After the American Civil War, many freedmen believed they had a moral right to own the land they had long worked as slaves. They widely expected to legally claim 40 acres (16 ha) of land (a quarter-quarter section) and a mule after the end of the war. The mule would serve for animal traction and transport.
A short digression is needed here. In the early years of the bloody American Civil War, it did not go well for the Union (i.e. the North). Casualties were terribly high, thinning out the numbers of fighters. That is, until President Abraham Lincoln started recruiting black troops. This shored up his number of soldiers – a key factor in winning the war. So they naturally had a feeling of entitlement when it was all over.
Some land redistribution occurred under military jurisdiction during the Civil War and for a brief period thereafter. But, Federal and state policy during the Reconstruction era emphasized wage labour, not land ownership, for African Americans. Almost all land allocated during the war was restored to its antebellum owners.
Similarly, urbanization and industrialization in South Africa was predicated on cheap labour from those who were displaced from rural areas. The extent to which this was forced by “dispossession of land” or simply the trending of that time is debatable. Cope leader Lekota disagrees that most land was “stolen”, and has joined forces with Afriforum to espouse a different narrative – without denying the obvious need to speed up land reform.
In America, most blacks acquired land through private transactions, with ownership peaking at 15,000,000 acres (6,100,000 ha) in 1910. Most of that land was in 4 states - Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina. This figure has since declined to 5,500,000 acres in 1980 and to 2,000,000 acres in 1997. Most of this land is not the area held by Black families in 1910; beyond the “Black Belt”, it is located in Texas, Oklahoma, and California. The total number of Black farmers has decreased from 925,708 in 1920 to 18,000 in 1997; the number of White farmers has also decreased, but much more slowly.
Black American land ownership has diminished more than that of any other ethnic group, while White land ownership has increased. Black families who inherit land across generations without obtaining an explicit title (often resulting in tenancy in common by multiple descendants) may have difficulty gaining government benefits and risk losing their land completely. Outright fraud and lynchings have also been used to strip Black people of their land. Government policies – especially in the USDA - have not been conducive on the whole to keeping African Americans on the land.
So the phrase "forty acres and a mule" has come to symbolize the broken promise that Reconstruction policies would offer economic justice for African Americans. It even took a decade or so, after the American Civil War, for the freedmen to become citizens.
Over the past century, while the colour of land ownership has shifted in favour of white farmers, another fact is also true in the USA. Because of mechanization of farming, the overall population of the rural areas has declined. More people – even and especially whites – have moved to towns and cities. But this same shrinkage occurred faster among black farmers than among white farmers.
This makes me wonder about a sudden “back-to-the-land movement” emerging in South Africa. Is the “expropriation without compensation” debate really about an inclination to take up farming? If so, why then are only 3 percent of post-secondary students enrolled in Agricultural courses – Africa-wide?
The document recently “leaked” from the Thabo Mbeki Foundation is spot on. It warns against any land reform strategy that destabilizes the equilibrium of non-racialism. It warns that the ANC could be moving in the direction of the PAC, which parted ways long ago because the historic ANC always championed non-racialism.
Certainly, the language of the great debate about land reform has generated more heat than light about this “back-to-the-land movement”. That is why the example of that erstwhile dream of “forty acres and a mule” is so relevant. It contained more of a sense of entitlement than a sustainable economic strategy.
South Africa is such a diverse country in geographical terms – Lowveld and high plateau, desert and dense forest, temperate high altitude and hot humid sea level, rich loam and sandy gravel, near to city markets and far from urban areas - that it would be hard to define a panacea like “forty acres and a mule”. The rallying cries in the run-up to the 2019 election are “expropriation without compensation” and “radical economic transformation”. These are now being answered by the DA’s election slogan: One South Africa for All.
There seems to be a consensus that land reform in South Africa is an imperative. No one denies that. But there are still two related issues – the rule of law and keeping nonracialism intact. Any approach that illegally occupies land or that incites violence is unwelcome. There is adequate land for everyone and a new recognition of the urgency of a Year of Jubilee. Both blacks and whites are citizens, and most of them are people of deep faith. In the spirit of Jubilee, citizens who have become marginalized need to be brought back into the mainstream again. Those who are economically dependent of social assistance need to become economically active again. This is not just their problem, it is everyone’s problem. Those who are prospering are corporately responsible to make space and create the conditions for this to happen. And a democratically elected government is the best arbiter you can ever find, anywhere.
However, if party platforms or government is expecting to find a one-size-fits-all panacea, history will repeat itself and this new “back-to-the-land movement” will fail like the vision of “forty acres and a mule” during the post-war Reconstruction period in America. Any party that over-simplifies the complexity of this problem and therefore of its solution, is not worth electing. You cannot just say “They stole the land” or “If the White farmers leave, food security will leave with them”. That is just electioneering. Politicians only think of the next election; statesmen think of the next generation.
* 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.