Land, Factions and Capital in South Africa


The atmosphere is highly charged in South Africa, with an overloaded and short-circuited political arena. Poised against each other are hails against State Capture and corruption versus a mantra of Radical Economic Transformation; a conflict said to be a defining moment in our political affairs. However, looking at this conflict through the lens of rural struggles, neither outcome will effect little to no material change in rural livelihoods – especially struggles for land. The difference between the two sides is merely rhetorical, not fundamental.

The conflict started between factions in the African National Congress (ANC), a ruling party that has maintained a parliamentary majority since the dawn of democracy. This took place ahead of the party’s 54th national elective conference in December 2017. Ahead of the conference, leaders of contesting factions were Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Ramaphosa’s slate campaigned to fight against State Capture and corruption in the government while Dlamini-Zuma promised to deliver a Radical Economic Transformation(RET) with an ‘expropriation of land without compensation’ policy.

The air was filled with dry logic and irrationality, there was a cacophony of sound – as factions’ endeavoured to make themselves heard in this squabble. Both sides have painted this conflict in radical colours: they have said differences between two sides are huge, perhaps insurmountable. As this conflict unfolded, gaining both momentum and significant growth over time, competing rhetoric and lexicons emerged.

However, the leadership election results at the conference pointed to a stalemate, with the two different factions taking a similar number of positions. The power balance among the newly-elected additional members of the party’s national executive committee announced 40/40. Ramaphosa emerged victorious as a party’s president‚ beating Dlamini-Zuma by 179 close-run votes. The rest of the party’s top six leadership is made up of members from both camps, evenly divided. This, however, presented the ANC to the public as a terrain of a contest.

Additionally, the Dlamini-Zuma camp scored some victories when the RET was ‘cautiously’ announced in Ramaphosa’s acceptance speech of victory, including the ‘expropriation of land without compensation’ policy resolution that was adopted at the conference. Thus, Ramaphosa has set the direction for the country as the ANC continues to secure its tenure in parliament.

With the resolution of expropriating land without compensation having appropriated the land question that speaks to the heart of rural struggles, our task is to look at this campaign and ask, is this really feasible?

Permanently sidelined are rural voices calling for a deciphered meaning with tangible results in relation to their lived experiences, frustrations and aspirations. The rural poor seek conceptual clarity. The big question remains, what do toiling masses stand to gain from the new policy proposal and is there an alternative for agrarian reform to substantiate it?

Shown in the recent recalling of Jacob Zuma from the state presidency and his faction in the party being subdued, central to ANC loyalists from both factions are self-preservation and graceful, profitable general elections’ results in 2019 with minimal collateral damage to their party.

Therefore, there is a historical continuity that should be put into perspectives that in times of difficulty, capitalist interests find ways to reconcile ideological differences to cohesively self-correct.

Land struggles and the people of South Africa

Around a third of South Africa’s population lives in rural areas: amongst these people are the country’s most vulnerable as the rural countryside is home to plethora victims of land dispossession including small-scale farmers, farm workers, farm dwellers, labour tenants and communal area residents. They are denied access to land which perpetuates their historical deprivation from the security of tenure as well as denied the proceeds of profitable agriculture and mineral resources mined on their ancestral land.

While the “land question” has come to the fore in public discourse in South Africa, dominated by political factions that are only partisan but ideological, the different forms of land struggles and resistance in a continuum across the countryside – has caught the minimal public attention
The continuing legacy of colonialism and Apartheid in South Africa as it relates to the ongoing conflicts that define our political moment necessarily gives rise to contradictory perspectives. The first perspective is that the state under the new dispensation has relinquished itself from colonial trajectories through its democratically elected government. The contrasting perspective asserts that under the new dispensation there is a considerable destruction to livelihoods of the black majority, and sowed divisions between whites and non-white populations.

Since the arrival of Jan Van Riebeeck and the Dutch East Indian Company (DEIC) in South Africa, modern capitalist expansion has created an increased competition for resources, particularly land, resulting in conflict and dispossession. From the initial genocidal violence against Khoi-San communities to the Anglo-Boer Wars, The Native Lands Act, the creation of apartheid and today in communities threatened by mining and tourism industries, capitalists’ interests in South Africa have reconciled the ostensibly irreconcilable differences to successfully protect and further their gains while maintaining systemic exclusion.

A brief history of dispossession: capital interests and racial segregation

In an excerpt from his journal, Jan Van Riebeck states: “They strongly insisted that we had been appropriating more and more of their land which had been theirs all these centuries… They asked if they would be allowed to do such a thing supposing they went to Holland, and they added: ‘It would be of little consequence if you people stayed at the fort, but you come right into the interior and select the best land for yourselves …”.

It is said that these sentiments were expressed by the Khoi-San leaders at the so-called ‘peace talks’ in the 1660s. It was to be the first of many conflicts waged by settlers against the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa, an early event in the face of gradual aggressive European migration into the interior which raises a key factor both historically and in the present, the issue of land.

