from Africa in Transition

Nelson Mandela and the Land Question in South Africa

December 10, 2014

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A year after the death of Nelson Mandela, his reputation for reconciliation is undiminished. However, a more rounded evaluation of his career is emerging, one that takes into account the difficult choices that he had to make. I was part of that process in an article I wrote for Foreign Policy and my Council on Foreign Relations Expert Brief. Bernadette Atuahene, the author of the compelling We Want What’s Ours: Learning from South Africa’s Land Restitution Program, in a thoughtful Los Angeles Times Op-ed looks specifically at Mandela’s compromises over the land question at the time of South Africa’s transition to “non-racial” democracy. She concludes that Mandela left a legacy of both reconciliation and inequality.

At the time of the 1994 transition, whites, less than 10 percent of the population, owned 87 percent of the land. (As the government was whites-only, government owned land counted as “white.”) As part of the compromise to secure the transition and end legal and constitutional apartheid, the liberation movements led by Mandela agreed that the current owners would keep their land. In return, the new government was committed to restitution of land taken from blacks by the apartheid process, reform of the land tenure system to benefit tenants, and a redistribution strategy that would benefit those who had never been allowed to own land. The post-transition ANC government’s goal was to transfer 30 percent of the land from whites to blacks in the first five years.

Twenty years later, only 10 percent of South Africa’s land has been transferred from whites to blacks. When the state has acquired land for restitution or redistribution, it has paid the owners full market value. That means that the pace of land restitution and redistribution is determined by budgetary allocations. And the ANC government has many demands on its resources. Further, Atuahene argues, the land reform process is fundamentally unfair. When the state takes white-owned land now, it pays full market value. But, restitution to former owners who lost their land under apartheid mostly receive “standard settlement offers,” a payment calculated on the basis of the value of the land when it was seized that is far less than today’s.

Atuahene’s central argument is that land reform is failing because of “structural flaws in the political bargain that Mandela struck.” She fully acknowledges, however that to ensure the transition, Mandela may have had little choice. Nevertheless, the bargain is unfair.

Mandela’s concessions over land are a reminder that the 1994 transition to “non-racial democracy” was not the result of a triumph of the liberation movements over the apartheid government. It was a tough political bargain that reflected the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, and the outcome was not inevitable. The collapse of the Soviet Union reduced funding available to the liberation movements, and the ANC-led armed struggle was far from inflicting a military defeat on the South African Defence Force or the South African Police Service. Further, the liberation movement was not monolithic, and there was a civil war between supporters of the ANC and Inkatha, a Zulu political and cultural movement, in KwaZulu-Natal. On the other hand, the South African economy was in the doldrums, the international sanctions regime underscored the apartheid regime’s pariah status, many townships were ungovernable, and few white political leaders any longer had confidence in apartheid as a legal and constitutional system. The last apartheid government recognized that apartheid had to go. So, both sides made a deal. But, the deal mostly addressed legal and constitutional issues; the social and economic realities were largely unaddressed, with white privilege largely preserved.