By Roy Prosterman
When apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994 just under 60,000 white-owned farms covered the majority of the country’s land mass. Recognizing the fundamental importance of broad-based land ownership to sparking inclusive economic growth, Nelson Mandela’s government vowed to implement an ambitious land reform program. But now, more than two decades later, just over eight percent of the country’s farmland has been reallocated.
The country’s slow progress on land reform has recently sparked comments among academics from French economist Thomas Piketty to author and political science professor Michael Albertus suggesting that the country will never see truly inclusive growth and uplift the black majority until land reform is complete. However, Albertus posits that South Africa, because it is a democracy, is faced with a Faustian bargain. It can choose democracy OR rural land reform. Albertus maintains that democracies cannot engage in the sort of proper, large-scale land reform that structurally changes societies, sparks broad-based economic growth and addresses fundamental inequities.
Both Albertus and Piketty are correct that redistribution of land “has launched economic growth in many…countries where it has been implemented” and has dramatically reduced income inequality. The book How Asia Works is a great primer on this.
But Albertus is almost certainly wrong in positing that such reform in South Africa will require “a return to dictatorship, this time under the ANC.”
It should be kept in mind that democracies have carried out successful land redistribution programs. Approaches have varied and this is critical to understanding the options available to South Africa’s leaders.
The State of West Bengal is now involved in a second-generation land reform that is its flagship poverty alleviation program. It has already benefited more than 250,000 families. As part of its “Operation Bootstrap,” Puerto Rico two generations ago carried out a successful program awarding landless families small plots of land. Several democratic European states, such as Denmark and Italy, have carried out redistributive land reforms in the course of their development process.
Also, keep mind that South Africa today is 64 percent urban, and it is uncertain how many black African families would really want to relocate far away to farm land their great-grandparents lost under an anti-black-farmer law adopted in 1913.
Given the urban nature of contemporary South Africa, there may be other ways of supporting agricultural activity by blacks who want to farm, that offer better cost-benefit outcomes in the South African setting than seizing white-owned plantations.
Peri-urban microplots – carrying a small enough cost to be fully subsidized when acquired at a negotiated market price – are demonstrating in several states of India that they can greatly benefit the landless poor who receive them as a supplemental source of income and nutrition. Another option is the formal titling (to wife as well as husband, with both names on the deed) of those already farming public land but as insecure “squatters.” This could impact millions of black South Africans who have already fled poverty in rural areas in search of a better life in squatter camps or “informal settlements” around the urban fringe.
And, of course, there can be a wide spectrum of cash or other compensation for claimants who don’t really want farmland.
With so many other options available, there seems little reason to limit the choice to an extreme path: the forced acquisition and breakup of the highly profitable white-owned plantations, with their heavy sunk costs and widely varying degree of culpability of present owners: probably the only option that might threaten South Africa’s fledgling democracy.
Roy Prosterman is founder and chairman emeritus of Landesa