THE LAND QUESTION: Misconceptions, Confusions and Controversies: South Africa’s Land Holdings Bill

SHARE   |   Sunday, 01 March 2015   |   By Dr Boga Manatsh
South African president, Jacob Zuma South African president, Jacob Zuma

In my previous installment, I introduced the arguments on the above matter. I posited that I fully support the African National Congress (ANC) led government for coming up with this Bill. I am of the view that access to land by citizens in any African state is paramount. It should be a birth right. It should be my birth right to own land in Botswana. A UK citizen should have his birth right there, not in Zimbabwe. It is common knowledge that land has multiple values for an African. I have outlined these values in many of my writings. It, however, suffices to note that culturally, land plays a critical role in African societies. Maybe it does not in the western world. But this does not mean that they should impose their neoliberal notions on the way Africans view their land. Africa’s land questions are complicated by neoliberalism. The views I hold about the ANC’s Land Bill may not be popular with many. I am certainly provocative.
Hereinafter, I discuss the controversies, misconceptions and myths surrounding Zuma’s so-called Bill. I read an article written by one BBC journalist, Milton Nkosi, about this Bill. He writes that “President Zuma can be accused of many things, including corruption and ineptitude, but he is no Robert Mugabe. The president and the ANC insist that land distribution has to take place under the framework of the law” (Nkosi 19 February 2015). He boldly submits that what happened in Zimbabwe (land grabbing) cannot happen in South Africa. In short, he tells us that “South Africa is not Zimbabwe”. Nkosi is right to note that those who uphold the rule of law and democratic dispensations will always shun land invasions. But those who subscribe to social justice argue that it is wrong for some individuals to own chunks of land whilst others have no shelter or land to produce their own food. They argue that the rule of law, which emphasises the respect of property rights, undermines massive land redistribution since land barons cling on their land for ever. The proponents of radical land reforms (through state intervention) believe that under neoliberal framework, pro-poor land reforms are impossible to achieve. For example, Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform in 2000 achieved what the government had failed in twenty years.
Some, especially in South Africa, have justified squatting and land invasions on the basis of restorative, redistributive, distributive and retributive justices. It is important that when critiques discuss the land question in Africa- they should look at the issue from a broader perspective (of course the rule of law is critical, but the concept of social justice has to be taken into consideration too). I have been following the discussion in South Africa. The two perspectives emerge strongly: first: those subscribing to capitalistic thinking and neo-liberalism see Zuma’s Bill as anachronistic and belonging to the Stone Age. They argue that this would undermine property rights and infringe on peoples constitutional rights. They further tell us that it is likely to scare investors. Second: those who defend the Bill see it as the most progressive policy since 1994- when the ANC took power. They use the principles of social justice, national pride and restorative justice. To them, South Africans need to enjoy the fruits of their long-fought struggle. There are, however, merits and demerits in both views. The Bill is shrouded in controversies and lack of clarity.
There are few facts I want to put forward so that the reader can contextualise the South African debate. First, the Land Holdings Bill applies to agricultural land only. Second, only about 5 to 7 per cent of foreigners own land in South Africa. Third, about 80 per cent of the agricultural land in South Africa is owned by the whites (who are South African citizens). Most acquired or inherited this land after the enactment of the 1913 Native Land Act. This Act pushed Africans out of their land. This 80 per cent land holding is alarming because the whites in South Africa constitute only 10 per cent of the total population.
The Land Holdings Bill classifies land as follows: environmentally and sensitive lands, lands of historic and cultural significance, and strategic lands. No foreigner will be allowed to own or lease the lands under these categories. It should be noted that there are foreigners who already own land in some of these categories. According to the proposed Bill, such owners would be forced to cede the land considered to be ‘strategic’. Some view this as likely to undermine the constitutional rights of some individuals. The South African government contends that the law would be “invoked” if the land is deemed strategic. Such provisions in the Bill sent alarm and made some property owners jittery. Mac Maharaj, a senior advisor of Zuma, downplayed this and said that people should “stop panicking”. Maharaj was amongst the ANC hot-heads who were imprisoned with Nelson Mandela. He strongly believes in the ANC’s land reform policy.
The land barons and the property moguls oppose the Bill. For example, the Pam Golding Property Group criticizes the Bill and sees it as highly likely to scare investors. The property moguls argue that these investors bring in jobs and money. This view is supported by Lisa Crossley, Director of Auction Exchange. She contends that “There are development opportunities not attracting local money currently which may benefit from some foreign investment and whilst any country may want to safeguard its assets in the long term, government needs to present a balanced approach to avoid further alienating potentially good investors”. These views are based on the understanding that land, a fundamental means of production, should be exploited to maximize profit. Marxists argued that those with the capital shall exploit it to the fullest. Capitalists accuse those (peasants) who want to cling on it for social and cultural reasons. Colonialism became entrenched in Africa because of the riches provided by its land.
In the South African debate on the Land Holdings Bill, the views of the peasants, those who survive by tilling the land, are silenced. The views of the property moguls are pronounced. From the debate, it appears as if the so-called property developers are doing ordinary South Africans a big favour by ‘grabbing’ their land and developing it (and in the process providing them with jobs). It is, therefore, inconceivable to them that the ANC would want to interrupt such ‘developments’. It is like the capitalists are the unfortunate Good Samaritans and the benevolent lots who are being denied the ‘right’ to develop South Africans. The problem with neo-liberalism is that it simplifies the land question in postcolonial Africa. I should not be misconstrued as arguing that Zuma’s Bill will resolve the South African land question. It will not. But the Bill acknowledges that there is a problem which needs to be addressed.
The Bill will not solve the problem because foreigners own only about 5 to 7 per cent of the land in South Africa. But there is a need to ensure that this figure does not grow. The main problem is the white South Africans, who own 80 per cent of the land. South Africa attracts foreign investors because it has a lenient policy on property ownership. Again, its currency, the Rand, is cheap/favourable to foreign investors, especially from developed countries.  By restricting this Bill to agricultural land, Zuma will not solve the housing problem in South Africa. South Africans, especially those in the urban areas, are unable to buy residential land. Prices are skyrocketing due to the high demands from foreign and local property moguls.
I understand the pressure the ANC is facing: first, there is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the ANC prodigal son. The EFF’s radical manifesto calls for the compulsory acquisition of land, mines and banks without compensation. Due to its radicalism, the EFF managed to win 25 parliamentary seats in the 2014 general elections. It continues to talk about compulsory land acquisitions. It encourages the illegal occupations of land in South Africa. The ANC is feeling the heat. Second, the Abahlali baseMjondolo, the squatter dwellers movement, has been calling on the ANC to acquire more land for the people. It fully supports the EFF. There are other pressure groups advocating for the land rights of black South Africans such as the Land Access Movement of South Africa, the Landless People’s Movement, the Rural Network (Abahlali basePlasini) and the Poor People’s Alliance (PPA). The PPA shuns electoral politics under the banner ‘No Land! No House! No Vote!’. Faced with a plethora of pressure groups demanding radical land reform, the ANC has no choice but to think like an African ruling party. That “South Africa is not Zimbabwe” may be true theoretically. But black South Africans desperately need land. No rule of law can stop them from invading and occupying any land. Zuma made a serious blunder because black South Africans need land for housing as much as they need it for farming. That the investors will run away sounds bit problematic because such views trivialise the criticality of land in Africa context. Should Africans stop talking about reclaiming their land because such will chase investors? THEY CAN GO! 

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