Why does the ANC keep advocating radical land reform?

The ruling party’s land reform programme has attracted a lot of attention. Much ink has been spilt decrying it as socialist nonsense/utopianism. Others have risen to its defence, arguing – not without reason – that a land grab is SA’s original sin and restitution must be made.

But, for me, the real puzzler is not whether the policy is good or bad. Rather, why is the ANC pursuing it at all? South Africa is an urban country. Its biggest economic sectors are ‘finance, real estate, and business services’ and ‘trade, catering, and accommodation’. Agriculture is less than 3% of GDP. People have been flocking to the cities in record numbers ever since they were permitted to do so by the end of apartheid. There can’t possibly be a huge constituency of people who desperately want to take up subsistence farming. Mostly, I would imagine, people want good jobs and reliable electricity.

No, I think that land reform isn’t really about something people want in a material sense. Rather, it’s about a persistent sense that the economic deck is unfairly stacked and a desire for a tangible victory on that front, even if it’s a Pyrrhic one. In that, it’s a lot like the forces driving America’s immigration backlash and Brexit. If land reform is an emotional issue, not a practical one, then it’s no good trying to argue against it rationally. Rather, land reform opponents must find a way to create a compelling and inspiring vision for the future that will win more hearts and minds than land reform does. And proponents need to consider carefully whether emotions will sour when the reality of the land reform programme kicks in.

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