THE LAND QUESTION: Willing-buyer willing seller policy is not the answer

SHARE   |   Sunday, 18 January 2015   |   By Dr Boga Manatsha

Last weekend, the South African president, Jacob Zuma, spoke against the willing buyer-willing seller policy. He was visibly frustrated when talking about the issue at the African National Congress (ANC’s) 103rd anniversary celebrations at the Cape Town Stadium. Zuma is said to have devoted two pages of his 23-page speech to the land question. The crux of his speech was that the market-led land reform (MLLR) was failing the landless. He then argued that his government would “constitutionally expropriate” the land. Zuma was quoted as saying: “We reassert the correctness of the Constitution, but admit that usage of the 'willing buyer, willing seller' policy went on far too long and had unsatisfactory results”. Zuma continued, “We commit that the land will be returned to our people and the ANC calls on its government to act with necessary speed to put the legislation in place this year”. This is not surprising because, to date, South Africa has failed to redistribute land to the majority of the landless. In fact, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) of Julius Malema and the Abahlali base Mjondolo (squatter dwellers) have been calling on the government to expropriate land without compensation. The EFF has been urging the landless to occupy land on the basis that the land belongs to Africans, and was stolen- which is true. In this piece, I want to explain the problems surrounding the willing-buyer willing seller policy. I am of the view that this policy, no matter how we view it, is anti- redistributive, anti-social justice, and simplifies the land question in postcolonial Africa. 

The purpose of a land reform is to redistribute land equitably to the landless and or to those who need it. There are various ways of undertaking a land reform. In some countries, especially in Africa, when the national liberation movements forced the colonisers and (those who stole our land) to relinquish power, the newly established governments sought to nationalise all resources. Many of these newly formed governments were Marxist-Leninist or Maoism in orientation. First and foremost, they targeted the whites (colonisers) who owned chunks of stolen land. These people were simply told to surrender or else were killed. It was called revolution. In Some countries, the land was expropriated without compensation and redistributed to Africans. How the land was redistributed depended on each country. For example, in countries like Tanzania, the collective ownership of land under the vigilisation policy was introduced. In Mozambique, the Marxist-inspired government simply expelled the Portuguese and expropriated the land. In other countries, however, the individual ownership of land was also introduced (for example leaseholds). The freehold ownership of land (a colonial machination) was discouraged in many countries. In fact, the state led a radical land reform, which aimed at dismantling large land holdings. The State-led Land Reforms (SLLR’s) objective is usually to expropriate land without (or with little) compensation and redistribute it freely to the landless. The state, in some cases, also funds post-expropriation programmes such as resettlements. First, the expropriation without pay was/is justified on the basis that the land was, and rightfully so, stolen from Africans. Second, African countries had/have no means (financially) to buy back their land as demanded by those who now own(ed) it. Third, for political reasons, it was/is irrational to expect the liberation movements (now ruling parties) to buy back their land. This is mainly because they fought for decades to get it back. Fourth, it was/is morally wrong to buy back what was stolen in the eyes of many African leadership. Finally, in the African context, the land was never sold. It was in this principle that many African nationalist movements refused to buy back the land from those who, in the first place, stole it. To rescue this quagmire, some former colonial maters had to intervene and provide African governments with funds to buy back the land as happened in Kenya. In Zimbabwe, the British reneged on its promise to fully fund the land reform- hence the current ‘unresolved’ land problems. The land question was the most contested of all the issues at the Lancaster House Conference in 1979 which discussed Zimbabwe’s Road to Independence. 


Some Africans, who are clouded by neoliberal thinking, do not want to agree that the colonisers (be the British or Portuguese) stole our land. They did. It is high time that we (Africans) tell them so to their faces, and demand justice. In Botswana, those who still have doubts should go to the archives and read how the Tati Concessions, for example, got hold of the land in the North East. Similarly, the British South Africa Company stole land in Zimbabwe. All these realties make the willing-buyer, willing-seller policy very unjust and problematic. This policy is supported by the neoliberals, the Western governments and the Breton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund). The principle is that Africans (or our broke governments) should, in the first place, show the willingness to buy back ‘our’ land. Second, the landlords (those who stole it) should also show the willingness to sell ‘our’ land to us. For sure, Africans will always have a will to buy back their land as landlessness, poverty and hunger dictate.

 However, the means (finance) to buy back ‘our’ land is a serious problem. The landlords are not always willing to sell the land. Some prefer to be speculators. If they do, they always demand exorbitant or crazy prices. They base their prices on open market value. This so-called market value makes it almost impossible for African governments to pay the bill. This means that the landlords would always have a veto-power. African governments become unwilling-buyers! They cannot afford the crazy prices. A stalemate is created. Thus, the Market-led Land Reform (MLLR) fails to purchase and redistribute enough land. In other words, the market restricts a just land reform from being undertaken. In most cases, the law (property rights) and the rule of law are used against any expropriation without compensation. Any government which tries to go against the market is seen as roguish and disorderly. The MLLR is anti-redistributive. It is difficult to achieve the objectives of a redistributive land reform under the MLLR. The World Bank, for instance, may fund MLLRs, yet come up with demands such as the commercial or profit-based use of the said land. Africans do not need land for profit or economic reasons alone. Land in the African context has multiple uses (cultural, social and spiritual). Thus, the MLLRs, funded by foreign donors, undermine all these. It is in this context that in South Africa, a land Restitution Act was passed in 1994. It tries to address land inequities and also restitutes land rights to Africans. The willing-buyer, willing-seller policy is unjust. It aims to justify that Africans have no choice, but to buy back what belongs to them. I disagree. Africans have a choice. Mugabe’s method shows that Africans have a choice. I advocate for a compromise between the landlords and Africans. African governments should demand it. It should be a win-win situation. 

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