contained the Australopithecines, a forbear of the homo sapiens. Modern humans moved to South Africa in the Middle Stone Age about 125,000 years ago. The first human indigenous culture were the so-called Khoisan people, which now form a racial minority, and are called “colored” in the census classification system. Khoisan is a combination of San and Khoikhoi, two separate but related tribes. The San were hunter-gatherers while the Khoikhoi were pastoral herders. The Bantus, who originate in western Africa and are darker-skinned than the Khoisan, went on migration waves all over sub-Saharan Africa from 1000 BC onward, and have reached South Africa by about 300 AD. Being more organized and militarily dominant, the Bantus drove away the Khoisan people, who were forced to move to more arid areas.
But the real trouble only came with European colonial expansion. The Portuguese used their shops to explore the coastlines in southern Africa in 1488. They were trying to discover a better trade route to the Far East, which would otherwise have to go through the Middle East. They set up the Cape of Good Hope at the South African coast, which became an important haven for trade with the Far East. But the Portuguese did not arrive in large numbers. This changed with Dutch colonization, which began as early as 1652. The Dutch West India company set up permanently in the Cape, also taking advantage of trade routes to the Far East. Upon encountering the Dutch, two things happened to the Khoisan people. Firstly, they were decimated by smallpox, an old European disease against which the Khoisan people had no resistance or medicine. Second, as the Dutch became greedy for more and more land. They fought three wars with the Khoisan to steal their goods and land and drive them out.
As the colony lacked agriculture, the Dutch brought over farmers from the homeland. As their numbers grew, they expanded northward to occupy land, which was previously held by black people. In order to work the land, the Dutch also brought over slaves from India, Indonesia, East Africa, Mauritius and Madagascar. (The British later brought even more Indians to South Africa.) The Dutch were later also joined by Germans and French Huguenots. The racial mixing that happened among all these groups created the racial category of ‘colored’ people that were ranked lower than whites but higher than blacks under apartheid.
When the French invaded the Netherlands in 1795 and the newly founded Batavian Republic (in the Cape) became loyal to the French, the enraged British demanded a Batavian surrender to the British. When France lost the Napoleonic wars in 1805, the British inherited the Cape. The British had little interest in the interior of South Africa and held onto the Cape as a strategic site for trade with India, the crown colony of the British empire. When Britain enforced an English language policy in 1815, when they formally bought the Cape from the Netherlands, the Dutch settlers felt sidelined and oppressed, and so they trekked to the north competing with blacks for land first in a trickle from 1805 onward and then in a huge stream from the 1830s onward. The Dutch were also upset that the British banned the slave trade on which the Dutch settlers relied on. The Dutch founded three independent states that lived for a while (Republic of Transvaal/ South African Republic, Orange Free State and Natalia) before being crushed and incorporated by the British toward the turn to the twentieth century.
One ethnic group of the Bantu, the Zulu, were able to establish an empire with a centralized military that broke from clan traditions (which is a precondition to centralization). Their leader Shaka kaSenzangakhona had seized power in 1818, and went on an expansion drive of conquest, killing and pillaging in the surrounding regions. Shaka was killed by a dynastic intrigue in 1828, and his successor Dingaan was less militaristic. The Dutch and later the British ultimately put an end to Zulu expansion. When the Zulus attacked Dutch cattle and killed a group of Dutch settlers, the Dutch retaliated by killing 3,000 Zulu warriors in 1838. More importantly, the 1879 Anglo-Zulu war eliminated the Zulu empire as an independent political unit, though the Zulu had won the Battle of Isandlwana. But the British were clever enough to re-fashion their attacks with the help of Zulu collaborators who were opposed to centralized Zulu rule.
To some extent, conflict was fueled by the European desire for expansion and was undergirded by their fixed notions of private property, which had no precedent in traditional African societies. When the Europeans seized the land from blacks, they encountered resistance from them, which induced a series of frontier wars, also known as Xhosa Wars, which were won by the Europeans. The Basotho people, for instance, fought against the Orange Free State for territory, whereby both sides practiced destructive scorched-earth tactics with the Dutch being far superior in their military technology and agricultural productivity, which brought the Basotho to the brink of starvation. They signed a peace treaty in 1858 and again in 1866 (with some hostilities in between). Ultimately, Basotho was incorporated into the British empire and gained independence as Lesotho in 1966.
