Apartheid's legacy on land and farms is slow to fade in South Africa

The aim of equality for blacks who want to farm or own their own plot was widely shared after 1994. But land reform turns out to be complicated. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Crosby Numpu (l.) and Joyce Ncanywa work on a farm in Grahamstown, South Africa. They don’t own the farm but tend its small garden, chickens, cows, and pigs.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Ntombizakhe Ncanywa is finally free.

After years of toil on the formerly white-owned dairy farm where she was born, Ms. Ncanywa, along with her sister, her father, and a small group of others, now runs some 2,200 acres in the rural stretches of South Africa's Eastern Cape Province.

Ncanywa has benefited from South Africa's efforts to undo the legacy of apartheid through a promise of land reform and redistribution, and she is grateful.

She never thought she would be in control of her own fate, and recalls the days of being a farmhand when she paid the owner for wood to burn and chickens to eat, and rent.

But now, she says, "I am free forever. No one can ever tell me don't go here, don't go there, because this is mine. This is my property, and we are working hard."

Surveys show that nearly half of black South Africans want land, and fully a third want land to grow food.

Indeed, the idea of greater equality of land and farms runs deeply through the body politic – even as the slow speed of delivering on the dream is a source of rising frustration.

Here in rough and fertile Eastern Cape, Ncanywa's farm is struggling to stay solvent. Problems abound: The once-thriving farm is in disrepair. Structures are sagging, and the fields where crops once grew now lie fallow.

Ncanywa and her fellow land beneficiaries mainly tend to a small number of chickens, goats, and cattle, and, despite a sprawl of arable fields in all directions, they till what is a tiny vegetable garden.

In fact, some 20 years after the end of apartheid, only a small fraction of South African commercial farmland is run by blacks. For decades before 1994, blacks had been stripped of their land. In apartheid South Africa, the takeover of black land was legal. The aim of the 1913 Natives Land Act, a law that turns 100 this year, was to restrict nonwhites to 13 percent of the land. That vision was not fully completed, but its effects have been devastating.

Fixing this painful legacy was a central promise of the new South Africa. Nelson Mandela and other leaders in 1994 not only committed to land reform in the new Constitution, they also set a target: 30 percent of all commercial farmland to be in black hands by 2014.

Reform would be achieved by three means: restitution to return confiscated land, redistribution to transfer ownership to a new class of farmers, and new laws to strengthen land titles for vulnerable groups such as farmworkers.

Yet by 2012, only about 10 percent of commercial farmland had been turned over.

Only some 19 million of the 202 million agricultural acres classified as white have changed hands, well below the lofty goal. And while some 5,000 farms have been transferred, the efforts are criticized as inadequate, and a symbol of the shortcomings of government since liberation. (Farmland purchased by blacks on the private market is a relatively small total.)

In the new South Africa, land reform promised to leverage racial equality to boost economic equality. But the management of newly owned farms is often problematic.

Newly minted farmers often have little training in the intricacies of commercial farming. Confusion in the bureaucracy about proper land titles hampers the ability to find financing.

In 2010, Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti told Parliament that fully 90 percent of the redistributed land that moved from white to black hands had failed financially. Today, land reform is often mired in waste, inefficiency, and charges of corruption. The nation has struggled in its efforts to transfer or retitle land in a way that seems fair, workable, and sustainable for all sides.

On the Ncanywa farm, some money is made from crops and livestock. But family members survive on social grants to get by. They admit they are desperate for resources and support. They don't actually have title to the land, which is technically owned by the government. (The farm was originally taken over by another black beneficiary, who quickly abandoned it.) Almost all the farm equipment is gone, taken by the original owner or his first successor.

Unsurprisingly, Ncanywa's sister Nolinda is exasperated. She says the family has no cash to buy new or expensive modern farm tools: "There is no tractor, only us and our arms."

Landownership remains an intensely emotional and political subject. It grabs headlines in the run-up to next year's elections and weighs in with other apartheid-era legacies like unemployment and delivery of basic services.

The way many South Africans perceive the reform question is articulated by Didi Virginia, who argues, "You are giving people a sense of belonging, of their dignity back."

In the 1960s Ms. Virginia and her mother were evicted from their home in the District Six neighborhood of Cape Town. The land was bulldozed for a whites-only enclave that was never built. Now, Virginia and her mother have moved into a new house in the same neighborhood as part of a restitution plan.

Land reform is a priority again

Given the raw emotions, the ruling African National Congress party is making land reform a political priority once again. It is putting forth a series of bills and proposals designed to speed up delivery or transfer of land or even, in the phraseology of a new parliamentary bill put forth by the ANC, to "expropriate" it.

One idea would reopen the process of restitution, allowing thousands of people to lodge claims about land they lost in the past. (Critics say the ANC's priority on land reform is merely a populist political sideshow.)

