South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, recently announced that foreigners will be barred from owning land (farm land) in South Africa. Congratulations the African National Congress (ANC)! He announced this during the 2015 State of the Nation Address (SONA). The 2015 South African SONA is notoriously remembered for the chaos which occurred in the honourable parliament. The chaos and confusion which occurred in the South African parliament overshadow some of the pertinent policy pronouncements which president Zuma pronounced. It is not my interest to broadly focus on the South African SONA. I am not competent to do that. My interest is on the Land Holdings Bill that Zuma pronounced. This bill bars foreigners from owning land in South Africa. Instead of owning land, foreign individuals and companies “would be restricted to long-term leases of between 30 and 50 years” (Ed Cropley, 14 February 2015). Zuma also announced that no South African would be allowed to own more than 12,000 hectares. If anyone is found owning such huge chunks, he/she would have his land acquired by the government (the government would buy it). The same land would be re-distributed to the landless. This bill received mixed feelings amongst South Africans. Obviously, the black South Africans were delighted to hear their president talking in this way. Many are landless. A good number of whites felt targeted because they own huge chunks of land (more than 12,000 hectares) each. Historically, the black South Africans were dispossessed of their land by the white colonisers. This was one of the burning issues in the struggle against apartheid. The ANC-led government had an obligation, when it took power in 1994, to ensure that a radical land reform was implemented. This was one of the ways of achieving the objectives of the long struggle against racial discrimination. I applaud the ANC-led government for the bold decision it has undertaken to prohibit foreign individuals and companies from owning land in South Africa. This is a welcome move. I have argued for this in my country, Botswana. In many countries, foreigners cannot own land, but lease it for a certain period of time. Why is the ANC’s Land Holdings Bill welcome in the South African context? To start with, the land question in South Africa is extremely controversial. This has been so since Jan van Riebeeck accidentally landed at the Cape in 1652. For the next 300 years or so, van Riebeeck and his kith and kin extended their presence in South Africa (grabbing land and displacing the indigenous communities).
In 1913, the Native Land Act further pushed blacks away from their land, displacing and making them landless. From 1913 to 1994, the black South Africans were at logger heads with minority white-led governments over the land issues. Most of the liberation movements in South Africa, if not all, which sprang up in the 1950s and intensified in the 1960s, aimed at reclaiming the land from the whites. Thus, the ANC and other liberation movements promised black Africans that once they take power, land reform would be the first item in their political agendas. When the ANC took power in 1994, it introduced a tripartite land reform programme: land redistribution, land restitution and tenure reform. Yet, these have failed dismally to resolve the land question in that country. For instance, the land redistribution, based on market principles, failed to acquire the needed land as the farmers demanded crazy prices. This ended up causing a stalemate and agitation. The willing-buyer, willing-seller policy proved to be problematic as I once argued in this column. As for the land restitution, it has been difficult/very slow to process the land claims (from individuals and communities). The tenure reform is also facing some challenges (of legal, constitutional and cultural nature). All in all, the South African land reform, since 1994, has had disappointing outcomes. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by Julius Malema contends that once it takes power, it would nationalise all the land (in other words, confiscating all the land) and redistributing it to the landless. This approach appeals to most black South Africans. President Zuma’s Land Holdings Bill is almost similar to what the EFF has been calling for. Similar sentiments are echoed in Namibia and other parts of southern Africa. Zimbabwe has actually done it. The curbing of foreign ownership of land is a good move. The ensuing global land grabbing has put African poor and weak classes under precarious conditions. The multi-national companies, rich individuals and countries of the North/developed countries, including the Chinese, have managed to buy swathes of land, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, cheaply. This has led to the displacement of the poor, and denied them free access to resources (which they have held under customary laws/norms). Some African governments have a tendency of mortgaging their natural resource to foreigners on the basis that these people are bringing in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Is the FDI important than our own people who are left landless and in poverty? I applaud the ANC-led government for taking the right decision. Here in Botswana, we see some foreigners buying arable land from the poor locals cheaply. Some foreigners are engaged in the buying of residential plots, develop them, and sell to Batswana exorbitantly. We are told that this is the FDI. One day Batswana will find all their land gone! Let’s stop mortgaging our country!