Land Nationalisation

By Stephen Greenberg · 6 Jul 2011

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ANCYL President Julius Malema’s recent comments on land nationalisation have caused quite a stir. The owners of wealth thought this topic had been put to rest with the passing of the 1996 Constitution, which secures private property rights. It is no wonder, then, that newspapers and magazines are filled with Professors and other experts proclaiming that nationalisation is not permitted in the Constitution.

That debate doesn’t concern us here. The issue is whether or not nationalisation will result in a more just and equitable society.

Malema has long been the bogeyman for the media, so it is not surprising that his comments have been received with such shock. But a level-headed approach would be to separate the message from the messenger for the moment, and try to consider the evidence for and against land nationalisation.

The truth of the matter is that the land was unjustly taken from Africans through a combination of stealth (land and property laws, the conversion of land into property and its private ownership) and violence (labour tenancy, evictions and forced removals).

There can be no peace without facing up to and dealing with this foundational injustice, the true constitution of our society and economy. Until this festering wound is properly treated, it will continue to poison relationships between white and black. Yet the formal Constitution enforced by law entrenches this injustice with the property clause. It is not new to say this. It has dogged transformation for the past 17 years. In this sense we need a fundamental constitutional change.

Land nationalisation is being presented as an approach to such a constitutional change.

What are the connections between state ownership of land, and secure access to, and equitable distribution of, land for all who need or want it? The connections we see depend both on our conceptual understanding of the state, and on our understanding of the actually existing state in South Africa at present.

While we can accept that the state is a contested terrain, we must also recognise that it is skewed towards the interests of the dominant classes in society. Hence, for example, we have the entrenchment of the rights of private property in the Constitution. State elites also merge with economic elites, whatever their skin colour. This is evident across the world as well as in South Africa.

The state does own land currently. What is it doing with that land?

It is holding some in reserve for (capitalist) economic development. It is leasing some back to private individuals or corporations, often white. This is the case with commonage around many rural small towns. This is also similar to how water access is leased back to those with historical riparian rights tied to private property, following the nationalisation of water under the 1998 National Water Act.

Some is being used to benefit state actors, including but not limited to skewed rules, corruption and patronage networks. While some is being leased to black farmers that can be differentiated by class, i.e. some with their own resources to put into land, and some with their own skills and labour to contribute.

State ownership, or nationalisation, therefore does not automatically respond to popular demands for secure access to land for production and settlement. It could feed into the transfer of large-scale commercial farms into the hands of other elites, and it could also facilitate the development of a decentralised smallholder agrarian structure. It could even do both combined, retaining large farms under an elite and redistributing lesser farmland to smallholders. Even that is a reform to the extent that more people get access to land (even if not the best land) for whatever use they want to put it to.

The state itself, under the ANC’s management, is implicated in the failure of land reform to date. State support for land use after transfer is limited. Where support is provided, this is in the mould of commercial agriculture, which means products of the land are driven by the market where the wealthy have more authority.

The current land reform programme reproduces the contours of colonial and apartheid land division. It does so by transferring large farms to the ownership of private individuals, rather than breaking these farms down and allowing more people to benefit. In this line, one wonders why the Subdivision of Agricultural Land Act Repeal Act, passed in 1998 has not yet been promulgated and put into effect. The state has reproduced the ideology and practice of concentrated, inequitable agriculture.

The requirement to buy land through the willing buyer, willing seller principle has certainly been an obstacle. The freeing up of that money to provide practical and material support to those getting land through the reform programme could make a big difference, not only in land access but in building the base for a more decentralised, diverse and equitable agricultural production system.

The type of agrarian structure emerging from land reform, at least in some parts of rural South Africa, mainly where there is limited government support and where land is of lesser economic value, is of small-scale production interspersed with settlement, with a lot of open land. On the basis of this model, Via Campesina, the global peasant movement, along with others in South Africa and Zimbabwe, argue for the revival of a peasant culture based on sound agroecological principles, with families producing on small units of land in organised networks with one another.

