As the land-seizure debate divides South Africa and threatens to spook investors, for many black citizens the issue isn’t about farming – it’s about justice.
President Cyril Ramaphosa says his ruling party plans to amend the constitution to permit seizing land without compensation to address the inequities of laws during white-minority rule that at one time put 87% of South Africa’s land in the hands of whites. The goal is also to give more black citizens an opportunity to earn a livelihood.
Yet, with more than three-fifths of the nation’s 57.7 million people living in cities, many have no desire to farm.
“Land expropriation is important because the land was taken from our forefathers by force,” said Nhlanhla Mahlangu, an unemployed 28-year-old in the Zandspruit slum on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg who plans to stay in the commercial capital.
“Some people may prefer money and others, like myself, would prefer a piece of land on which to build our own houses rather than to be living in shacks.”
The governing African National Congress says now, 24 years after the end of apartheid, is the time to tackle the land issue. But critics say earlier reform programs it oversaw failed dismally and its renewed focus is a bid to counter the populist Economic Freedom Fighters party before elections scheduled for May.
Instead, more should be done to provide adequate housing in rapidly expanding cities, many South Africans say.
“People living in urban areas prefer to keep their lives and livelihoods” in cities, said Phumla Kunene, a 32-year-old who works in the freight industry in the southeastern port city of Durban. “Some of them don’t want anything to do with rural areas. Then the best option is financial compensation.”
While some previous attempts to restore land to descendants of its original owners have included the option of payments instead of land, that ANC hasn’t mentioned that possibility in its new drive.
The EFF, which advocates placing all land in state hands, has captured the imagination of many of South Africa’s young people with its demands that everything from land to banks be nationalized to help speed up the transfer of wealth to the black majority.
Rapper Cassper Nyovest had a hit last year with Ksazobalit, a song about black citizens getting back land seized by white colonialists. The music video ends with an initially skeptical Afrikaans-speaking farmer dancing and sharing a meal with fashionably dressed black youths.
One-liners such as “we’ve got the land back” are often used on social media as an expression of approval.
Yet research by the South African Institute of Race Relations showed that only 4% of the black South Africans it surveyed placed land reform among the top two issues that government should attend to.
“We are an urbanizing society, and we are a society where opportunities correlate very strongly with skills,” said Terence Corrigan, a researcher at the institute. “Most South Africans see their future secured by a job in a city and a good education for their children.”
Jobs, drug abuse and crime were the top ranking concerns in the survey, and to many observers, the ANC’s land drive presents a threat to the economy. Unemployment is near a record high at 27%.
“There certainly were historical injustices, but land reform in the agrarian sense is not going to be transformative in solving South Africa’s problems,” said Corrigan.
“You need exceptional expertise, funds and goodwill. I see very little of any of that. It has very little to do with socioeconomic problems and far more to do with ideology and politics.”
There’s still little clarity on what most people would do if they were allocated land away from the cities.
“We do need the land, that’s what I know for sure, but we don’t know what we need it for,” said David Makgata, a 24-year-old satellite television technician who lives in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township.
“Even if I do get the land, what am I going to do with it.”