Prof Ruth Hall: Black South Africans dispossessed of land both pre-and-post 1994

JOHANNESBURG — Expropriation of land without compensation is a hot topic in South Africa and Professor Ruth Hall, from the University of the Western Cape, is regarded as one of the prominent experts on this issue. In fact, she’s taken so seriously that the Financial Times’ David Pilling quoted her in an opinion article this week that called for land reform to be fast-tracked for black South Africans to unlock new economic opportunities. But Professor Ruth Hall interestingly thinks that this can and should be done without changing the constitution, as she says black South Africans have been on the wrong end of the stick both pre-and-post 1994. Take a listen. – Gareth van Zyl

On the line with me from Cape Town, it’s a pleasure to welcome Professor Ruth Hall who is part of the Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape. Now Ruth, you were quoted yesterday in the Financial Times in a very interesting opinion article on land reform by David Pilling. Mr Pilling quoted you, saying that while whites under the ANC have enjoyed excellent property rights, blacks on the other hand, have been less fortunate. Can you explain what was meant by that?

It’s such a great question and I think that a lot of people think expropriation of land without compensation is a great new idea, that it’s going to speed up land reform, and that lots of black people will get land. What I was pointing out is that, in fact, black people’s property rights have been taken away in the post-democratic era and what we’ve seen is a large number of people being forcibly removed off farms… a large number of people in the communal areas being forced off their land – often for commercial, agricultural, and mining business interests. It’s often facilitated by traditional leaders. What we’re trying to say is: let’s get real about the land issue. Let’s not actually just treat this as an area of populist rhetoric. Let’s actually engage with the question that there has been dispossession of many people – not only in the colonial and apartheid eras but also, in the post-independence and democratic period. That’s what we’re trying to point to and so, the open question then is: whose property rights should be protected and who should get access to land in the future? These are the open questions that we now need to engage with.

In terms of land reform post-1994, has the ANC government failed its own voters then, by not doing enough on this issue?

Well, you know that in 1994 the ANC came into power and said, “We want to redistribute at least 30% of white commercial farmland within the first five years and then carry on from there”. And of course, it didn’t do that. Instead, between 1994 and 2018, the state has redistributed about 8% of white commercial farmland into black hands. So, yes, in quantitative terms it’s very clear that the state has failed. In qualitative terms, it’s also quite apparent from the evidence that we have that even where the state has transferred land, it failed to provide adequate support. Let’s just contrast two scenarios. One is, the situation in the middle of the twentieth century when the Apartheid government was trying to deal with the poor white problem and trying to give farms to whites to support them and subsidise them versus what we’ve been seeing in the past 20 years.

Professor Ruth Hall
Professor Ruth Hall.

What we’ve been seeing after Apartheid is a situation where the government has given land to black owners but failed to provide even basic support. You know, I’ve been very struck and very moved by interviewing people in rural areas who are saying, “Government has given us this land, but we don’t have a spade, we don’t have a rake, we don’t have a functioning water pump. We need very basic things. It’s not going to take a lot of money, but we actually can’t do anything with this land unless you give us very modest levels of support.”

Therefore, my concern is actually that the problem is not only one of money (because we actually see that there’s been a lot of money spent on land reform), but often it’s been spent very badly. And it’s rather been going to big  ‘strategic partners’, agribusiness companies and others whereas the quite modest demands of ordinary people are being ignored. So, I think that we have a problem with inequality and a problem of spending scarce money very badly.

Is a lot of that land that has been given over in some of these land reform projects just sitting idle then?

You know what: I would really love to see a proper evaluation study looking at what the outcomes of land reform are. I think it’s quite outrageous that we’ve spent over R60bn of public money on a programme of land reform and we haven’t had any monitoring and evaluation programme to look at what the outcomes are. So, we need to still answer core questions like, “Is this reducing poverty, is it reducing inequality, is it creating employment or undermining employment?” We don’t have the answers to these questions. I think that as a society we should be asking questions of our state about, firstly, the kind of land reform that we’re doing and also its ability to report on the outcomes. I would love to answer your questions about the outcomes of land reform, but the truth is we don’t have the data.

How do you think the government should tackle land reform then to create a win-win situation for everybody and even the economy?

I think our best indicator of what to do next about land reform comes from the high-level panel and the report that was produced by the high-level panel appointed by Parliament, which reported in November 2017 was chaired by former President Kgalema Motlanthe. What they did is they commissioned studies across the country. They then held public hearings, they had round tables, they really investigated this question of, you know, we have a very good constitution; we have good laws etc. But what has been the implementation, what has been the outcome of this land reform process and what should be done next? And so, I think that that is our best guide as to what should be done next and I think that one of the main arguments of the high-level panel report was to say that we have a very powerful approximation within our property clause which is Section 25.5 and it deals with land redistribution.

It says that the state must take reasonable measures to promote access to land on an equitable basis and the high-level panel actually said, “We believe that the state has not done this.” And so it’s not enough to spend R100m giving a farm to one person and then ignoring the demand of the other people. We actually need to have a process where we can democratise the land reform process, we can open it out to public debate and where people can put up their hands and say, “We want land and we want land for housing, for small-scale farming and for other purposes” and that there should be some kind of open and accountable process for dealing with that.

So, I think that this is not an issue that’s going to go away. I think that we’re going to see the land issue remaining a key area of political contestation within South Africa and, of course, it is rightly so because it’s about who owns our economy. It’s not only partly a question of historical injustice, dignity, identity, and restitution, but there’s also a question of who owns the economy, who owns what within South Africa.

Do you think that the Constitution needs to be changed as the EFF is promulgating in order to enable expropriation without compensation?