The Dutch were equally ruthless in their war with the Ndebele. After having killed 28 Boers (Dutch) accused for cattle rustling (stealing), the Ndebele retreated into the mountain caves. The Boers followed the Ndebele and laid siege on the caves, which resulted in the death of 1,000 to 3,000 Ndebele. By the time the remaining Ndebele surrendered, they were captured and enslaved by the Boers. The Bapedi were another black ethnicity under siege by first the Dutch and then the British from 1876 to 1879. Cut off from supplies, the Bapedi were forced to surrender.
The British Cape Colony became an autonomously run part of the British Empire. They had their own parliament and non-racial laws, which was unusual for that time period. The discovery of diamonds (1866) and gold (1886) in the Transvaal and Kimberley, Dutch and black-held territories, and the ambitious Cecil Rhodes becoming Prime Minister of Cape Colony (1890-96), changed the quiet equilibrium. Rhodes got rid of the multi-racial franchise and sent British troops to conquer the Dutch-held territories, resulting in the two Anglo-Boer wars. The first war (1880-81) was won by the Boers, which forced the British to recognize the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, but the second war (1899-1902) was won by the British, which resulted in the dissolution of the Boer states and the British takeover of the Boer colonies. What was even worse for blacks was that they were conscripted and coerced to fight and die on behalf of either the British or the Dutch.
It was first the European greed for land followed by the greed for diamonds and gold, which had created severe military conflicts and the displacement of blacks. The gold discovery had attracted British, German and Austrian industrialists, which also included many Jews. The industrialists attempted to recruit black laborers, who refused to work in those dangerous and onerous conditions. They then turned to Chinese laborers, attracting 53,000 Chinese indentured servants who were willing to work in the mines for lower wages than was offered to Africans.
The Chinese were an ambiguous category, sometimes regarded as colored sometimes as Asian (which is reserved for Indians and South Asians), but were clearly discriminated under apartheid as they were non-white. The arrival of Taiwanese immigrants, especially businesspeople, in the 1980s created the weird situation that that the Taiwanese were considered honorary whites, while the Chinese were regarded as colored people. The end of apartheid restored civil rights to the Chinese, which coincided with the massive increase in immigration from mainland China, which swelled the Chinese population to over 400,000.
With the British victory in the Anglo-Boer war, the British set out to unify the country as South Africa in 1909, and in 1913 passed the Natives Land Act, which allocated a paltry 8% of the land to blacks, and 90% to whites, who were 20% of the population. This law was the basis for later laws on apartheid. British and Dutch tensions did not disappear, as South Africa developed two political parties, the pro-British South African Party and the pro-Dutch National Party. Dispossessed Boers attempted an uprising against the British in 1914, which the British successfully crushed. In the two world wars that were initiated by Europeans (chiefly the Germans), South Africans of all races were again called upon to serve in these wars, which had also resulted in the death of many blacks.
While South Africa as a nation solidly fought on the side of the British, i.e. the Allies, the Nazi Germans were able to infiltrate and nurture a pro-German Afrikaner-nationalist (i.e. Boer) movement, which were the Ossewa Brandwag (OB), which was later absorbed into the National Party that instituted and ruled over apartheid South Africa. The Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) was another white supremacist group emerging in the 1970s, which was inspired by OB and the Nazis.
The National Party, which was briefly in government from 1924 to 1938, and then without interruption from 1948 to 1994, formally instituted apartheid in 1948. But it was not a new system, but rather an extension of discriminatory policies implemented by the Boers and the British since the 1850s. The 1970 Homeland Citizens Act established homeland reserves, or Bantustans, which concentrated the black population while driving them out of cities, which whites monopolized for themselves. The forced segregation and inferior economic status of blacks not surprisingly created discontent, which culminated in the 1976 uprising, which resulted in a harsh military crackdown and a strengthening of white police and military at all levels of South African government. A large chunk of the South African government budget was devoted to military and security spending.
