from Africa in Transition

South African Land Reform: A Conundrum

May 30, 2013

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Sub-Saharan Africa

South Africa


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Food and Water Security

The Africa Research Institute has published a succinct Briefing Note that outlines the problems of land reform in South Africa and the inherent contradictions in the government’s approach. The Briefer also includes an excellent map of the agricultural regions in the country from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

As part of the political deal between the victorious British government and the defeated Afrikaaners after the Boer War (1902), about 90 percent of the country’s land was reserved for whites. As late as 1996, the Briefer points out, 60,000 white commercial farmers owned almost 70 percent of the agricultural land and leased a further 19 percent. South Africa has the most developed commercial agricultural sector in sub-Saharan Africa and is a food exporter. (Joe Slovo, a long-time leader of the South African Communist Party and a minister in Nelson Mandela’s government, famously commented that he had no interest in destroying the most effective commercial agricultural sector in Africa to create a class of African peasant proprietors.)

The apartheid-era agricultural sector was heavily dependent on government subsidies. The Briefer shows that as they have been removed, the number of commercial farmers has declined to some 40,000, of whom half have a turnover of less that U.S. $32,000. Agriculture is now only 3 percent of South African’s gross domestic product. Meanwhile the rural unemployment rate is 52 percent.

The Briefer is particularly useful for outlining the contradictions between constitutional guarantees of property rights, and the state’s obligation to “enable” all citizens’ access to land. It highlights the fact that successive African National Congress (ANC) administrations have devoted only small sums to land reform. Yet land reform appears to be a compelling issue for much of the ANC’s core constituency. Its purpose was to redress apartheid injustices, promote the redistribution of wealth and address pervasive rural poverty. By that benchmark, land reform has failed.

The Briefer suggests that a focus on the transfer of acres of land from whites to blacks is the wrong focus. Instead, land reform should be part of a broad restructuring of agriculture and the creation of a smallholder sector—Joe Slovo’s African peasant proprietors. This would have the potential for reducing rural unemployment and increasing food production without dismantling the commercial sector. It would also go some way toward redressing the injustices of the apartheid era. But, it would cost money and require the South African government to shift its funding priorities—in a country that is now predominately urban.

The Africa Research Institute is a relatively young think-tank based in London.