Ramaphosa, Here's The Real Reasons Why Land Reform Has Been An Epic Fail

Advocating land grabs without compensation distracts from the real issue: farming is hard, risky and uncertain work.

10/01/2018 12:31 SAST | Updated 10/01/2018 14:09 SAST
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ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, meets Xhosa King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu during his visit to Nqadu Great Place (KoMkhulu) on January 9 in Willowvale.

The Garden of Eden: earthly utopia. A lush, bounteous, bucolic paradise, foreshadowing heaven. With its origins in the Biblical book of Genesis, it occupies a privileged place in the religious narratives of tens of millions of people throughout the world.

It is not only one of the most recognisable metaphors in the English language, it is intrinsic to one of the great morality tales in all human memory. It has much to teach us today, not least for a country whose people often pride themselves on their religiosity, provided we understand it properly.

One who has invoked it recently is newly elected ANC president (and South Africa's deputy president), Cyril Ramaphosa. Speaking at a meeting with His Majesty, King Goodwill Zwelithini, he expounded on the seemingly boundless possibilities that would flow from the ANC's new policy stance of pursuing land reform through expropriation without compensation.

"We can now upgrade agriculture through our resolution," Ramaphosa declared. "We can make this country the Garden of Eden."

There is a certain messianic fervour about this. In this view, expropriation without compensation represents no mere change in policy, no ordinary step in the right direction. Rather, it is a final and definitive act of transfiguration, even an act of national salvation.

Societies under stress -- and South Africa is definitely one -- are susceptible to charismatic leaders and extravagant promises. It is in such environments that simple explanations for existing problems and bold (dare we say "radical"?) solutions appear most seductive.

The difficulty of making a living off the land helps explain the distressing state of land reform in the country.

And this is why understanding what the Garden of Eden really symbolises is so revealing. For it is less an earthly paradise than a paradise lost and denied. It is an admonition rather than an inspiration. Having followed the deceptive advice of the serpent, Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, and their return is forbidden. They were sent out into the world to face its hardships, and to meet them as best they could.

God's words to Adam, chillingly poetic, set out their new realities: "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil, you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken."

These words are more relevant to land and agrarian policy in South Africa than Mr Ramaphosa's uplifting visions of Eden. Farming is hard, risky and uncertain work, as the recent drought has illustrated. It is not lucrative: returns on investment typically hover at around six to seven percent. Where farming operations are successful, this reflects a combination of technical and managerial expertise, as well as an understanding of agricultural markets.

Indeed, the difficulty of making a living off the land helps explain the distressing state of land reform in the country. Perhaps more concerning than the overall pace of land reform has been the fate of most land reform projects. It is estimated that between 70 percent and 90 percent of such projects have failed -- in some cases spectacularly, seeing once-productive farms returned to "thorns and thistles".

Yet none of this has very much to do with the need to pay compensation for land acquired for land reform purposes. In fact, there is a large volume of research and analysis that has identified the key hindrances -- two decades' worth of experience has (or should have) taught us a great deal.

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Severe drought conditions have hit SA farming hard.

The high-level panel on the assessment of key legislation and the acceleration of fundamental change, chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, was very clear about this: "Experts advise that the need to pay compensation has not been the most serious constraint on land reform in South Africa to date. Other constraints, including increasing evidence of corruption by officials, the diversion of the land-reform budget to elites, lack of political will, and lack of training and capacity have proved more serious stumbling blocks to land reform.

If land reform in South Africa is to get back on track, these issues will need to be addressed. And they are difficult challenges, several speaking to pathologies at the heart of the South African state. They will demand the sweat of Mr Ramaphosa's brow in his future presidency.

But the Garden of Eden is closed to us. There will be no miraculous turnabout because of one doubtful shift in policy. It serves no productive purpose to suggest there will be. If anything, it signifies a failure of leadership. Far better would be for us as a country to choose to move purposefully and prudently, mindful of the lessons we have learned from real and often bitter experience.

* Terence Corrigan is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations.