Land reform and race in South Africa – a dangerous combination

JOHANNESBURG — Here’s another thought-provoking piece on the land debate. Race is often a racially charged subject, especially when associated with the land question. But South Africans need to look past this by ensuring private property rights while ensuring successful land reform for those who really deserve it and need it – so writes the author in this below piece. – Gareth van Zyl

By Phumlani M. Majozi*

“I deserve free land because I’m black”, were the words of a colleague of mine two weeks ago, in our argument on land reform in South Africa. He was unyielding on his position that he deserves free land because of his race. I asked him whether his family was, at one point, dispossessed of land; he said “No”; but purely because of his race, he deserves one. He wants one.

Phumlani M. Majozi

This view from a smart professional who holds a science qualification from one of South Africa’s well-known universities puzzled me. Unfortunately, our argument didn’t last that long because he started speaking over me – lost control of his emotions – and walked away.

The argument reminded me of how myopic the land debate has become. The invoking of race dilutes the very crucial matter that needs to be discussed and addressed.

Land reform has to, must take place in South Africa. Let me say again; land reform must take place in South Africa. We have to address the injustices of the past. But in addressing the injustices of the past, we must not use race as a determinant of who must be beneficiaries of our land reform policies. Race as a determinant is very dangerous – and ought to be avoided.

The drum beat for expropriation of land without compensation by South Africa’s left has become so racially charged that anyone who questions it, is branded all sorts of derogatory names. It’s a saddening state of our society.

My view has always been that whatever land reform policy we pursue – and we must pursue one – it must guarantee that private property rights are protected – and that it only, and only, addresses the needs of those previously negatively affected by land policies of the apartheid era. Regardless of their colour. And trust me, the majority of those beneficiaries will automatically be black – because the majority of South Africans are black – and the majority of those who were dispossessed of land before 1994 are likely to be black.

We must, by all means, avoid a situation where someone like me, and my colleague I spoke about above – whose families were never dispossessed of land – freely benefit from South Africa’s land reform policy. That will be ill-thought, destructive and counterproductive.

If we are driven by race on our land reform policies – there’s a high probability that it is only those black people in political power who will benefit from such policies – and it will certainly alienate other racial groups – which will be very destructive to South Africa.

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

Zimbabwe banks
Flag map of Zimbabwe

This was true in Zimbabwe – where farm lands were violently seized from whites and handed to the black political elite – Zanu PF affiliates – while the poor remained poor. Propagandists portrayed Zimbabwean farm land grabs as pro-poor, when in fact they weren’t. Politics played a massive role in Zimbabwe’s land grabs in early 2000s.

The notion that black poor people will prosper from expropriation of land without compensation is so deceptive that I wonder why people believe it. The policy is about politicians and their hunger for political power.

Julius Malema and his party have indicated what they want. They want the state to take control of land. How black people will benefit from such an arrangement I’m yet to understand. Something owned by politicians is not owned by the poor.

Nothing in our society is free – and Mother Nature herself prevents us from getting things for free. “We can’t even get the food that we need without working for it”, Thomas Sowell, a Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at Hoover Institution once said. Nobody owes you land if you weren’t dispossessed of one – regardless of your race.

Read also: Steven Friedman: Land debate is about dignity, equality – not the constitution

If you or your family were dispossessed of land, present the case to government; and the government must address it. Our land claims process must continue to take place – to allow for the compensation of the people who were dispossessed of land during the apartheid.

People like to ask me “Then what is your alternative proposal to expropriation of land without compensation”? My answer to this question is always one: If the government is serious about helping the landless poor, then its first step must be to handover the land it owns to the poor. While in the process, it is educating and upskilling citizens so they earn higher income to afford to buy land for themselves with their money.

Setting policy, especially land reform policy, in a country like ours is not easy – and there can’t be a solution because each and every path taken requires trade-offs. But it will certainly be destructive to use race as a determinant on who should, should not, be beneficiaries of our land reform policy. At worst, it will corrode and divide our society. Do we really want that?

  • Phumlani M. Majozi is a political and business analyst, host of The State of Africa on Salaamedia radio and One Nation FM 88.9 (in Polokwane), and non-executive director at Free Market Foundation South Africa. His Twitter handle is @PhumlaniMMajozi.