Challenge renews focus on South African land issue


DEPUTY AGRICULTURE minister Pieter Mulder’s recent assertion that black South Africans had no historical claim to 40 per cent of the country brought the vexing and emotional issue of land reform back into focus for the nation last week.

Mulder’s comments, made during a parliamentary debate about President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address, led to consternation and outrage among African National Congress (ANC) party MPs, who dominate parliament.

The Freedom Front Plus leader said his contention was based on a soon-to-be released book – which he did not name – by two experts who tracked the land issue from as far back as the 1600s.

“Africans 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 [in the Eastern Cape Province].

“There is sufficient proof that there were no Bantu-speaking people in Western Cape and the northwestern Cape. These parts form 40 per cent of South Africa’s land surface,” he said to jeers from ANC benches.

A few days later Zuma said Mulder had stunned the whole country with his “bold denial of historical facts about land dispossession”.

ANC governments, since coming into power 17 years ago, have stated that by 2014 they intended to transfer 30 per cent of the land back into the hands of black South Africans dispossessed by the apartheid regime.

During his state of the nation address on February 9th in Cape Town, Zuma noted that the Natives Land Act of 1913 had taken access to 87 per cent of the land away from African people.

However, to date only 8 per cent of their 30 per cent target had been transferred back to those seeking restitution.

As is the case with Irish people, the desire to own your own land or home is ingrained in the South African psyche, a disposition that makes the issue of land reform one of the biggest challenges facing the young democracy.

Even a cursory look at South African history reveals that wars over land have been fought for hundreds of years between races and tribal groups.

While the ANC has insisted that land reform will be carried out within the law, many white South African farmers fear a version of the calamitous land reform programme launched in 2000 in Zimbabwe could emerge in South Africa, given its apartheid past.

Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s expropriation – without-compensation approach – which involved violent invasions of white-owned farms – has shown what the consequences of an ill-conceived land reform programme can be.

It led to the collapse of Zimbabwe’s agricultural system and the flight of most of the country’s 4,000 white commercial farmers, many of whom lost everything when they had their farms confiscated.

With the loss of so much agricultural expertise, Zimbabwe, once considered the bread basket of Africa, has been left reliant on international food aid for parts of the year.

In light of the region’s racial history, maybe it was inevitable that whites in South Africa would think the worst when Zuma said in his address that the “willing buyer, willing seller” approach to land redistribution had “not been the best way to address” the issue, and that a new method was needed.

Mulder, an Afrikaner who serves in Zuma’s cabinet, took issue with this view as well as the department of rural development’s figures on land reform, saying accurate information on who owns what is not yet available.

“I seriously differ from these [land reform] figures. How does the department calculate the 8 per cent? There isn’t a completed land audit against which we could correlate these facts,” he said.

He pointed out that the Development Bank of South Africa calculated in 2001 that 44 per cent of the country’s land belonged to whites, 20 per cent to blacks, 9 per cent to coloured people and 1 per cent to Asians.

“The way in which the department has calculated the 30 per cent and 8 per cent figures creates the impression that they are setting themselves up to fail,” Mulder said, adding that he also rejected the claim that white people had stolen land.

Mulder maintained the willing buyer, willing seller principle was not the reason land reform was progressing so slowly.

“The problem is the disastrous way land reform is being applied. There are many letters on my desk from white commercial farmers who have offered their land to the department and received no reply,” he said.

Alternative proposals on how land reform can be addressed

are contained in a new government Green Paper on the subject, a draft of which was leaked to the media last September.

The South African Institute of Race Relations warned that the document sought to “oust the jurisdiction of the courts” through the establishment of a land valuer-general and a new land management commission.

The NGO said that among its outcomes was that more and more land would be owned by government, and increasingly people would occupy this land at the state’s pleasure.

The opposition Democratic Alliance party concluded that the policy was so lacking in substance that little of it could be salvaged.

It remains unclear whether government will heed the many calls for it to go back to the drawing board.