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February 23, 2012

Land reform clash between South African president, minister mirrors stark racial differences on the issue

South Africa’s long-festering land reform issue received a jolt when the president and one of his deputy ministers publicly expressed their very different perspectives on the origins of the land imbalance and the way to resolve it.

The commonly stated figures are that black South Africans who constitute 87% of the population hold 13% of the land, while whites who are less than 10% hold 87%. Land dispossessions from black Africans and segregationist laws during the pre-1994 period of apartheid were to be initially dealt with by a government plan for 30% of land to be ‘restituted’ to blacks by 2013. The government says only 8% has been so restituted

All the figures are hotly disputed by some, but there is widespread agreement that land reform is unavoidable. Amongst the most heated issues is how best to achieve it.

President Jacob Zuma said the "willing buyer-willing seller option has not been the best way to address the land restitution question." That greatly alarmed his deputy minister of agriculture, Pieter Mulder, who is also vice president of the Freedom Front party, whose members are predominantly ‘conservative’ Afrikaners, the group which ruled the country during apartheid.

Mulder responded to Zuma, “The problem does not lie with the willing - buyer willing - seller principle. The problem is the disastrous way in which land redistribution has been implemented in the past 18 years.”

What particularly riled Mulder and his constituency was the perception that Zuma’s statement that a voluntary, free-market process had failed to address the issue “means that the government believes in the nationalization of agricultural land.”

There was the unusual, politically titillating sight of a deputy minister engaged in high profile, public disagreement with the president who appointed him to his position. However, South Africa being an open, democratic country, that seemed to be largely taken in stride by all.

But what really caused an uproar was Mulder then going on to state that, “There is sufficient proof that there were no Bantu-speaking people in the Western Cape and North-western Cape (provinces). These parts form 40% of South Africa's land surface. Africans in particular never in the past lived in the whole of South Africa. The Bantu- speaking people moved from the equator down while the white people moved from the Cape up to meet each other at the Kei River. I seriously differ with the statement that white people had stolen their land.”

On that, all hell broke loose. The debate between the two men swiftly became a shouting match of competing historical narratives on all sorts of fora, with the principal dividing line being whether the debater was black or white.

Mulder has been called all sorts of names, with many black groups calling on the president to fire his deputy minister. In a fascinating replay of the progression of the same debate in Zimbabwe 10 to 15 years ago, some took Mulder’s stance as proof that white South Africans would never voluntarily participate in any meaningful land reform except on their own terms, and that his comments proved that what he most fears, expropriation, was the best and only course available.

The president himself was a lot more measured in his comeback to Mulder, but it was still a telling sign of the deeply emotional issue that land is that he felt moved to warn Mulder to "tread very carefully."

Said Zuma, "The land question is one of the most emotive issues in our history and present, and must be handled with utmost care, and not in the careless and callous manner that Honorable Mulder handled it. It is extremely sensitive and to the majority of people in this country, it is a matter of life and death. Honorable Mulder stunned all of us and the whole country with his bold denial of historical facts about land dispossession."


The South African government has been at pains to assure the country’s white farmers that it would not exercise ‘the Zimbabwean option,’ but the fear of this remains deep amongst white farmers. They are already feeling besieged by violence against them on their farms, resulting in many deaths. The attacks against them are thought to be of a largely criminal nature, but the farmers accuse the authorities of indifference to their plight.

Recently suspended ruling party official Julius Malema is among those who have helped to heighten those land expropriation fears by expressing admiration for Zimbabwe’s controversial land reform, and advocating a similar process in South Africa.

No doubt the heated debate will continue, with little chance that deeply entrenched, emotionally held historical narratives will be changed on either side. But in the game of numbers that democratic politics is, it seems doubtful that Mulder will win over enough (or any) black South African views to his interpretation of the country’s violent land history.

It seems safe to predict that there are hot times ahead for South Africa with regard to land.

African Agriculture

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