File picture: Leon Muller/African News Agency (ANA)
I have watched this debate closely since EFF was launched.  It had interested me previously, in several countries like Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well. In 2017 I wrote a lot about it, and 7 of my submitted articles were run by a national media platform. Then came the decision in parliament to investigate "expropriation without compensation", and a tsunami of public discussion has followed.  So I have been monitoring the debate, more than engaging.  

Although there are still some contentious points, I believe that significant progress has been made. By this, I mean that there are now some points that most voices agree on, even though they still strongly disagree on other points.

This article does not go deep into any of the points. It is more of an effort to scope the debate about land reform – not to argue from one side or another.

Agreement

1. I think that there is a general recognition across the board that some kind of land reform is an imperative.  No one really disagrees that inequality is too high, that unemployment is too high (especially among youth), and that food security affects all citizens

2. There is also recognition that government has been working on land reform, and that it has, in fact, obtained a large inventory of land.  There is also general agreement that government has been moving too slow.  At the present rate, it will just take too long.  In particular, there has been a bottleneck is redistributing the land obtained.  So there is a tank of state-owned land available for redistribution  if only ways can be found to speed up allocation.

3. There is also agreement that the immediate focus on redistributing land should be on unproductive land.  Taking away land that is currently productive make little sense when there is vacant land that is not producing.  In fact, productivity is as much of an issue as ownership.  Use it or lose it.
 
4. What is becoming clear is that a distinction must always be made between restitution, redistribution and obtaining clear title.  Restitution centres on “land claims” where people lost their land, and they want it back.  Redistribution centres on expropriate from the haves to be given to the have-nots. And clear title is about the fact that people are using land in a productive way, but they don’t own it themselves.  So for example, they can’t use it to leverage bank loans which could stimulate their productivity.  Whenever the land reform debate rages, this distinction has to be made.

5. Another distinction that everyone agrees is significant is rural versus urban.  Farmland is needed to increase productivity and jobs in rural areas.  Whereas in urban areas, land-hunger is for building plots near to where their jobs are. Obviously, there is a difference in size and the kind of service required to support the new landowners.

6. It may seem like splitting hairs, but another distinction needs to be made in the rural sphere.  There are three kinds of land – homesteads, pasture and cultivated fields. Agriculture includes livestock (that needs pasture) and crops (planting and harvest).  Homesteads need electricity, roads, water, fences, etc. You cannot debate land reform in the rural context without making this distinction.

7. Finally, there is general agreement that while clear title is not the ONLY thing that farmers need, in order to succeed at being productive, but it is a prerequisite to sustainable farming. This issue is most contentious of all in the lands owned by Trusts.  In these settings, the tribal authorities do not want to give up their traditional system and change to a system of title deeds.

Disagreement

8. Perhaps the biggest point of disagreement is how much of a priority land reform is, in the overall scheme of things.  Some argue that other issues like unemployment and crime may be more important.  One poll of voters indicated that land reform was the 13th priority on the list of election issues, once feedback was averaged.  But parties like the EFF do not agree and are not relenting. After all, land reform is the EFF’s mantra.

9. There is huge disagreement on the proportions of existing land ownership.  Whites argue that the proportion of all land that they own is exaggerated.  Some say that as much as 68 percent of the land is “arable”, but others say it is much less.  This goes back to “splitting hairs” as in point #6 above.  It is doubtful that 68 percent of South Africa could be cultivated and grow crops.  But if you include pasture for grazing livestock, it would be much more.  No one has definitive answers on this, so some statistics could be “fake news”.

10. There is disagreement on whether the land was “stolen”. Ironically, the Ba Boroa agree that it was stolen, but say that the blacks (coming in overland) stole it from them first, only to have it stolen from them by the whites (coming in by sea).  It is even more ironic that Africans are now “invading” Europe – by sea. The same way that the Europeans invaded Africa.  Politicians like Mosiuoa Lekota agree that there were wars followed by treaties and that this was not “stealing”.

11. There is disagreement on the level of risk involved in expropriation. Some believe that this could start a civil war, or a domino-effect that could crash banks and manufacturing.  Cyril Ramaphosa tries to assure investors that government won’t allow it to get out of hand.  He clearly does not want to scare away investors or have it result in a downgrade by the ratings agencies. But the memories of land grabs in Zimbabwe are there, on everyone’s mind.

12. There is disagreement on the probability of emerging black farmers succeeding. Land is not all they need – they also need skills, inputs, infrastructure and credit.  Some doubt that they will get adequate support.  They think that the “surge” will subside with land being sold back to whites – because they say what people really want is money.  Indeed, a significant number of those who succeed in land claims ended up selling their land, not farming it.

  13. The big sticking point is land invasion. Some parties like the EFF are still championing it.  But others are saying that there will be no “land grabs”. EFF rhetoric gets nasty at times, even racist. There is clearly some frustration that the ANC has deflated the momentum that the EFF has for several years.  But many, including blacks, do not want actions to be taken that challenge the Rule of Law and “Rainbowism”.

It is telling that this most serious point of disagreement is unlucky number 13.  It is a time bomb.  Some would say that the land reform debate has been generating more heat than light.  However, I do see progress.  I believe that the country owes a debt of gratitude to the EFF for getting this issue onto the front burner, so to speak.  Something has to be done to address economic inequality. Biblically speaking, we need a Year of Jubilee.

However, the EFF is now not the only game in town, talking about land. A number of other entities have entered the debate in a big way and are prepared to challenge and test legislative decisions in the courts. For example, Agri SA, Afriforum and the Institute for Race Relations.  And others. This will have the effect of slowing down the process, which will be frustrating to some, but is likely to assure that implementation – when it comes – will roll out carefully. Without the nightmare scenarios that we remember in Zimbabwe.

If all parties can keep their eyes fixed on the horizon of productivity, food security and sustainability, then a solution can be found. It may not suit everyone, but a peaceful and just resolution is clearly in everyone's best interests. We must try to think out of the box and to innovate new ways of collaborating together in a spirit of non-racialism and constitutional democracy.

* Stephens is the executive director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.