Mahmood Mamdani’s recent article about land reform in South Africa correctly states the importance of righting historical wrongs and creating a vibrant economy that works for its population.
In contrast to what some writers have argued, including US President Donald Trump, the government of South Africa has not been seizing land from white farmers, nor is there a programme of genocide against the white farming community. But the article by Mamdani glosses over an important and complex issue, one that we have studied for the past 25 years.
Since the advent of colonisation, black South Africans have been subjected to discriminatory laws that dispossessed them of their property – without compensation – solely because of the colour of their skin. The intent was clear: landownership by the black population did not serve the economic interests of the ruling powers.
The 1913 Native Lands Act was the codification of land theft that started in 1657 when the first “free burgher”, Jan Hendrik Boom, began farming a plot of land previously used for grazing by the indigenous KhoiKhoi population. The act further established a policy of forced removals that prevented the emergence of a class of black landowners who had been able to successfully compete with those who were white.
The policy worked, and the economic successes of emergent black smallholders were stifled. The later racism that typified apartheid’s consolidation of these laws, with the introduction of the Group Areas Act of 1950, further entrenched the gross inequalities in wealth triggered by the expropriation of land and resettlement of black South Africans. By the 1980s, between seven to eight-million black people were displaced as a result. It is hard to overstate the social and economic damage and deep psychological scars left in the wake of this destruction.
The South Africa that was inherited by the democratically elected government of Nelson Mandela in 1994 had become a nation of deep economic inequality borne from decades of systemic discrimination. A nationally representative survey in 1993/1994 showed that some 40% of South Africa’s black populations were desperately poor by any measure. The equivalent figure for the white population, which on average enjoyed a standard of living equivalent to a developed European country, hovered near zero. As with Mandela, black South Africans faced a long walk to economic freedom.
Nelson Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki hearkened back to Rosa Parks’ brave refusal to go to the back of the bus in 1955 Montgomery Alabama when he worried that the South African economy operated like a double-decker bus with no stairwell between the lower and upper levels. Those born on the bottom level had no avenue of mobility to the top. Our own research conducted in the first decade of South African’s political transition confirmed this to be true. We found that families who had fallen too far into poverty had no chance of getting out even in the post-apartheid South African economy. Repeated shocks drove them back into poverty even as they were just getting ahead.
The South African government began to cautiously pursue policies designed to rectify the taking of land in the past by creating mechanisms to peacefully transfer land to poor and disposed families to give them a viable new start. The Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994 was the first piece of legislation passed by the new democratically elected government.
Land reform and redistribution, once upon a time the poster-child rural intervention in developing countries, is a complex business. Land rights are complex, especially in a country in which traditional rights under communal tenure intersect with those of private property. But international evidence shows that redistribution can be a powerful force for change when done right.