Land reform a complex issue

Stephen Grootes

The January Eighth Statement of the African National Congress’ (ANC’s) National Executive Committee, which was presented by President Jacob Zuma on Saturday, makes specific mention that this year is the centenary of the 1913 Land Act. In political terms, this touches one of the fundamental aspects of our country. Most economists, and certainly almost everyone within the ANC, agrees that the Land Act was a pivotal moment, and that it was this law, more than almost any other, that led to the racialised economy, and the economic Apartheid we still have a hundred years later. However, a closer reading of the statement, appears to show that big changes to the current system are still unlikely.

The full text of the statement, begins with the Land Act, and then later uses the oft-quoted statement by Sol Plaatjie, that overnight, "The South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth". The last few years have seen the ANC Youth League, under its then leader, Julius Malema, push strongly for a much more aggressive land redistribution model.

Last year saw Zuma, in Parliament, echo many others before him, when he said that the "willing seller, willing buyer" model has not actually worked. His government has now launched a Green Paper, which is supposed to outline the administration’s thinking on the matter. However, it has been widely criticised as being too thin (at just 12 pages) to really provide any comprehensive answers. In the meantime, government is going ahead with creating a Valuer-General to deal with disputes around land being expropriated for re-distribution.

It could be expected that as land is such an emotive issue, and that as the majority of ANC members are likely to support some form of redistribution, it would be in the interests of the party’s leaders to be more radical in this area.

But while they have discussed it, and mention the problem often, the radical action called for by the Youth League, is not happening.

While one of the reasons for this has to be the complexity of the issue, another must also be economics.

It would appear to be difficult for the ANC to radically redistribute land in a way that does not fundamentally upset the current agricultural economic model. South Africa’s farmers have become entrenched and produce, generally speaking, more than enough food for our population. There was a brief period when we became a net food importer. That incident scarred the ANC’s leadership badly, it was an issue ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe raised often.

ANC leaders, including Mantashe, occasionally style themselves as revolutionaries. They have studied various revolutions through history. As a result, it seems likely that they would know that one of the key factors in many revolutions is an increase in the price of basic foods, in the month before they occur.

While a full-scale revolution may look unlikely in the current political and economic context, it does seem highly possible that there could be serious outcomes for the ANC government if food prices were to rise.

Already, service delivery protests are a regular occurrence — a problem the ANC government has battled to control. If food prices rose dramatically, these could well become more numerous and more violent.

As the ANC is currently the government in power, its leaders would bear the brunt of these protests.

And, while there are some ANC members who may wish they had played a starring role in a revolution, it seems unlikely that they would want to be the people whom the revolution was actually against.

This column appeared in The Business Day.