The UN had not approved of apartheid, and passed a 1966 resolution which held apartheid as a “crime against humanity”. A 1973 apartheid convention was passed with 91 votes for and four against (Portugal, South Africa, UK and US), which resulted in a suspension of South Africa’s UN membership. A 1977 Security Council resolution barred arms export to South Africa. The tacit support of the US, which thought that South Africa was a bulwark against communism, and the military support from Israeli arms manufacturers were crucial in maintaining apartheid. The US supported the South African regime for attempting to prevent communism in neighboring countries like Angola and Mozambique. Cuba had militarily supported the Angolan communists, while South Africa supported the Angolan nationalists. The Angolan Civil War had resulted in the deaths of between 550,000 and 1.25 million people.
Apartheid was not simply about segregation, but also racial tensions and hostilities. Extra-judicial killings in the 1980s that were sponsored by the state led to hundreds of killings. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was tasked to review the number of deaths during the apartheid period, found that 4,500 deaths were caused by the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP, a Zulu nationalist group led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi), 2,700 by the (white) South African police and 1,300 by the ANC.
The ANC was the main political movement that opposed apartheid, though there were other organizations like the Pan-African Congress (which was explicitly anti-white) and the United Democratic Front (which used rent boycotts, student protest and labor strikes to fight apartheid). The key strategy against apartheid (at least initially) was passive resistance, which was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and his Indian struggle for independence. The South African government reacted with harsh crackdowns and by the 1960s, the ANC and PAC were pushed into the underground.
External changes in the form of the end of the Cold War, ultimately, led to the downfall of the apartheid regime. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the ANC would no longer get weapons and funding, and the US no longer saw an incentive to support the apartheid regime. Domestic political opposition in the US similarly made it difficult for the US administration to continue supporting the apartheid regime. President Frederik de Klerk and ANC leader Nelson Mandela negotiated the end of apartheid laws in June 1991, and an election for 1994, which restored the franchise to black South Africans. The ANC and the IFP were also permitted to participate in the election, such that ANC (in a common ballot with the labor confederation COSATU and the South African Communist Party) promptly received 63% of the vote, while the ruling National Party (NP) dropped to only 20%.
Under a common agreement, Nelson Mandela was tasked to form a national unity government, which included the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party. Mandela gave the two deputy president positions to Thabo Mbeki (ANC), who succeeded Mandela, and F.W. de Klerk from the National Party. De Klerk ultimately withdrew from the government in 1996 after being disappointed that constitutional changes did not guarantee National Party rule until 2004. Interestingly, Mandela also reappointed Derek Keys as finance minister and Chris Stals as central bank governor, who had previously served under de Klerk’s rule. It was clear to political observers that Mandela cared mostly about continuity in economic policy to maintain the economic status of South Africa, and that meant not to antagonize whites with land expropriation.
When the ANC was still in opposition it had demanded land expropriation, which was an electoral strategy to get the black electorate to support the ANC. Once in government one might argue that Mandela was tied by the coalition agreement with the NP, which would have blocked any radical moves toward land expropriation. But even more importantly, Mandela’s temperament was moderate, calling for racial “reconciliation”, i.e. no extreme moves to antagonize wealthy whites. Out of the more than 5 million whites in South Africa, 800,000 skilled whites permanently left South Africa, mostly migrating to other English-speaking countries (AUS, NZ, UK, US, Canada), citing concerns of personal safety after the end of white rule. Their emigration came to the chagrin of Mandela, as he feared that South Africa will be left with only impoverished blacks.
Dire fiscal and economic circumstances in the post-apartheid era also constrained political action. The South African government had a foreign debt of 86 billion rand (or 14 billion dollars) when the apartheid regime ended, which tied up 20% of the national budget for debt repayment. AIDS turned out to be another financial burden, as the spread of AIDS resulted in over 5 million people being infected by the disease, and the national health services being unable to cope with burgeoning health care needs. In 2014, 47% of South Africans (mostly black) were still living in poverty, which provides fertile ground for opposition to the ANC government that failed to deliver on economic development.
