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June 18, 2012

Why radical, Zimbabwe-style land reform is appealing to some in South Africa

Chido Makunike

The on-going discussion about land reform in South Africa is fascinating to watch. South Africans generally hate to have any parallels drawn between their process and that in their smaller northern neighbor Zimbabwe. But because the historical events and the pressing current imperatives for land reform in the two countries are so similar, the ghost of Zimbabwe inevitably, unavoidably looms large in the shrill, emotional debate.

The prevailing South African orthodoxy about the Zimbabwean government's 'grab' of land from white farmers, as part of correcting the earlier grabs of land from Africans by colonial governments, is that it is a lesson on what South Africa should not do. Not only is this the strongly expressed view by the anxious commercial farmers who are resigned to some kind of change coming, the government has also been at pains to insist that no Zimbabwe-style 'grabs' without compensation are being contemplated.

However, there are some sections of South African society who look at the same picture of the Zimbabwe 'grabs,' along with their agricultural and economic consequences, but come to a different conclusion from the prevailing orthodoxy.

Roughly, that conclusion is that the white farmers in Zimbabwe/South Africa were/are such an economically entrenched and strong group, and that they are also so utterly racist and against change that only radical measures can begin the process of transformation towards a less obviously racialized distribution of land, which everybody says they recognize is a trigger for trouble in the future. According to this view, land reform in South Africa/Zimbabwe has/had to be revolutionary, rather than gentle and evolutionary. And, the argument goes, a revolution is by necessity painful, with the work of getting back to a new, post-revolution
'normal' being long and difficult.

The youth league of the ruling African National Congress (ANCYL) are young hotheads dissatisfied with the
pace and nature of post apartheid/post-1994 change in South Africa. They are also not shy to express their impatience, and their contempt for the senior leadership of their party, who they believe to have 'sold out' and abandoned spearheading the aspirations of the black majority. The ANC Youth League are considered an influential force amongst young South Africans voters, so while the party leadership may be discomforted by its criticisms, it is not an easy matter to shut them up.

For many, the main proof of how ill-advised the recent Zimbabwean land grabs were as a way of correcting
the colonial land grabs of the last century, is 'land reform may have been necessary, but look at how that
country has now gone from regional breadbasket to basket case.' Therefore, 'Mugabe's land grabs' were a disaster and cannot possibly serve as a model for South Africa's even more messy and complicated
historical land issues, the argument goes.

The counterpoint to this, shared by some of the ANCYL's leading hotheads, is that expecting painless land reform is a pipe dream given the entrenched economic interests and holdover apartheid racial attitudes. When they look at Zimbabwe, they acknowledge the wrenching pain of that country's radical mode of land reform, but see that as simply another necessary phase of the long 'struggle' for post-colonial, post-apartheid self assertion.

It is not much use to argue against this view with agricultural and economic data. It is deeply and primarily a political argument, with land reform simply the most attention-grabbing conduit of an issue used by the ANCYL to make the argument. In some ways, the voices for radical land reform and those cautioning for a more 'responsible' land reform might as well be talking in two completely different languages.

'Okay then, if we suppose your crazy analysis of the situation is correct, how do the pro-radical land reform advocates, like those in the ANCYL, excuse the agricultural and economic decline that ensued in
Zimbabwe as a result of its chosen method of land reform? Explain that if you think you're so clever, you bloody, obviously Mugabe apologist.'

They don't excuse it. They simply regard it as having been unavoidable because of the perceived resistance
to any genuine reform, particularly any that caused even the slightest discomfort for the direct or
indirect beneficiaries of the colonial-era land grabs from Africans. The explanation is that the (black) Zimbabweans may undergo a period of hardship as they build a new system of land tenure and agriculture,
but at least they are the drivers of their own reform process now, in a way black South Africans are not yet seen to be by some in the ANCYL. The charge of the hotheads against their leaders is that they have got so comfortable with power and its perks that they have lost the steam to spearhead real change.