The Constitution was framed in the mid-1990s in a way that it would fit the property rights of those who owned property against the property rights of those who were dispossessed. So, we have both sets of property rights acknowledged within our property clause and I would really encourage anyone who’s interested in this debate to actually just go and look at Section 25 of the constitution. My view is that actually Section 25 of the Constitution is a mandate for transformation.

It does not insulate existing property rights. It says that the state can expropriate property in the interests of land reform. It says that when expropriating land, government need not pay a market price, that it could pay anything that constitutes just and equitable compensation and that there must be redistribution, restitution, and a reform so that the vast majority of our population who don’t have secure property rights can acquire more secure property rights. In many ways, my view is that the Constitution is our mandate; it is the vision. But our state has failed to enact the provisions of the constitution. I think that we have a state that has actually failed our Constitution and there is of course a growing call for land reform. There’s a growing call that there should be redistribution and justice. I think it’s wrong to blame the Constitution, and that we must say and acknowledge that this has been a political failure.

Do you think that lawmakers are wasting their time then by having these meetings that they’re going to have over the next few months, which I think ends in September?

Parliament passed a resolution in February to appoint a constitutional review committee to look into whether or not the property clause in the Constitution, that is Section 25, should be amended to allow for expropriation without compensation. My own view is that it looks like this is going to be a very important opportunity for people across the political spectrum to raise wider questions about land. So, while I think that if the state wants to expropriate land without compensation, it can do so already, it doesn’t need to change the Constitution. I do think that this political moment has opened up a broader debate and I think that that’s quite positive and functional.

I think that what we should be debating not just how to get the land, but to also question who should get it, what do they want land for, how should we govern this, how can we open up access to land in what is, as we understand it, the most unequal society on earth. And, of course, this not just a rural issue. This is not about everyone wanting to become farmers; 60% of our population is urbanised and a lot of the demand for land is for urban and peri-urban land. I think that while, technically, on a legal basis my understanding is that it’s not necessary to change the Constitution, I think that it’s quite productive that we’re opening up a broader public conversation about what the land reform process should look like and what the outcomes should be.

Has anybody in Parliament approached you on your thoughts or would you be approaching them during these sessions that they’ll be holding?

Well, the University of the Western Cape has always been quite active on this issue of land and we will certainly be engaging with Parliament and we will be providing our submissions.

Ruth, Business Day recently mentioned an interesting statistic about these informal settlements in urban areas in South Africa. So, in 1994 South Africa had about 300 informal settlements, now there are over 2700. Considering the high rate of urbanisation in SA, isn’t housing a more pressing problem than land?

Well, I certainly think that the demand for land is varied and across our society people want land for a secure place to be, to live, not to be evicted from. Sometimes people want to combine a residential plot with a little bit of land to cultivate some crops or to keep some chickens, goats and so on. But I think that there is a wider set of questions around urban land that need to be addressed separately and I would encourage the media to actually distinguish between urban and rural land questions in their reporting.

At the institute that you work for, you also recently held some sessions for the media on the land question, ranging from the history of dispossession to the property clause. Do you think that kind of activity is needed more within our media landscape?

I think that there’s an enormous demand within South African society for better information about land issues. I think that there is such a polarised debate right now where people are either for or against expropriation without compensation, thinking it’s a perfect answer, it’s the magic bullet or it’s the end of the world, and I think that we need to be more realistic. I think that we need to engage in the big questions, I think actually the first big question should not be how to get the land — the first big question should be who should get the land, who wants land and what do they want it for? The reason why I say this is that I think that there’s been a big shift over time from the Mandela period where there was an explicit focus on pro poor land reform, where only poor people could get access to land.

In the Mbeki period, that changed and he focused on commercial farmers. And since then, we’ve seen massive elite capture under the Zuma administration. So, here we sit with a new political moment. Under President Ramaphosa, who is land reform going to be for? I think that we need to answer the question of who it is for and what land do they want and where. I think that those are the primary questions even before the question of how to get the land. Should it be through the open market, should it be through expropriation, should it be with or without compensation? I think that these are open questions.

Finally, David Pilling in his article on the FT mentioned a few examples in Asia, such as in Japan and other countries where they’ve got this right. Are there other countries in the world that we can look to as examples of how to deal with this question appropriately?

Some of the most successful land reforms in the world have been in Southeast Asia. We’re looking at parts of India, West Bengal, Kerala, also South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. These are the countries where very dramatic land reforms were enacted and essentially what those tried to do is to take away property rights from landlords and give them to the tenants. Now the issue that we were faced with in South Africa is that there’s been such land dispossession that it’s not like we have black farmers who are tenants sitting on the land. That is why we need to answer this question of who land reform is for, and I think that we should also look to Brazil.

Brazil has been a partial success story, a partial failure story in that they also embarked on a market based land reform. They also followed the same World Bank advice that South Africa followed, which was to embark on a willing buyer, willing seller approach. But what’s been different in Brazil is because there’s very massive demand for land, there have been organised groups of people who have been occupying land and saying, “We simply take over this land and it’s over to you as the state to respond or defend these property rights”. So, I think that there are important examples from around the world and South Africa. We’re not doing this in the dark.

There’s a lot of experience from around the world about how land reforms have happened, how they can happen and an important issue here is the question of scale because there’s often an assumption that large scale commercial agriculture is the most efficient and that subdividing farms or providing farms to smaller scale farmers means a reduction in food production, it means a reduction in employment. This is not necessarily the case and so I think that we need to have both a rethinking of the land reform process, but also a rethinking of agricultural support within South Africa.

Professor Ruth Hall, thank you so much for taking the time to chat to me today and to give us this excellent insight on this very interesting topic.

Thanks so much.