The ANC dashed any hopes for a socialist transformation (nationalization of industries, higher taxes on wealth, land expropriation) once elected to power, and stuck to broadly neoliberal policies, which meant the hope to attract foreign capital and secure the private property of investors, who themselves see little incentive to fund mass job creation. South Africa’s primary export items are gold, platinum, coal and iron ore, which are hardly commodities that could transform the country to a high-income economy. It is also questionable whether foreign investors can be attracted with the poor availability of basic infrastructure like reliable electricity. South African economic growth was boosted during the initial post-apartheid years, but declined substantially since the 2008 economic crash, reaching 0.3% in 2016.
The lack of economic development naturally breeds distributional struggles, which are aggravated by the influx of refugees from the rest of Africa, ranging from countries like Zimbabwe, Burundi, Congo, Rwanda, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. Native people’s perception of competition for jobs, business opportunities, public services and housing result in xenophobic attacks against refugees and migrants.
Popular legitimacy for the government is also impaired by perceptions of corruption, which ensnared Ramaphosa’s predecessor Jacob Zuma. Zuma gave government contracts to the Gupta family, a South African family of Indian descent, running a business empire for computer equipment, media and mining. Zuma also appointed people to the government cabinet that were suggested by the Gupta family. The Gupta family in turn funded the election of Zuma, gave him other gifts and appointed family members of Zuma into highly paid positions in the company. Trade union leader Zwelinizima Vavi had called Gupta the “shadow government” of South Africa. Zuma’s corruption was one of the reasons that the ANC no longer supported Zuma, so he was replaced by Ramaphosa.
Thus, we arrive in today’s difficult political dilemma, where the perception of a lack of economic progress is combined with a lack of political trust in the ANC, which has held power for the past 24 years. As they sense political support among blacks slipping away, who are hungry for progress and redistribution, and the opposition EFF expose the ANC for being too accommodationist to whites, the ANC will seek to copy the strategy of the EFF to prevent electoral leakage to the EFF. In my native Austria, the conservative party gained 7 percentage points and won the elections on the basis of copying the rhetoric of the right wing FPO, focusing on excluding refugees and unwanted migrants from the polity. This strategy worked astoundingly well in the context of the refugee wave that came to Europe.
It may not not sound fair for white South Africans to lose their land simply because their forbears had driven out blacks from their ancestral homeland and solidified this injustice with formal apartheid laws. But in a largely rural population, the attainment of land is often a precondition for better economic livelihood. The poverty of blacks that are concentrated in shantytowns cannot be overcome unless they are given a stake in society, either via good jobs or access to fertile land. On the other hand, access to fertile land should not result in less production, which could happen if blacks do not receive enough funding, equipment or training to upkeep modern agricultural practices. As an outsider, there is no easy solution for it, because whites are unwilling to turn over the keys to their farm and then provide blacks with the support to run the farm, which whites think belongs to them.
Japan is cited as being a successful case for past land reform. The post-war American occupation of Japan had allowed authorities to hurt the interest of powerful landlords, who used to lease out land to farm laborers and small farmers and collect huge rents. The government forced the landlords to sell their land to the government, which in turn sold it to the farm laborers, who could benefit from ownership over land without the payment of rents to landlords. Japan had been successful in radical land redistribution. Obviously, the ANC is not an external party like the US, but it would have to be the responsible entity to force the sale of white-owned land, but crucially do it with (fixed) compensation. The harder part will be how to get the new black landowners to produce at high levels of output. This would convince me that any land reform has to take place gradually, which will piss off all sides (whites for being gradually squeezed out and blacks for feeling that it moves too slowly).
A forceful acquisition of white-owned land could also result in a further emigration of the remaining white population in South Africa. Mandela was right to be concerned about the outflow of talent, which South Africa-still one of the wealthier economies of sub-Saharan Africa- can ill afford. Whether Mandela’s moderate legacy can be preserved is largely questionable as he is dead, and the country will have to figure out what it wants to do in the years ahead. In the absence of employment generation or the establishment of industry, it is questionable whether existing social tensions and inequality along racial and class lines can be overcome.