When an ANCYL leader said a few weeks ago that Zimbabwe-style 'land grabs' may be necessary and even desirable in South Africa, it was almost certainly not with any expectation that this was a suggestion
that would be widely warmly received. He was probably trying to use this extremely sensitive, emotive issue to provoke and shake people up, which he predictably succeeded in doing. Just as predictably, there was a torrent of condemnation from white farmers' representatives, most of the dominant media and other sectors.

Also predictably, a senior ruling party official had to come out and issue a statement calming frayed nerves by assuring all and sundry that the ANC government had no plans to grab land from anybody. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe dutifully said, “It is not the ANC policy to expropriate land without compensation and personally I don’t think it will work.”

That's fairly clear cut, but it was also striking how he acknowledged the appeal for some of the stance of the young hotheads of his party by saying, “It will not be helpful to engage in violent polemics with the ANC Youth League in the run-up to the ANC policy conference (December 2012). The conference will address land reform in detail.”

Mantashe was careful to dissociate party and government policy from 'land grabs,' but interestingly, he was just as careful to step very gingerly in how he repudiated the explosive youth league leader's statement.


Clearly, this is partly in recognition of the general build up of the perception by some (many?) black South Africans of (1) how little things have changed for them since the end of apartheid and (2) how little group power relations have changed, except for the new black elite having joined 'the good life.'

South Africa and Zimbabwe may both have similarly racialized land issues, but they are very different countries in many ways. It is important to avoid reading too much into the two countries' similarities. However, it is fascinating to see how so far, the progression of the land reform debate in South Africa is very similar to that in Zimbabwe in the 1990s, before 'Mugabe's land grabs' started in earnest in 2000.

Up until then, the same 'international media' that today portrays Mugabe as a supernaturally evil ogre lauded his government for its perceived don't-rock-the-boat moderation and adherence to economic orthodoxy. It was a 'responsible government' then, very much like today's ANC government in South Africa is considered to be and praised/flattered for. But at home, there grew an increasing estrangement over post-independence (1980) 'transformation' between the rulers and many of the ruled, as is happening in South Africa today.

As late as 1995, or perhaps even later, Mugabe's government probably intended to continue with its 'no land grabs' policy. The white farmers who had feared Mugabe's accession to power in 1980 were obviously pleasantly surprised and very relieved that contrary to their fears, there seemed no plans for significant changes in the colonial-era land holding pattern. If anything, they continued to thrive as the 'responsible' new government carried on with various strong support schemes to the farmers, entrenching the country's 'breadbasket' status. All was right with the world.

The white farmers carried on pretty much as before and Mugabe was feted around the world for being the conciliatory Nelson Mandela of his time, when the real Nelson Mandela was then still holed up in an apartheid jail.

But things were not necessarily 'right' for everybody. Beneath the surface gloss of the 'breadbasket' under the then 'responsible' Mugabe government were many old historical, racial, political and economic sores that continued to fester, as well as new complaints added to the mix. Like the South Africa of today.

In the end, the infamous 'Mugabe land grab' did not so much begin because of a deliberate, thought-out policy to reverse the 'responsible' economic, land and agricultural policies of the previous two decades and before. It was arguably more a panicked, opportunistic, populist reaction to long-bubbling social, economic and therefore also political pressures that suddenly burst to the surface, forcing the government's hand towards something radical to appease the volcano.

South African society faces very much similar pressures, with decades and centuries-long feelings about previous land grabs providing a powerful conduit for articulating deep old and new grievances.

How is it all going to work out in South Africa?

It would be foolish to pretend to have a crystal ball into the issue, but in countries with particularly explosive land issues like South Africa and Zimbabwe, what governing politicians wish for, say or don't say may not be the most reliable indicator of what the future holds. If and when the volcano erupts, it is anybody's guess how the politicians will try to prevent the lava from burning them. Being flattered as 'moderate and responsible' by distant media and interest groups may mean nothing when local pressures threaten your very hold on power.

Let's watch and see how things develop in South Africa.

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