The subject of land reform in South Africa returned to the headlines this August after new president Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that the country’s constitution would be changed in order to facilitate the expropriation of land without compensation.
This comes as the programme of ‘willing buyer, willing seller’, whereby the South African government subsidises the buyer to procure farmland at its (claimed) market value, with a view to redistributing ownership away from the white minority in favour of the black majority, has proved to be inadequate in terms of redressing the dispossession of the indigenous majority, initially by British colonialism and then reinforced by the odious apartheid regime.
As reported by BBC news: “It has become patently clear that our people want the constitution to be more explicit about expropriation of land without compensation, as demonstrated in the public hearings,” Mr Ramaphosa said in a TV address.
“The intention of this proposed amendment is to promote redress, advance economic development, increase agricultural production and food security.” (Is South Africa’s land reform an election gimmick? by Milton Nkosi, 11 August 2018)
It is reluctantly acknowledged by the corporate media that land reform is something to which South Africa and its people have a right to aspire, and most reports and articles on the subject don’t fail to mention the criminal injustice wrought upon the country by years of colonialism and the resulting racist oppression and dispossession of the indigenous peoples.
They are more equivocal, however, on the idea that the present imbalance must be corrected if poor South Africans are to prosper, and are quick to mention the possibility of an adverse ‘market reaction’ to such a move (that is, the threat of imperialist economic sabotage in some form or other).
Popular pressure for land redistribution
A quarter of a century after black South Africans won legal equality and brought down the white supremacist rule of apartheid, government figures show that white people, who make up just 9 percent of the population, still own 72 percent of all the farmland that is held by individuals (as opposed to the state or corporations).
The redistribution of land was a fundamental programmatic policy for which the now governing African National Congress (ANC) fought during its struggle against apartheid – the neo-colonial system that enshrined racial discrimination in law.
Alluded to by many corporate journalists is the fact that the ANC has been pressured into recognising the failure of the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ policy by the activity of a breakaway political party, formed by a former leader of the ANC Youth League, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which set the policy of land expropriation without compensation as a central tenet of its platform when it was formed in 2013.
Having reflected the desire of the country’s impoverished masses for land redistribution on these terms, the EFF seems to have been successful in bringing pressure to bear on the governing ANC to address the issue through the National Assembly, in which the EFF holds 25 seats, against the opposition (right-wing and largely white) Democratic Alliance’s 89 and the ANC’s 249.
Zimbabwe: example and threat
Predictably in the western corporate media, the warnings against expropriation without compensation are accompanied by allusions to Zimbabwe’s economic difficulties, which are in the imperialist press attributed solely to ‘chaos’ allegedly caused by the revolutionary land reforms initiated there in the late 1990s.
But such criticisms predictably ignore and distort the real history of imperialist meddling in Zimbabwe. They ignore, for example, the 1979 Lancaster House agreement, under whose terms the victorious freedom fighters of Zanu-PF, in a concession occasioned by the balance of forces, agreed not to redistribute the land straight away, but to delay, and to pay compensation to its colonisers, if Britain would subsidise half the cost of each sale on the same ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ principle as has been in place for some time now in South Africa.
The Zimbabwean government was forced to take matters into its own hands, however, by Britain’s ongoing reluctance to keep to its side of this bargain. The funds made available were inadequate and late, and the situation came to a head when Tony Blair’s newly-elected government finally reneged on the deal altogether in 1997.
International development secretary Clare Short wrote a letter to Zimbabwe’s agricultural minister stating, in clear breach of the Lancaster House Accords: “I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and, as you know, we were colonised, not colonisers.”
The imperialist media also ignore the role played by vicious economic sanctions that have been levelled against Zimbabwe ever since the land reform programme was initiated, up to and including today – a retribution that has caused unspeakable hardship to the Zimbabwean masses and huge damage to their economy throughout the last two decades.
Understandably, the clear and present threat of similar sanctions is something that many in South Africa are concerned about when the topic of expropriation without compensation has arisen; the murmurings of the US and European elites about how international ‘investment opportunities’ may ‘dry up’ if the sanctity of private property rights are violated in any way has more than a distinct whiff of threat when directed by imperialism at a former colony.
The imperialist media are expressing concern over the land reform measures, reflecting the unease of their imperialist masters at seeing a possible assault on its interests. Meanwhile, huge publicity has also been given by imperialist media to charges of corruption against ANC leaders, with many of the party’s high-ranking officials being accused of lining their own pockets while facilitating wealthy overseas interests, principally the Gupta brothers from India, in contradiction to the interests of the popular masses.
US President Donald Trump recently voiced alarm about reports of mobs being encouraged to attack and murder white farmowners in a campaign of violence and intimidation, inferring that the ANC is backing a racist campaign of ethnic cleansing against the descendants of European colonisers.
South Africa does indeed have a high rate of violent crime – and there has been much notice taken of a recent spike of 6.9 percent in the murder rate there. But this, whilst hardly desirable, must also been seen in context. The murder rate in South Africa today is far lower than it was during the apartheid era, having fallen from 69 per 100,000 of the population in 1994/5 to 36 in 2017/18. (Why Cape Town’s murder rate is rising, The Economist, 4 October 2018)
And in a country where on average 57 people are murdered every day, the 62 ‘farm murders’ recorded within the last year (in which 46 of the victims were white) demonstrate that the ‘white genocide’ that is supposed to be being perpetrated against landowners is a myth.
The violent crime that remains is better understood as being but one manifestation of the bitter legacy of apartheid oppression and the totally unbalanced distribution of wealth and resources that still prevails in the country, despite advances that have been made since apartheid was overthrown.
By and large, the imperialist media appear to believe that fear of imperialist reprisal has a sufficient hold over South Africa and its government as to be able to influence, or at least slow down, the process of land redistribution in a manner less disagreeable to imperialist interests, as an article in The Week magazine spelled out:
“Most analysts agree that South Africa isn’t headed for the violent land grabs, food shortages and economic collapse that occurred under President Robert Mugabe.
“‘Those fears are overdone,’ says David Pilling, Africa editor of the Financial Times. ‘Sensibly handled, land reform need look nothing like Zimbabwe.’
“The Council on Foreign Relations, an American thinktank specialising in US foreign policy and international affairs, has come to a similar conclusion.
“‘Unlike Venezuela or Zimbabwe, South Africa is a constitutional democracy conducted according to the rule of law with a strong judiciary, civil society, and free press,’ the council says.” (Fact Check: the truth about land reform in South Africa, 20 August 2018)
Time will show whether such imperialist ‘optimism’ is justified.
Land reform is undoubtedly an emotive issue facing the ANC and the working classes in South Africa given the history of the country, but without a clear break from imperialist domination, the dream of building an economically fair and prosperous nation, delivering the fruits of liberation to workers in either the towns or the countryside, will be impossible to realise.
It is a cause for optimism that the country is an integral member (with Brazil, Russia, India and China) of the independent Brics group of large emerging economies, which, sooner or later, will be in a position to challenge the economic dominance of Washington via the dollar (as the international reserve currency), the IMF and the World Bank (as means of ensuring submission to the imperialist pecking order through the conditions imposed on the extending of loans and lines of credit to the developing countries).
The chances for South Africa to advance and prosper are obviously far greater as a part of the growing global trade arrangements being spearheaded by China than they are tied in to the decaying system of western imperialism, and this should be clear to all concerned.