When he was elected president of South Africa in 1994, Nelson Mandela’s country was a sizzling stovetop of grievances and ideologies, a place where the vestiges of Apartheid mixed with newer black nationalist and Marxist resentments. The pressures Mandela faced were enormous.
One of them was to follow the example of Robert Mugabe, president of nearby Zimbabwe. A gapingly disproportionate amount of land in both Zimbabwe and South Africa was owned by the white minority. Mugabe was in the process of implementing a sweeping, coercive land reform plan that would redistribute land en masse, and without compensation, from whites to black farmers. This ultimately hyper-inflated his currency and annihilated the Rhodesian economy.
South Africa’s land reform program, steered by Mandela, was far more moderate and gradual. It centered on a “willing buyer/willing seller” policy—a “market reform” as naive conservative wonks might put it today—that allowed white landowners to sell their land voluntarily. The UK Independent observed in 1998 that the initiative “contrasts sharply” with Mugabe’s jackbooted plans, while Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, later said willing buyer/willing seller was a necessary compromise “to address the concerns of the minority.” The goal was to transfer 30 percent of South African land from whites to blacks by 2014.
Today less than 10 percent of the land has been redistributed and the program is widely recognized as a debacle. Both wheels on the land reform conveyor belt failed to spin. On the seller end, the government’s collection of land has been sluggish and tainted by accusations that landowners weren’t sufficiently compensated for their property. Additionally, many of those who had claims settled for cash settlements rather than land itself.
But the real kinks came on the buyer end from that classic problem that’s bedeviled redistributionists throughout history: The new landowners lack the skills needed to cultivate their fields. About 90 percent of the government’s redistributed farms had failed as of 2010. One black farmer, who used to drive a tractor for a white farmer named Engelbrecht, put it bluntly to the Los Angeles Times: “I thought I'd be much better off. But I think it was better with Mr. Engelbrecht. We lived high with Mr. Engelbrecht.”
Gugile Nkwinti, the land reform minister, summed things up this way: “The government didn’t have a strategy to ensure that the land was productive.”
The program’s inertia is making many reformers throughout the country impatient. A new radicalism is bubbling on the South African stove, one that’s looking to Robert Mugabe and his model of punitive land confiscation. Angile Lugisa, the former deputy president of the African National Congress’s Youth League, hailed Mugabe earlier this year and announced, “We are saying in South Africa and the whole of Africa, we should emulate Zimbabwe.” When Land Reform Minister Nkwinti was accused of employing Mugabe-esque tactics to ignite anger before an election, he responded: “Mugabe is reversing what the British did to the people of Zimbabwe. It's an honor.” President Jacob Zuma has since announced that the government will ax the willing buyer/willing seller system in favor of a predetermined “just and equitable” compensation and a limit on how much land individuals can own.
Some of this is podium-thumping. There is a wide gash of black resentment in Africa that’s been exploited by savvy politicians, most notably the populist Economic Freedom Fighters, whose leader, Julius Malema, has pledged to drive whites off their land. But this rhetoric can have very real consequences. Since Apartheid was abolished, thousands of South African farmers have been murdered, usually white victims at the hands of black assailants. The rate of these killings spiked 25 percent between 2002 and 2007, with agriculture workers now twice as likely to be murdered as other South African citizens. And while the lion’s share of the murders involve robberies rather than overt politics, the rhetoric of militants like Malema is certainly exacerbating a dark problem.
South African politics is soaked in redistribution, all the way through to its founding document. The South African constitution is a progressive fruit basket of positive rights, and counts among its admirers Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It explicitly requires the government to take measures that “enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis.” It protects private property too, but land reform measures can supersede individual rights so long as “the limitation [of the right] is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality, and freedom, taking into account all relevant factors.” That can mean just about anything to an imaginative politician—especially one influenced by resentment and the Mugabe example.
As we honor Nelson Mandela, let’s remember his prudence on land reform: resisting Mugabe's allure and striving for something that was careful and relatively market-based. But let’s also acknowledge the portents in South Africa today: violence, racism, radicalism, with the specters of both Apartheid and a failed redistribution scheme looming overhead.