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Will the Trump Administration Mitigate South Africa’s Land Expropriation Problem?

by Alexander Miller

At 10:28 pm on August 22, 2018, President Donald Trump tweeted the word “Africa” for the first time as President of the United States. While much was happening on the continent, few could have predicted the direct target of the president’s ire that evening. It was not the intransigence of the Congolese government as it prepared for the upcoming general elections in December; it was not the South Sudanese peace process, the political violence in the aftermath of the Zimbabwean elections, or the conflict in Cameroon’s anglophone region. It was not even the direct presence of Russian military advisors in restive Central African Republic or China’s increasing habit for predatory lending on the continent.

Rather the president tweeted this:

which, in turn, prompted the following reply from the South African government:

Now, the president is being unfair in his tweet. Conflating proposed land reform policy and the spate of farmer killings in South Africa misrepresents both issues entirely. First, on the issue of white farmer killings: It is true that, according to available statistics, “farm murders are at their highest level in South Africa since 2010-11.” However, there are no reliable statistics that indicate these killings are fueled by anti-white fervor, and much less show that white farmers are even more likely to be victims of such violence over black farmers. In this case, I find that the principle of Occam’s razor to be helpful in determining the likely cause: farms, be it in the Northern Cape or KwaZulu-Natal, miles away from the nearest police or security force, make for particularly easy targets for robbery therefore making little difference if the isolated farmers are white or black.

However, completely disregarding the racial concern in the president’s tweet would be unfair. While discussing potential land reform, Julius Malema, the leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party in South Africa, used particularly racial rhetoric when discussing the issue:

“We, the rightful owners, our peace was disturbed by the white man’s arrival here. They committed a black genocide. They killed our people during land dispossession… We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now…”

While one can debate their historical validity, the rather incendiary claims by a key political figure in South Africa is sure to alarm, particularly as the specter of Zimbabwe’s violent land seizures from white farmers in the late ‘90s looms. Land reform, since Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) took power in 1994, has been one of the most sensitive political issues in the country and has only become more heated with the introduction of the concept of “land expropriation without compensation” (EWC).

Land reform may sound innocuous, but it is based on a revolutionary concept: to seize land from those who have it and give it to those who do not. One could argue that no state is in greater need for such a revolutionary policy than South Africa, the country with the highest Gini coefficient in the world. A clear indication of this inequality is seen in land ownership. Immediately after apartheid, the white minority owned 87% of land. While the new ANC government made land redistribution a priority, it was only able to redistribute 1% of land by 1999 and only 9.7% by 2018, primarily due to the sluggish pace of the government-mandated “willing buyer, willing seller” policies. Currently, 72% of rural land owned by individuals is in white hands despite only making up little over 8% of the national population. This issue of land inequality plays itself against the backdrop of the South African economic crisis. South Africa entered a recession in early September with the South African rand falling nearly 20% this year and the unemployment rate exceeding “more than 27%, a rate higher than any rate suffered by the United States during the Great Depression.”

EWC proposes that the government be allowed to expropriate land without compensating the land owners. While much coverage of the policy began early this year, it is not a new concept in the country. The South African parliament actually voted on its legality in February 2017. The parliamentary notion was widely rejected in a 261 to 33 vote, with the only supporters of the move coming from Julius Malema’s far-left party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). However, after the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as the new head of the ANC party and then soon after the president of South Africa, the more radical faction of the ANC (primarily loyalists of former president Jacob Zuma) looked to push forward legislation on EWC.  While this is likely also due to savvy political maneuvering to undercut the growing popularity of EFF, the ANC also states EWC is morally and economically imperative. The party states EWC will redress the “original sin” of land dispossession under colonial rule and address the glaring inequality between whites and blacks in the country. It is also championed as a necessary economic policy to “unlock the economic potential of land,” to use the land to “absorb the surplus labor force” and desperately increase the country’s agricultural output.

While I am sympathetic with the country’s need to address racial inequality, I am concerned about the implications such a policy would have. However, this concern is likely different from the concern that prompted President Trump’s tweet. Primarily, I find the premises that farmland is in high demand, particularly among young men, and that EWC will “return land to the people” to be particularly untrue.

President Ramaphosa told Parliament earlier this year that “farming land hunger among black South Africans is genuine and pressing.” However, according to polls conducted from 2015 to 2017 by the Institute of Race Relations, only 1% of black respondents identified “land reform” as a top priority of government or the best way to improve their lives. The most pressing issues for over 73% black respondents were “more jobs and a better educations,” particularly pertinent issues for a country in an economic downturn. South Africa is a rapidly urbanizing state and young black South Africans are not looking to toil the land, but rather are seeking opportunities in urban centers. The ANC’s logic that land reform will be able to ameliorate high unemployment and cultivate its agricultural sector, is clearly flawed.

President Ramaphosa, during the Centenary Celebrations of the birth of President Nelson Mandela, also declared EWC will “return the land to our people.” However, there are rumblings within key factions of the ANC and the entire EFF party that expropriated land should and will be under the custody of the state and not owned by the individual. These measures have already been taken with the state’s mineral (two-thirds of which were privately owned before an act in 2002 vested them in the custodianship of the state) and water resources (the state remains the public trustee). Even under current South African land redistributive policies, farmers are generally only allowed to “lease land” from the state. Until the ANC explicitly indicates that the deeds of expropriated land will be given to these black farmers, one must remain skeptical that the motivations behind EWC have less to do with remedying colonial injustices than using land as a patronage tool to shore up government support.

Despite my criticisms, unlike President Trump, I still find myself toeing the noncommittal line on EWC. I understand the dire need to address the glaring and growing inequality in South Africa, but I remain unsure if the South African government’s current policy is the best recourse to do so. While President Trump seems to have forgotten the issue, the debate rages on. Both former President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were recently in South Africa and weighed in on the issue, citing the psychological importance of returning land but warned of the signals it sends to international investors. Outside of public comments, it does not seem as though the United States will play much of any role in shaping the future of EWC. As of today, a U.S. Ambassador to South Africa has neglected to be appointed and South Africa has shifted its foreign allegiances to the BRICS nations.  Unfortunately for some Afrikaner lobbyists and general opponents of Ramaphosa’s policy, in terms of American diplomatic support, don’t expect more than a late-night presidential tweet.


Alexander Miller is a second year graduate student at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations with specializations in Foreign Policy Analysis and International Economics. He currently interns for Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN and has interned for the Great Lakes Department at the U.S. Department of State. He serves as Senior Editor at the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations.


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