Support to consolidate and expand this more diverse and equitable base of agricultural production goes beyond land nationalisation, which cannot therefore be the final word in a just agrarian transformation. What is required alongside a radical redistribution of access to land is a systematic programme of support for production and settlement on the land.

How can we get to the point of redistributing the big farms and high quality land too?

Currently these are increasingly concentrated in the control of 6% of the 40,000 or so remaining large-scale commercial farmers. Here the party-state that is the ANC will be driven by whatever interests are strongest in the society. Given the lack of a strong rural movement of the poor for the redistribution of the best land in the country, any state take-over of that land will be driven by more organised, wealthier, constituencies, mostly in their own interests.

Despite this, the very act of nationalisation is a radical one, and can have many unforeseen consequences in people’s willingness to organise to access land. This is especially if they see greater likelihood of success in making claims for land access with the state than with private white landowners. This puts pressure on private landowners to share their wealth. 

There is enough belief that the state will meet popular demands better than white land owners have done so far, which is to say, hardly at all.

The dominant argument against land nationalisation in the media is that it will limit new investment and hence wealth creation. However, this wealth is inequitably shared and it is not surprising that many people are not afraid to contemplate the introduction of alternatives to this system that has failed them.

But if people perceive the state as being as remote as private owners, nationalisation will have a limited effect on the redistribution of assets, because it will not serve to mobilise rural people around equitable land access. The feeling is there, but there is weak organisation around it.

Private ownership of land is an obstacle to the spread of a fair and equitable alternative. White private owners, in particular, must step aside to allow alternative land holdings and production practices to develop, including a simple racial transfer, i.e. black capitalists replacing white capitalists. Given South Africa’s demographics, approximately 90% of all capitalists, as long as we have a capitalist system, should be black. That’s a fair racial distribution of wealth in the society, even as we must still consider other axes of inequity such as class and gender.

What happens to white owners? Are they compensated in some way or not?

The formal Constitution of the country says yes, the ANC Youth League says no. But not only the Youth League, the SACP during the Red October campaigns in 2003 and 2004, the Landless People’s Movement before that, and a host of NGOs and community organisations also agree with the Youth League’s position on this general principle.

It doesn’t have to be violent. It can be a good faith negotiation, if that’s possible. Maybe it’s not possible. But that would be an unfortunate outcome for the country, if we felt we had to resort to violence to get what we want and need. It is only then, in the rhetoric in which the argument is delivered, that the message and the messenger become conflated once again.

Dr. Greenberg is a freelance researcher with an interest in food systems, land, agriculture and rural development.

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7 Jul

Food Security

The impetus should be on the ability to produce and supply food, more supply, cheaper costs translates into greater access to nutritional food for the poorest of the poor. Look after the poorest of the poor not the elite whoever they are because elite is elite and hungry is still hungry. Easy to talk when we have meat on the table but theory and equity doesn't put food on the table. What is the priority. Fat cats vs hungry?

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8 Jul

Government Land

Apparently the government owns vast tracts of land. Why don't they start there? Do they really have to own that much? Once all the land they can possibly part with have been transferred to black ownership, coupled with some kind of support program or another to teach them how to use the land optimally, they can turn their attention to privately owned land. It will serve as a good laboratory run where they can experiment with different settlement programs until they find the right one. That way the least amount of damage will be wrought to all parties concerned, including the interest of the broader public. Until then I think they should put a moratorium on the subject of land nationalization.

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Rory Short
8 Jul

Urban Food Security

Surely the top priority for any citizen is long term food security. In a sense this is particularly true for urban dwellers who have little or no personal access to arable land and who will in due course compromise the majority of the population that is if they do not already make up the majority. Most debate about land reform seems to ignore the urban dwellers and their need for food. The debate seems to assume that the urban dwellers wiil always have access to food no matter what land reform policies are adopted. This is total wishful thinking.

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12 Jul


Now if we can just get this land back to the Bushmen whom we believe were first here and, in the name of justice, get America, Australia, New Zealand and others to follow suit. Oh, and the Blacks here to head back north where they came from.

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