A Century of Land Dispossession in South Africa

Interview with Ben Cousins, founder of PLAAS at the University of the Western Cape, and who has researched land reform since 1989.

Image credit Maarten Elings via Flickr.

This year, 2013, marks the 100th anniversary of the Natives Land Act, which ratified and legalized the exclusion of  South Africa’s black majority from land ownership in favor of the white minority. The result of that act: “just 7% of agricultural land set aside for blacks, though they comprised nearly 70% of the population.” Following changes to the act in 1936, whites would own up to 87% of land by the end of Apartheid. Since the end of Apartheid, the government has been slow in effecting land reform, hampered by a range of factors, including threats from business, organized agriculture (basically white farmers), its controversial “willing buyer, willing seller” approach and a lack of political will.

Ben Cousins is a professor at the University of Western Cape and founder of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies. Since 1989, Cousins has researched land reform, communal areas and small holder agriculture. He has studied Swaziland’s land reform from 1976-1983, Zimbabwe from 1983-1991 and South Africa from the early 1990s. In June, Cousins won the Elinor Ostrom Award for his commitment to the analysis, creation and defence of common pool resources.


How would you describe the legacy of the 1913 Land Act?

Well, Henry Bernstein, a professor at the School of Oriental and African studies in the University of London, describes the South African agrarian question as extreme and exceptional.

The division of ownership on the basis of race was extreme. There was a large amount of black people squeezed into small areas of land, and small numbers of white people with large areas of land. It’s a very extreme form of land redistribution in general, but on productive land in particular.

The fact that this racial distribution came with class divisions, between capital on the one hand, and cheap labour on the other, means that confusion has risen about what extent this is racial dispossession and oppression, or class dispossession and oppression. They were both combined, in complicated ways, and all underpinned by gender inequality. In the earlier twentieth century, people were put into reserves in large numbers, and prevented from accumulating as farmers. Any kind of smallholder or peasant farm was eliminated by state policy, because these people were intended to be labour for the mines, factories, and commercial farms. So, the land question is combined with the labour question.

And along also came the native question, the governance dimension. In areas designated for black people, a particular kind of governance regime was installed. This was essentially a direct rule, a rule through the chiefs, a system that the British implemented in many other parts: complying chiefs helped the colonial government rule. The chiefs became accountable to government. So the whole question of chiefs, land tenure and who has authority to govern that land is another legacy of the Land Act.

What percentage of the total land of South Africa do these areas represent?

The 1913 Act said 7 per cent. And then the 1936 Act added another 6 per cent. So that’s where the famous figure of 13 per cent [of land for black people] comes from.

But, as other historians have pointed out, a lot of the dispossession had already taken place by 1913. That Act was actually ratifying and setting in law a dispossession that started much earlier, centuries earlier.

But why have the Act then?

Well, it was now uniting the different provinces, a national piece of legislation that united a country saying: “these are areas for black, areas for whites …”. Dispossession had taken place under separate policies and legislative frameworks in different parts of the country. There was not overall coherence to it. The Land Act brought it all together.

What were the mistakes or achievements of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the land question?

Basically it didn’t deal with the land question, because we had a Restitution Act, we had a land reform policy. The land restitution process is the only program of reconciliation other then the TRC. Land was dealt as a special category. We had a TRC for dealing with reconciliation in general. And then we had a restitution program, which was supposed to deal with the land question.

But what we have seen with the re-opening of Khoisan claims (those who lost land before 1913) is that the issue was never put into bed. It didn’t resolve. Just as with the TRC, there are lots of unresolved questions. In fact, the TRC did not resolve a series of issues to do with the day-to-day oppressions of Apartheid. It dealt with gross violations of abuse. It didn’t dealt with businesses; it didn’t deal with the way capital under Apartheid directly benefited. So that’s the complicated part with restitution. It didn’t actually open the whole question to the various kinds of reconciliation processes to deal with the past. Now the past has come back to haunt us.

With the government’s new policy of opening up claims for pre-1913 dispossession, we see Khoisan groupings saying “we own”, for example, “the whole of Cape Town, so we are taking down the houses in District 6”. This is the Pandora’s box the government is now opening with restitution, a purely populist measure, in my view, and that could actually be bad for land reform. It will just add complexity, extra costs and will not result in transferring much land to the descendants of the Khoisan. The Government will try to arrange them with access to heritage sights, a kind of symbolic restoration rather than actual restoration. And it will be a massive distraction. And the real tasks, the real complexities of land reform will not be dealt with. It’s a symptom of Jacob Zuma’s regime style, which is to be populist on the one hand, and deeply conservative on the other.

What has the ANC done well since 1994? Are there any successful land programs?

