Photo: A South African woman working on one of South Africa’s commercial farms. Credit: Australian Govt, Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0a - Photo: 2018

South Africa Is Determined to Grasp the Nettle of Land Reform

Viewpoint by Jonathan Power*

LUND, Sweden (IDN-INPS) – Zimbabwe messed up its land reform. Now South Africa has decided to give a great push to its slow moving land reform. We’ll see if it can avoid Zimbabwe’s mistakes.

President Donald Trump tweeted that he’d asked his secretary of state to look into “farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of white farmers” in South Africa. That sounds more like what happened in Zimbabwe 25 years ago than what is going to happen in South Africa today, albeit the killings were not on a “large-scale”.

Shortly after independence, I remember interviewing the minister of finance in Zimbabwe and asked him why the land reform that had been promised as an urgent priority was not underway. He fudged his answer.

Later I learnt why. White farmers’ land was confiscated and handed over to fellow ministers, top officials and well-to-do government supporters, not to the poor peasantry. Some resisting farmers were murdered. The new ignorant occupiers farmed badly and Zimbabwe’s agricultural production fell precipitously.

There’s no chance of this happening in South Africa with the law-abiding Cyril Ramaphosa as president. Land reform does work if the new owners are given good agricultural advice on new productive seeds, irrigation, the correct use of fertilizer and better furrowing techniques. In fact small farmers can be more productive per acre than large-scale farmers.

In South Africa 72 percent of farms and agricultural holdings are owned by whites and only 4 percent by blacks. In 1913 with the Native Land Act almost all the land of Africans was stripped from them and turned over to Europeans. Land reform today will be the beginnings of remedying that cruel crime.

In their book Land Reform and Democratic Development the two wise men of land reform, Roy Prosterman and Jeffry Reidinger, identified three causes of revolutionary violence. The first is when expectations are changed but the actual outcome worsens.

The second cause is when expectations actuality remain the same but the gap between the classes and the level of opposition it generates can no longer be managed by the government. The collapse of the Russian army in 1917 and the return home of the peasant soldiers, arms in hand, was a serious element in the revolution.

Third is the traditional cause: The revolution of rising expectations, which increase while actuality remains the same.

In sum it’s not poverty alone so much as blameable poverty that seems to serve as the trigger of violence. A large number of the most violent 20th century conflicts occurred when a substantial part of the population was blocked from earning a secure living from the land it tilled. This was an important ingredient not just in the Russian revolution, but in the Mexican revolution, the Spanish civil war and the Irish struggle for independence.

Since World War II, land protests have played a catalytic role in successful revolutions in China, Bolivia, Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, Ethiopia and it was of substantial significance in the toppling of the shah of Iran.

Peaceful land reform movements have taken place in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and India’s states of Bengal and Kerala. One of the most vigorous, that of Japan, was carried out by the U.S. occupation under General MacArthur.

All of these reforms became the engine that lifted up backward economies, produced the capital for industrialization and were the basis for the formation of the wealthy countries they are today- all done within the space of a generation.

In Taiwan it was carried out by the anti-communist Chiang Kai-shek who made owners of 60 percent of the former tenants. In South Korea it was carried out by the dictator Syngman Rhee. It was well under way before the invasion by the north, and made land-owners of 64 percent of the former tenants.

In Bengal and Kerala it was done by local state governments ruled by the communist party. Kerala is one of the most prosperous states in India today and Bengal, which used to have violent uprisings in the countryside, is now mainly peaceful. It produces high agricultural returns.

Today The Philippines, India, Pakistan and many parts of Latin America and Africa are crying out for land reform.

Land reform can produce four major consequences: 1) avoiding civil conflicts that might involve millions of casualties, 2) avoiding 100 million or more deaths from hunger, 3) avoiding twice the number of births as now seems likely, as the essential conditions for voluntary family planning are created, and 4) avoiding a takeover by ultra-left regimes or reactionary despots.

Bully for President Ramaphosa. He is determined to grasp the nettle of land reform. It won’t be easy. There will be great resistance from the white farmers. There is a danger the slow-moving bureaucracy won’t follow up fast enough with good agricultural extension work, giving the advice and help the new owners need. But I have a feeling he will succeed.

*Note: For 17 years Jonathan Power was a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune – and a member of the Independent Commission on Disarmament, chaired by the prime minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. He forwarded this and his previous Viewpoints for publication in IDN-INPS Copyright: Jonathan Power. Website [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 September 2018]

Photo: A South African woman working on one of South Africa’s commercial farms. Credit: Australian Govt, Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0a

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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