OPN 190620 SOUTH AFRICA-1561027193007
At the end of apartheid in 1994, 60,000 white farmers held 86 per cent of all farmland. Thirteen million blacks, many of whose forebears had been dispossessed in 1913, held the remaining 14 per cent, Image Credit: Getty Images

In 1996, while I was teaching at the University of Cape Town, I was invited by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be an in-house critic at a town hall it had organised. A member of the largely black African audience told this story: “Tom and John were neighbours. One day Tom stole John’s bicycle. They did not speak for years until the day Tom extended his hand to John and said, ‘Let us reconcile.’

“‘What about my bicycle?’ John asked. “’Forget the bicycle,’ Tom said. ‘Let it not stand between us.’”

John’s question has now turned into a growing social movement. Students and labour movements in South Africa are leading a mobilisation of transformative potential by focusing on the land question to address the social and economic legacy of apartheid in the country.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was reelected in May, conveyed his awareness of the challenge during his inauguration speech, saying that the country “can no longer abide the grave disparities of wealth and opportunity that have defined our past and which threaten to imperil our future.”

The African National Congress won the May elections but with the lowest share of votes since the end of apartheid in 1994, illustrating its failure to address these disparities. The Economic Freedom Fighters, a far-left populist party that has been pushing for the nationalisation of land, banks and mineral rights, got the votes ANC lost.

South African apartheid borrowed key institutions from its North American predecessor. The Natives Land Act of 1913 appropriated 87 per cent of all arable land for the whites and left a mere 13 per cent for the black majority, who were herded into separate ethnic homelands.

After the Afrikaner National Party won the whites-only elections in 1948, it introduced formal apartheid. It ensured white hegemony by keeping black South Africans away from the urban-industrial economy. The reserves were renamed Bantustans, the ethnic homeland areas for various tribal groupings.

At the end of apartheid in 1994, 60,000 white farmers held 86 per cent of all farmland. Thirteen million blacks, many of whose forebears had been dispossessed in 1913, held the remaining 14 per cent, much of it poor-quality land.

Post-apartheid South Africa was marked by two glaring birthmarks: racialised inequality in urban areas and tribalised despotism in Bantustans. President Nelson Mandela and the ANC promised to transfer 30 per cent of agricultural land from white to black hands by 1999 and to reform the power structure in the former Bantustans.

But it has failed to do either meaningfully. Instead of being democratised, chiefship was rationalised as native “custom”. A mere 8 per cent of land was transferred from white to black hands over 24 years. The budget for land reform was pitiful — less than 1 per cent of the national budget. The demand for land is increasingly urban in South Africa. In post-apartheid South Africa, a third of the population lives in predominantly rural former Bantustans, another third in urban areas, and the remaining third in informal shanties around formal townships.

Out of South Africa’s 58 million people, over 27 million are without proper housing, living in matchbox houses built by the ANC government, slum-type shacks, on farms belonging to others and in impoverished communal areas in former Bantustans, according to an estimate by Ben Cousins, a researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies.

In 1996, Nelson Mandela signed into law the new Constitution of South Africa, Article 25 of which deals with land and property rights. It prohibits “arbitrary deprivation of property” but allows expropriation of land for “public interest” after “just and equitable” compensation.

On May 16, Ramaphosa assured foreign investors that there will be no land grabs and that land reform and expropriation without compensation would take place in an orderly manner.

South Africa needs a triple reform to have an even chance of dismantling the social legacy of apartheid: a land reform that passes control over communal areas from traditional chiefs to the present tillers of the land in rural areas. Without land reform, the ANC and Ramaphosa will fail to lift a majority of the black people from abysmal poverty and will fail in ending social apartheid.

— New York Times News Service

Mahmood Mamdani is an author and political commentator. He teaches Anthropology, Political Science and African Studies at Columbia University