The land reform program has been highly problematic, but before we get into that, it’s important to say that those people who had proper access to land through restitution or redistribution have not done as badly as people would make out. Detailed field research does not reveal a 90 per cent failure, which is a myth invented by the Minister himself.

There are lots of failures and problems where there was inadequate support. But actually people try to may a go of things. Research reveals that 50% of people that were given access to land are farming and that significant numbers of people feel their lives have been improved. Of the eight percent of land that has been transferred so far for people, probably half of that has meant real differences in people’s lives.

But what have been the problems then?

There are huge challenges. The redistribution program was ill conceived as a market-based program; acquisition of isolated pieces of land, farms here and there, with no real coherent program of support for them; very poor matching of need and supply, with business plans designed by consultants to put in place commercial farming systems very different from what people wanted or were able to do. And inadequate support, even for those recommended commercial systems. So, huge mismatches, between capacities, need and what was actually delivered.

Basically in practice, if not in rhetoric, there has been a bias against smallholder farming. This hasn’t been a land reform designed to support small-scale farming. It’s been for large-scale farming.

Where does the idea that ‘South Africa doesn’t have a peasantry’ come from?

Well, I think we have to recognize that Apartheid had real effects. People were actually prevented from farming, they were becoming migrant labors, and they were deprived of access to infrastructure, resources, and so on. So all of that had real effects. It’s not a fallacy that in fact we don’t have a peasantry. Well, it’s a bit of an exaggeration. There are probably 200,000 small-scale farmers who produce products for the market. Those are not full time farmers since they do other things to get income from other sources as well. But that’s not a very large number.

I argue that the great numbers of rural poor, 2 million people, are probably not the best beneficiaries of land reform, because they actually mostly depend on other sources of income. So, a larger transfer of land to those 2 million households will probably not resolve anything. I would go, myself, for the 200,000, those who already have proved that despite difficulties, they could still do reasonably well.

I think the populist idea that land reform can itself reduce rural poverty is not enough. We need jobs, and other kinds of solutions to rural poverty, as well as land reform. Land reform is just part of the answer. That’s not a popular view. It’s not part of the government rhetoric and NGO activists who also say “distribute land to the poor” based on misunderstanding rural society in South Africa.

And what about women in the rural areas?

In communal areas or former reserves there was was a gendered migrant labour system: men went to work on the mines and factories, women had the responsibility of social reproduction at home. And often the bit of agriculture that they engaged in was to help keep the family alive. And you see the legacy of that system today.

Women are still seen as the primary holders of crops. To some extent it builds on gender divisions of labour in pre-colonial societies, but these are also the results of colonialism and Apartheid. For example, in the irrigation scheme that I do research in KwaZulu-Natal and Tugela Ferry, 70 per cent of farmers on that scheme are women. They have very small plots, only 0.1 hectares, and people have four, five or six of these plots. So they are quite small areas of land. But even they are bringing in cash. It’s a lot of work, very intensive and it’s seen as a women’s thing. The fact that 75% are women indicates that men are not seeing it as an opportunity for themselves. So the gender divisions of labour in agriculture are very important in these areas.

What about the peasant social movement?

None, that’s one of the big problems. We lack a rural social movement. There was one, called the “Landless People’s Movement”, 10 years ago. It collapsed in two or three years because of infighting.

I think the movement did not recognize its constituencies, that they are quite diverse and different to one another. Former labour tenants, farm workers, people in communal areas, people in informal settlements, have different problems and needs. And everybody came together as “the landless”, but they didn’t put in place a strong organization based on local struggles. It was just big politics, big slogans. So basically it’s poor organization, poor politics in my view.

But the fact that there was a big response at the beginning indicated that there is a potential.

And what about the capital-intensive farms?

Commercial farmers feel threatened by land reform, because basically reforms are based on the notion that commercial farmers acquired this land originally by force, that it was an act of dispossession. So therefore a restitution claim enables someone to say “this was my land, it was taken from me by force, therefore the current owner does not hold it legitimately.” But for the restitution process, government buys the land of the owner at a negotiated price with the owner. There is no force taking; it’s a negotiated price.

Isn’t that too expensive for the government?

That is one argument. But, there are two issues here. One is that the Constitution allows land to be acquired at less then market value. So, you can make savings of maybe 15 or 20% if you expropriate in terms of the law that gives expression to these constitutional principles.

But we don’t have such an act at the moment. There is and old expropriation act and the government is bringing a new expropriation act that would allow for taking of land and payment for less as compensation. In practice, it wouldn’t be that much less, unless you don’t pay compensation at all. But the possibility of taking and not paying money at all, I think, is technically unfeasible. I don’t think it’s likely to take place. I think there is too much concern and anxiety about investors and so on.