Deep in the rural heartland of the Eastern Cape, outside a small town called Elliot, Simphiwe Jalisa is not waiting to find out what may or may not be a sincere effort at reform.

Local officials have turned over about a quarter of local farmland to black owners.

Mr. Jalisa, who used to own a taxi company, has been farming since 2005, after the government helped him buy land. At his farm, as he tends hundreds of sheep, Jalisa says he doesn't regret selling his lucrative taxi firm in order to farm. But money is tight, and he complains that only one other investor actually works the land.

He does say reform is crucial. "When things are more equal, then there will be no problems living with our counterparts," he says.

Jalisa received 30 cows and fertilizer assistance as government aid when he was in dire straits. But he says he is largely on his own financially.

"We are struggling, but we are very thankful for everything we get," he says. He recently sent workers to a nearby forest to chop down trees for firewood, which can be sold for cash or farm supplies. Still, he says, "When I wake up, I feel like I can improve everything."

Since the ANC took over in 1994, the chief means of acquiring chunks of white-owned land is known as "willing buyer, willing seller." It pegged the price offered for land to the market rate in what was to be a gradual process. But that approach is under attack for being too slow and subject to abuse by price gouging.

Will only elites benefit?

The ANC's new expropriation bill and a property valuation bill try to make land buying faster by making it easier for the government to take land from those who don't want to sell. But critics say the cure is worse than the ailment. Overzealous expropriation could lead to huge economic problems, they say, and the new policy is more prone to abuse than the old one.

The ANC also wants to reopen the process of submitting land claims for those whose property was stripped away under racial laws.

But while the party sees this as fairness for those who missed the previous claim deadline, the possibility of greater confusion and corruption lurks in reopening vast numbers of claims. Critics say the big winners would not be the poor or ordinary South Africans, but tribal leaders who hold great sway in rural areas.

The complexity and emotion involved in reform, and the explosive politics around policies with titles like "expropriation," make it far from certain that land transfers will be speedy.

Nor is it certain that even if new policies do kick land reform into high gear, that poor people or subsistence farmers will be helped, says Ruth Hall, an associate professor at the Institute of Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies near Cape Town.

Land-reform programs seem aimed at creating a new breed of commercial farmers able to deal with complex businesses and new agricultural techniques, and who can manage finances for large-scale operations. Yet given South Africa's high unemployment, Ms. Hall says, this may be asking for too much too quickly. The policy seems slanted toward elites and big commercial farm operations.

"There is no consensus as to who this land is for," Hall says. "There is much more radical rhetoric [for the government] to be more interventionist.... The number of people benefiting is much smaller than it was."

Yet an outcome that turns more productive land over to more unskilled farmers on a larger scale could threaten South Africa's food security, some critics say.

With ANC support, many new initiatives seem likely to become law. But what will emerge for people on the ground remains to be seen.

For Ncanywa, life on her Eastern Cape farm also remains uncertain. She knows support may be in the works. But she is wary of suggestions that she find a partner. She doesn't mind a mentor, but she worries that a partner with a financial stake and legal leverage could bilk or manipulate her – and that she and her family could end up working for a white owner again.

So she waits.

Everyone on the farm wants to move forward, she says, "but which way do we go?"

Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation.


Key land-reform measures in South Africa

More than a dozen proposed new laws and policies in South Africa promise to overhaul land reform. The pending measures would also help kick-start the rural economy. Here are the most important:

Expropriation Bill: South Africa plans to clarify its powers to take privately held land and resell it, ostensibly in the public interest – and even if the owner is unwilling to sell. This is a highly controversial alternative to the "willing buyer, willing seller" policy that has been used to redress inequity, and that has held sway since the end of apartheid in 1994. Advocates say the previous policy is slow and ineffective. Opponents worry the policy could open up the kind of forcible land grabs of white farms seen next door in Zimbabwe.

Property Valuation Bill: It would speed up land reform and farm transitions by giving powers to a government figure called the "valuer-general" who could unilaterally set the value of the land in question. Backers say the new figure can untie red tape and ease the lengthy negotiation process. Opponents worry the new position would begin to promulgate biased and politically tilted decisions that upend basic property rights.

Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill: It would allow five years for citizens to submit claims on land seized in the past 100 years. Backers say a central aim of the new South Africa is to restore land forcefully taken, and that earlier efforts to do so were confusing. Skeptics worry the complexities and capacity for abuse and clashes are rife with this idea, and that the bill is meant to curry favor with tribal leaders who stand the most to gain. Many previous land claims still remain unsettled. To now add new claims could throw the disposition of the pending claims into further uncertainty.

Others: South Africa's Land Bank is now successfully offering support and new loans to struggling farmers. A more questionable measure, still in its early stages, involves the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform giving workers with significant time on a farm as much as a 10 percent equity stake. At 25 and 50 years, the stake would increase to 25 percent and 50 percent – though how long-working farms with many employees could divvy up the equity along these lines remains unclear.


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