Dragging SAÕs Land Debate from the Neoliberal Quicksand

There are a great many surface-level political processes now unfolding in South Africa, reflecting underlying contradictions that are irreconcilable.

Perhaps the most spectacular is president Thabo Mbeki?s fight with his Alliance partners in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and SA Communist Party, which I?ll devote a future column to once the dust settles. The unions and communists backed an apparently corrupt ? at minimum sleazy ? deputy president, Jacob Zuma, ostensibly because he was the only ?friend of the workers? to be found at the highest levels of government.

(Aside from periodic conciliation chores, Zuma never gave the impression that his heart is on the left, that he fought the government?s neoliberal economic and development strategy, or that he would bother to defend unionists and communists against Mbeki?s regular red-baiting.)

Last month Zuma was fired by Mbeki, who replaced him with the pro-business mining minister Phumzile Mlambo-Nguka (whose husband was, as the state?s chief prosecutor, once Zuma?s main tormentor). Not only did the Alliance began to splinter, but Cosatu itself last week divided itself among three camps: the mainstream backing Zuma, the right backing Mbeki, and the left sickened by both.

Indeed, a new ?United Democratic Front?-style linkage of Cosatu and radical civil society organisations was launched in Cape Town. Hundreds of activists joined in, and Cosatu?s ?support for Zuma went down like a lead blimp?, according to a Mail & Guardian reporter.

Reflecting last week?s militant mood, Cosatu?s central committee also complained of ruling-party ?neoliberals (who) may use the state apparatus to turn the revolution in(to) an offensive against the true cadres of the revolution?.

Mbeki?s reply ? published on the African National Congress website (www.anc.org.za) on August 26 ? included these sentences: ?I am informed that some within our broad movement, who believe that Deputy President Zuma is a victim of a counter-revolutionary, capitalist and neoliberal offensive, are convinced that as President of the ANC and the Republic, I occupy the leading position in the political onslaught against Deputy President Zuma.?

Quickly denying the charges, Mbeki revealed how the charge of ?neoliberal? strikes fear into politicians? hearts here.

That phenomenon was also evident in a recent debate about the land question. According to the Landless People?s Movement (LPM), during the decade after liberation, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki failed their rural supporters. The original ANC promise in 1994 was to ?redistribute 30% of the country?s agricultural land from 60,000 white farmers to more than 19 million poor and landless rural black people and more than 7-million poor and landless urban black people within five years? Studies show that just over 2.3% of the country?s land has changed hands through land reform.?

The key problem was the adoption by Mandela and Mbeki of a World Bank-inspired, market-oriented, ?willing-seller/willing-buyer? programme that limited the state function to providing a tiny once-off subsidy ($2,300 at today?s exchange rate), far too small to acquire a decent plot of land.

Last Thursday, at the Centre in Durban where I work (www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs), University of Cape Town professor Lungisile Ntsebeza presented a paper, ?Slow Delivery in South Africa?s Land Reform Programme?. At a major government/civil society/agribusiness Land Summit last month, Ntsebeza had chaired the land reform panel where he helped demolish the willing seller/willing buyer principle.

He now takes the argument further by focusing on South Africa?s liberal Bill of Rights. As recently as the early 1990s, the ANC opposed the post-apartheid recognition of colonial- and apartheid-era land grabs. However, the subsequent Bill of Rights in the Interim Constitution reflected the old apartheid National Party?s (NP?s) tough negotiating position. ANC representatives merely sought the power to redistribute, according to Ntsebeza, but ?without an excessive obligation to compensate owners?.

The NP at least conceded that the formal land market should not be the baseline for judging compensation. An agreement on compensation ? albeit ?extremely vague? – was reached in October 1993, and recorded in the Interim Constitution. Then, says Ntsebeza, ?The final constitution?s Section 25 reinforced and refined the Interim Constitution. This only shows how distant the political negotiations were from local realities.?

How is compensation determined? The Constitution refers only to a ?just and equitable dispensation?. As Ntsebeza notes, however, ?Land owners are inclined to inflate prices.? The Land Claims Court worked out a formula that emphasised the market value of the property, adjusted by subtracting an estimate of the present value of past state subsidies.

But there are more serious problems beyond determination of a fair price for land, says Ntsebeza: ?Government has shown great reluctance to invoke the expropriation clause. Some argue that the state doesn?t have the political will. Others argue that the Left within the Alliance was defeated by the mid-1990s. I think there is more to the state?s reluctance: the global political economic order since the late 1980s.? Specifically, Ntsebeza remarks, ?The ANC lost the Soviet compass, but immediately acquired a neoliberal compass.?

Ntsebeza poses this challenge: ?What alternatives did the ANC have when it came to power? We have to ask this question. Closely linked is the relative weakness of the land-based organisations, whether community-based or NGOs. Their hope was to influence the Department of Land Affairs. How this was to be achieved within the context of the neoliberal policy the ANC had adopted was not clearly articulated.? Hence when a group that came to be known as ?land reform liberals? moved from the National Land Committee to the state in the mid-1990s, they mainly lubricated the ANC?s neoliberal strategy.

In contrast, the nascent popular landless sector in early 1994 advocated 30% redistribution, above and beyond the restitution programme agreed upon for land stolen by whites after the 1913 Land Act. Ironically, even World Bank staff staff and their close local ally, the Land and Agricultural Policy Centre, used this statistic, as they worked hard to generate legitimacy for a market-based strategy.

