28 March 2018

South Africa: Can the ANC Be Trusted to Deliver Land Restitution?

Land "expropriation without compensation" is by no means the first real test of who South African politics works for; it's the second real test. The first test has produced a result decisively in the favour of the minority with economic power. The ANC's complete capitulation to neoliberal economic dogma; their willingness to sacrifice black South Africans who are economically deprived on the altar of credit ratings, and; their penchant for using every given opportunity to pursue self-serving, self-enriching ends, rather than seek broad-based justice, are only a few instantiations of their failure on the first test.

Let us try to score their performance in this first test, 24 years after the end of apartheid? While some progress has no doubt been made in improving the lives of blacks in South Africa, the question of who has come out on top of the post-apartheid economy is unmistakable. For example, the wealth-gap between whites and blacks has not budged a notch. Data from the Research Project on Employment, Income Distribution and Inclusive Growth at the University of Cape Town, shows that 10% of South Africans own over 90% of all assets. But the story has not been too different on incomes either, with the top 10% of South Africa's income earners (typically whites), earning almost 60% of all incomes. According to STATS SA, the average white family make five times the average black family.

What is more, according to a recent study, only about 23% of the stocks traded on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange belong, directly or indirectly, to black people, who make up more than 80% of South Africa's population. In 1994, 80% of arable land (or farmland) in South Africa was held by whites, who make up only 8% of the population. By some estimates, no more than 10% of that land has been transferred to black South Africans since 1994.

Clearly, the ANC has failed the first test. But in many senses land restitution is part of this first test. The question of the economic fortunes of black South Africans is inherently connected to the question of historical dispossession. However, it is useful to treat land restitution as a different test altogether, because the question of land is a deeper, more historically significant question than that of the day to day outcomes of the economy (although this too is deep and historically significant). For some thinkers, the question of land is the question of who owns this patch of space called South Africa. For some others it feeds into the question of the historical castration and dehumanization of an entire race of people and is therefore fundamentally a race question. All of these theories have their appeals and have something to tell us about South Africa.

But let us not be lost in the weeds and forget that the one single inviolable basis for land restitution is a rather simple one. We can state it as such: if a thief comes into your house, chases you out of your house and takes it for herself, that property remains rightly yours regardless of how much time has passed since it was stolen. In our cultures where children inherit their parents' goods, when you die your children inherit that house since it was always still your house and had never legally or justly changed ownership. It doesn't matter whether the thief has sold it on. The buyer should have known not to buy stolen goods. This is the simple principle at play here. And although we can urge each other to be kind and lenient toward all in the process of correcting this historical wrong, being kind and lenient doesn't and shouldn't include allowing this historical wrong to fester for much longer.

I think that the more interesting question is whether the ANC can be counted on to deliver land restitution. The resounding answer to the question is NO. First and foremost, the ANC has had 24 years to show seriousness on this issue, and no one believes they did marvelously well. Second, much has been made of the resolution at the ANC's national conference in December calling for "land expropriation without compensation." But as has been pointed out, the wording of the ANC's resolution asks for it to be "included among the mechanisms at our disposal," presumably to be used concurrently with buying at market price, negotiating, and expropriation with (non-market-price) compensation. Third, the ANC has failed in shocking fashion in public before on land restitution. To cite one example, in the Mala-Mala case of 2013, the ANC had an opportunity to test the limits of what the constitution already allows on land restitution. What did they do? They capitulated and paid out R1bn to a white family for land that they no doubt had no just historical claim to.

To my mind, there is no doubt that the ANC will not satiate the hunger for land restitution in South Africa today. In many ways that's a good thing. It provides an enormous opportunity to the EFF to step in to offer a legitimate alternative. The EFF is demanding that the state become the "custodian of all South African land". While this is not land restitution in the sense of taking from person A to give to person B, it is restitution in the sense that since the state is our state and can be expected to use the land in our interest, when the state holds land it is us who hold land.

The suggestion that all land in South Africa be owned by the government, who may then lease them out to ordinary South Africans, is a good one. It is the least complicated as well as the most balanced (it balances historical justice with the nation's other concerns such food security, mutual co-existence, etc.) option there is.

That is not to say it is not one that is fraught with dangers, the most obvious of which is that an endemically corrupt ANC will simply begin leasing large parcels of land to themselves, their cronies and their party funders in the already wealthy white community. On the flip side of those dangers, however, are enormous opportunities.

Government could now be freed to allocate land, on lifetime leases, to the other 80% of the population that currently has no land, by taking it from those who currently hold it. Even in cases where current holders are allowed to hold on to land (say, in large agricultural establishments), government would have the leverage to demand broad-based black part-ownership of those businesses. And this could provide the opportunity to completely overhaul the tax structure in the agricultural and related sectors. Government could be in a position to demand 50% of all profits in taxes, as well as mandate that 10% of the remaining 50% go toward investment and the like. Owning the land, in short, makes government a more indispensable player in this sector than it has been in the past.

Johnbosco Nwogbo is studying toward a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Sussex, England. He is interested in ideas that would improve the material lives of impoverished peoples, which is why he is drawn to the idea of the Universal Basic Income. He is also interested in the influence of money (or economic means) in democracies, and decries the virtual absence of any serious engagement with such influence in most mainstream philosophical theories of democracy, from Rawls through Wiredu, to Mouffe.

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