And, is it too expensive? Well, land reform has never been more then one percent of the national budget. It’s been a very low priority. And if you think, it’s actually quite a wealthy country. If you would put, let’s say, four percent of the budget to land reform, I think it’s actually affordable. And if you spend less on arms …

And what about the capital-intensive farms? What has been their relationship to the government?

Because they have been labelled as the beneficiaries of the dispossession, as the illegitimate owners of the land, they feel very threatened.

At first they were very against land reform. But in the 1990s the farmers realized that they needed to be seen as part of the solution, not as part of the problem. So they began saying, “yes, we are in favor of land reform, but it should be a proper, ordered land reform.” It’s about transferring commercial farms to black commercial farmers. “De-racializing” the commercial farming sector. Yes, they are very concerned by the price that they would get for the land. They don’t want anything less then market-value. But also they want beneficiaries to be of a particular kind. Basically, black versions of themselves.

What they are very opposed to is small-scale farming, extensions of the communal areas, and they say private property is important. They argue that you have got to be very careful about food security that if you take too many commercial farms and replace them with small land reform farms the national food security of the whole country would be at risk. It’s more hypothetical then anything else.

So, they have offered to cooperate and work with government. They’ve offered to mentor and teach and train land reform beneficiaries. And some of that is genuine. But they are very defensive and react very quickly when they are labelled as the scapegoat, as the source of the problem. And government uses them as a scapegoat, as a nice easy victim, to say “oh, it’s all the farmers fault.” Government blames the farmers for their own problems, that they are pushing up prices and so on. In fact, in restitution, the prices paid for land have been higher then market value, and that’s because of the Government.

The Zimbabwe experience is like a ghost when one discusses the possibility of land reform in South Africa. How has this experience affected the land reform policies in the country?

Well, Zimbabwe is seen by people in different ways. The government says, “We are going to do land reform in an old-fashioned way and we would never allow land invasions. We are going to have a strong program.” So their lesson from Zimbabwe it’s that we shouldn’t do it like that, but we need to do it on scale.

The commercial farmers say, “Look what a disaster land reform was, it destroyed the agricultural economy, all the Zimbabweans are living in South Africa, that’s what happens when you tamper with commercial farming,” they say. Like a terrible lesson of what can go wrong.

And then you get land activists who say, “Actually, land reform in Zimbabwe is a success. And the lesson is that not only you can give land to small-scale farmers and they will become productive, but they you can do it at a much lower price. You can just take the land.”

So everyone refers to the Zimbabwean experience for their own purposes, with their own particular angle and lens on it. It becomes a kind of ideological weapon, in pushing a particular line. And my own view it’s that there are positive and negative lessons. The violence and abuse that accompanied land reform is not something you want to emulate. But, the evidence suggests that the new beneficiaries have become, over the last 10 years, actually pretty productive, and have more potential. It shows that you can replace large-scale commercial farming, or at least portions of it by small holders. So I think there are positive and negative lessons there.

And what do you think is the major difficulty to redistribute land in a more equal way? Is it a problem of political will?

Personally I think that. Government has never been serious about it. Actually, a lot of people in the ANC don’t think it’s an important issue. It’s useful for political purposes and it’s useful at election time. But the small size of the budget indicates that it’s actually a very low priority. The fact is that for the new black elite agriculture is not a very attractive sector to get involved in [compared to] mining and other forms of big businesses.

And the fact is also that South Africa is an urbanizing society, that something between 50 or 60 per cent of the population is urban, the weight of agriculture in the economy is much less then it used to be, and much less that in other African countries. So, they are not entirely wrong, it can’t be “the” issue. As I said before, I don’t think land reform or rural development can be what resolves rural poverty. Actually we need more access to jobs and social security on a much bigger scale across the whole society. And land reform can make some contributions to that. [But] the politics of it confuses. It’s such an emotive issue, such a symbolic issue, that we don’t get down to the practicalities.

Here I agree with some of the commercial farmers. If you are talking farming, about land reform, you have to be practical. You have to be rooted in what it takes to take a piece of land, put it into production on a sustainable basis.

But for that we need programs and officials rooted in these practicalities. I think the big problem is the lack of skills in the government department. In Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and in rural development, these are very weak departments. They have very inexperienced officials. They are very poorly managed departments. They are subject to all kinds of politics, and they are very useless instruments for land reform and rural development. A land reform, an agrarian reform, assumes that you have a capable state, which can support people on the ground. Well, we have a useless state. So a big challenge is to build capacity again in the state. It’s more then just a policy problem. It’s an implementation and capacity problem.

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