Why 30%? The land market typically turned over 6% of land each year, so a five-year target of 30% would have been reasonable – in the event the state withdrew residual apartheid-era subsidies (ranging from irrigation to energy to cheap credit) from white commercial farmers and, in the interests of affirmative action, redirected those to black emerging farmers.

To get to the 30% target, there were basically two choices. One was what we can call the ?commodification? model of land reform: relying upon the market, via a small household grant and increased access to rural credit. In choosing this route, Hanekom virtually copied Zimbabwe?s Lancaster House model intact, to the extent of taking advice from the same World Bank economist, Robert Christiansen, who was responsible for trying to salvage the failed scheme during the early 1990s.

(Zimbabwe?s two-decade failure of the willing seller/willing buyer model, along with Robert Mugabe?s need to intimidate his citizenry after losing the February 2000 constitutional referendum, helps explain the destructive rural chaos misleadingly termed ?fast-track land reform?.)

The second choice would have been the state?s purchase of the land ? whether voluntarily coming to market or through strategic expropriation, which should have been relatively inexpensive for two reasons. First, the withdrawal of residual apartheid subsidies would have forced more white farmers to offer up their land.

Moreover, following South Africa?s ? and indeed the world?s – 1990-93 real estate market crash, the stage of the price cycle that prevailed in 1994 was favourable. Today, land prices in prime areas of South Africa mirror the global bubbling of speculative real estate markets. This makes redress using market mechanisms so expensive that even state officials ? including Mbeki – are looking skeptically at the hedonistic white-dominated golf estates and game farms that now pock once-productive agricultural soil.

That second choice ? we can term it the ?decommodification? model – would have relied upon large state-owned farms, which in turn could have been rationally broken into component parts where cooperative strategies were difficult to kick-start. To be sure, state farms have a dismal record in some half-hearted land reform experiments where rural civil society is weak, but in other cases, such as Cuba, they were the prerequisite for successful redistribution and agricultural production.

By decommodifying land, specifically by removing it from the market once in state hands, the present trends that make life hard for small farmers ? historically high interest rates, ever-lower commodity prices, excessive agricultural mechanisation and export-orientation, and sophisticated cropping systems featuring genetic modification ? could have been more effectively contested.

But the prerequisite for rural progress ? radically reformed agricultural policy, access to decent land, and rational, just use of the land – is the empowerment of civil society, especially social movements. The best model is, perhaps, the Brazilian Movement of Landless Workers (MST).

Ntsebeza agrees, South Africa needs much stronger MST-style advocacy. ?The establishment of the Landless People?s Movement in 2001 brought to the fore all sorts of tensions within the National Land Committee, which led to the demise of this network.? As a result, today, ?there is very little effective pressure that comes from below.?

Occasionally, there are eruptions of protest, including the LPM?s excellent demonstrations at UN summits on racism and sustainable development in 2001-02, their periodic land invasions and the political protest on election day in 2004. (The policeman responsible for three cases of torture of LPM leaders that day, 16 months ago, finally appeared in court last week.) In addition, protest against the commodification strategy was heard in the 2003 land tribunal, the 2004 Red October campaign of the SA Communist Party (in alliance with the LPM), and last month?s formation of the Alliance of Land and Agrarian Reform Movements (Alarm) network.

Achieving a decommodified model of thorough-going land reform requires more state resources, all these civil society networks argue. Hanekom had announced in mid-1996 that the bargain-basement price of $2.3 billion in state subsidies would pay for land reform over the subsequent five years. It was not clear how the figure was arrived at, because his staff reckoned that 1.7 million families required land (itself a conservative estimate). Given the standard grant of $2,300 (a figure chosen because it was equivalent to the housing subsidy) and correcting for inflation, fewer than a million families would be served.

The Land Summit last month was, at least rhetorically, the death knell for the commodification strategy of willing seller/willing buyer. Yet at the same time, when deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka called for ?lessons? and ?skills? to be transferred from Zimbabwe, the opportunity for a serious decommodification strategy seemed to fade.

In view of the weakness of civil society and the strength of patronage-based traditional leaders, Ntsebeza advocates a major rural power shift. Back home in the Eastern Cape community of Cala, Ntsebeza and his brother Dumisa (a judge who is one of South Africa?s premier public intellectuals) ran a famous Marxist bookshop for many years. Indeed, Ntsebeza has authored a brand new book about that community: Democracy Compromised: Chiefs and the Politics of the Land in South Africa (Leiden, Brill).

Notwithstanding the greatest admiration for this legacy of scholarship, advocacy and activism, I?m not sure I agree with Ntsebeza?s main thesis, namely that the Constitution?s property clause is the key barrier. It is a symptom, more than a cause.

The ?cause? of land hunger is the combination of neoliberal fiscal austerity, the World Bank strategy, and the elite class pacting that characterise so many other developmental failures of post-apartheid South Africa.

From that standpoint, Ntsebeza?s last words are telling: ?It will be difficult for the Department of Land Affairs to deal with the Land Summit. The overwhelming majority of people agreed that we have a problem. A tiny minority of AgriSA [white commercial farming] delegates were opposed. And they raised the threat that if you interfere with the market there will be consequences far beyond our imagination. Look at Zimbabwe, they say: you defy the world, and you find yourself in a position where the world boycotts you.?

But likewise, continue with the willing seller/willing buyer model, and the conditions for a Zimbabwe-style political breakdown only improve.

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