Land debate: “Forty acres and a mule” – a Vision turned into a Lament

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa is not isolated in its raging debate over land. Other countries, ranging from Zimbabwe to Venezuela and even the US have grappled with the issue. But in going down this path, South Africa will need to have a consultative approach and ensure a ‘win-win’ situation for all – a tough, but possible task. – Gareth van Zyl

By Chuck Stephens*

After the American Civil War, many freedmen believed they had a moral right to own the land they had long worked as slaves. They widely expected to legally claim 40 acres (16 ha) of land (a quarter-quarter section) and a mule after the end of the war.  

The mule would serve for animal traction and transport.

Some land redistribution occurred under military jurisdiction during the war and for a brief period thereafter. But, Federal and state policy during the Reconstruction era emphasized wage labour, not land ownership, for African Americans. Almost all land allocated during the war was restored to its antebellum owners.

Man representing the Freedman’s Bureau stands between armed groups of Euro-Americans and Afro-Americans.

Most blacks acquired land through private transactions, with ownership peaking at 15,000,000 acres (6,100,000 ha) in 1910. Most of that land was in 4 states – Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina. This figure has since declined to 5,500,000 acres in 1980 and to 2,000,000 acres in 1997. Most of this land is not the area held by Black families in 1910; beyond the “Black Belt”, it is located in Texas, Oklahoma, and California. The total number of Black farmers has decreased from 925,708 in 1920 to 18,000 in 1997; the number of White farmers has also decreased, but much more slowly.

Read also: Large-scale land expropriation will spark SA banking crisis – expert 

Black American land ownership has diminished more than that of any other ethnic group, while White land ownership has increased. Black families who inherit land across generations without obtaining an explicit title (often resulting in tenancy in common by multiple descendants) may have difficulty gaining government benefits and risk losing their land completely. Outright fraud and lynchings have also been used to strip Black people of their land. Government policies – especially in the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) – have not been conducive on the whole to keeping African Americans on the land.

So the phrase “40 acres and a mule” has come to symbolize the broken promise that Reconstruction policies would offer economic justice for African Americans. It even took a decade or so, after the American Civil War, for the freedmen to become citizens.

Zimbabwe – déjà vu all over again

Since Emmerson Mnangagwa replaced Robert Mugabe as President of Zimbabwe, he has been trying to convince white farmers to return, and to find a way to reverse the expropriation of their farms. But there is a lot of skepticism among the farmers who were evicted. Even though Mnangagwa is only echoing many black voices among the unemployed and impoverished there, pining for their return.

Food security in Zimbabwe took a tumble in more recent years, when the initial phase of land reform under the Lancaster Agreement proved to be too slow. It had proceeded cautiously at first, during that period of transition, because of the lessons learned in America after the Civil War. But it was speeded up to the extent that implementation parted ways from policy. Some feel that the policy was good, but that “triumphalism” overtook it and that’s when it got messy.

Things do not always turn out as you want them to. Since the EFF and ANC voted 241-to-83 to form a committee to explore if and how to amend the “never-again constitution”, debate in the media has generated more heat than light. But some points are worth noting:

  • Mondli Makhanya – But what are they doing in the cities if they are land-hungry? Well, that is the whole point. They are seeking a place in the modern economy, having fled the basic-ness of a peasant existence. In many cases, they have left arable land behind in the countryside, driven by the belief that life in urban areas offers social mobility for them and their children… what we are now doing as a country is making “the return of the land” an article of faith – so much so that we are even prepared to break the Constitution to achieve what implementation of policy can achieve. We are prepared to lie to “our people” and tell them that the “return of the land” is the great panacea.
  • Jessie Duarte – The Land Audit Report: Phase 2, which deals with the scope of privately owned land, released in November 2017, highlights that White South Africans continue to own 72 percent of private owned land in South Africa. This is followed by Coloureds at 15 percent, Indians at 5 percent and Africans at 4 percent. In other words, Whites own more than eighteen times the amount of land than Africans do.
  • Roelf Meyer – ITI’s research division shows government owns 4 323 farming units, which include smallholdings and bigger farms. This land was bought following successful land claims against these properties. However, the farms have never been transferred to their new owners… it doesn’t make sense to expropriate more farms if government does not have the capacity to transfer the farms already bought to future farmers.
  • Enoch Godongwana – “We are saying people who are landless but who work the land must own it. It also applies to the West Rand, for example: you have got 124 mineworkers who own a herd of 4 700 cattle and they don’t have grazing lands. In rural areas people are working the land but don’t have any land.”
  • Anthea Jeffrey – Of the roughly 76,000 successful claims in post-apartheid South Africa’s restitution process, begun in 1994, only about 5,800 chose to have land returned to them. The remaining 92% preferred cash compensation instead. Comprehensive opinion polls commissioned by the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR) have repeatedly shown that most black South Africans have little interest in land reform. The IRR’s 2017 field survey, only 1% of black respondents identified “speeding up land reform” as a top priority for the government.
  • Ngwenya-Mabila – argued in the parliamentary debate that expropriation must be subject to just and equitable compensation as indicated in section 25(2)(b) of the Constitution, the amount of which and the time and manner of payment of which must have been agreed to by those affected or decided or approved by a court.
The First Amendment?

The First Amendment in America was about freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and media freedom. Will our First Amendment be about expropriation of land without compensation? Some voices like Jeremy Cronin are saying that the Constitution as it stands is adequate.

  • Nelson Mandela – “..we knew land reform would not be an easy task or quickly achieved. In other countries it has taken decades, even centuries, and it is still not complete…”
Beware Venezuelan socialist rhetoric

In recent years we have seen Socialist rhetoric being used as mere “fronting” for State Capture. The epitome of this has been in Venezuela. Ironically, Malema of the EFF championed Chavez as a great leader, and this is cause for concern. Chavez was a bank robber who didn’t wear a bandana, instead he memorised and spouted socialist jargon, while looting his nation’s petrodollars on an unprecedented scale.

Today there is no food security, and a great deal of hunger. It is worse even than Zimbabwe. There are worries of total economic collapse. Beware populists who are not even on a land grab – they are on a power grab.

The EFF are still threatening to colonise farms. More brilliant cartoon work available at
Finding one another

The fact that there are practicing Christians on both sides of this dispute is an opportunity to find convergence and use it to build a Solution. This can provide a historic road-map to ending poverty by reducing the glaring disparity between rich and poor. Where God is in charge, such a huge gap is unacceptable.

Read also: Land expropriation without compensation cannot be justifiable – Unisa Prof

There are three distinct views. First, that land is “private property”. This was espoused by Adam Smith. Second that all land belongs to the State. This was Marx’s view. The third view has a far longer history, but has been out of vogue in recent centuries. That is, that the land belongs to God. There may be more to the Jubilee principle than most voices are willing to concede.

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