The initial Dutch settlers, later to be known as Boers or Afrikaners, under the leadership of Jan Van Riebeeck at the shore of today’s Cape Town – received land to farm and with their steadily growing population, they spread to the east and north to the interior. These wandering farmers frequently clashed over land with indigenous groups. Moreover, settlers continued to force dispossessed people and imported slaves into cheap or unfree labour.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the British took over DEIC and the Cape Colony. Though British settlers did not assimilate into the culture of the Boers which shows the first division between white settler minority groups. Ultimately, adding to the ethnic divisions in the region. The British also abolished slavery in 1834 and subsequently, the Boers lost the cheaper labour supply. The land became more regulated and expensive which made it more difficult for the Boers to expand their land and their farms. This shows the early sign of ideological, or rather – material, a conflict between settler minority.

Furthermore, this changing political system ‘appeared’ to be more about class than race, as Boers without property were prevented from political participation. This changed how South Africa is administered while Boers cynically believed that their right to land is through ‘god’ with a covenant to enslave Africans. These major changes resulted with The Great Trek, thousands of Boers migrating north and causing more conflict with Africans. This further resulted in Boers establishing their independent republics that became autonomous from the British rule and, to preserve master and slave society. This is another sign showcasing not only ideological difference between these capitalists but also its manifestation in geographic demarcation.

However, some early contradictions with the British colonies’ ideas on racism are explicit. As an example, sugar plantations in British colony were exporting Indians slaves for cheap labour.

Between the 1870s and 1880s, prospectors found rich mineral resources in South Africa leading to the Mineral Revolution which saw South Africa steadily changing from the agrarian to industrial economy. This caused a shift in English rule; British capitalist needed cheap labour for mines and this industry increased segregations for South Africa, whites achieving more wealth. South Africa returned from a class-based system to racial segregation, returning to the core principles of a colony. Another sign of moral inconsistency when capital interest is concerned.

Furthermore, the war broke between white settler minority groups over the control of mineral. Due to these wars, known as Anglo-Boer wars, Africans were recruited into these factions of white capital which further left Africans more displaced and devastated after the war. At the end of the war, considering the costs it had on both sides of the capital, both white factions reconciled and found the Union of South Africa in 1910 with an exclusion of the black majority. To further legitimise systematic land dispossession and segregation of black majority, the Natives Land Act passed in 1913 by the Union denied Africans access to land – which before they had either at least owned or leased from white farmers – confining them to reserves or Bantustans where the large rural populations of South Africans are still confined into. This reconciliation of white capital at the expense of black majority found the system of apartheid.

During the height of apartheid when South Africa was sanctioned for its gross human rights violations, one jointly owned Belgian-Luxembourgish bank was responsible for facilitating up to 70 percent of all deals that busted or went around arms-sanctions. Somehow, capitalists’ interests with competing values and ethics pertaining to non-racial democracy and discrimination found a way to come together to circumvent international law and norms. Lastly, even by the end of apartheid, the white minority succumbed to political difficulties at the expense of sustaining its economic interests which found its secured perpetuation under the new dispensation.

New dispensation: reconciling capital interest at the expense of rural poor

The trajectory of the South African post-colony era, as captured in the Fanonian idea, is maintaining colonial institutions and becoming a neo-colony.
At the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa transitioned to democracy with the situation of 82 million hectares of land privately owned by 60 000 white farmers and 13 million of black people were crowded in the former Bantustan, 13% of the land allocated to black tribes. After decades of state policies that privileged white commercial farmers over black small-scale farmers that made people in the rural areas depend on migrant labourers in the cities, factories, commercial farms and mines, the small-scale agriculture was no longer an important source of income to rural black households. On private farms, 3 million workers and dependents were poorly paid, had no security of tenure and lived in poor conditions.
As the results of these legacies of apartheid, land reform had to setup key policies for the new government. The controversial Property Clause, joint into the Section 25 of the constitution that was negotiated between the liberation movement and the old vested interests of apartheid guard who were trying to protect their property – became a key reference in thinking about the land reform.

The founding of the democratic dispensation gave rise to the early signs of reconciliation of differing factions’ interests in the transition period with the settlement agreed between liberation movement and the apartheid guard that was not achieved through the armed struggle, there was a compromise struck. Secondly, is the vivid constitutional paradox that seeks to protect the property on one hand that you cannot deprive people of property without the law and if you do so, for redistribution purposes, the owners should be compensated. However, the constitution does not state compensation equal to market value. On the other hand, there are some gains for land reform that when the government acquire the land it can be expropriated, redistributed and transferred in the public interest. The land reform programme is premised on this basis.
Redistribution is one of the 3 programmes for land reform provided in the constitution. The section 25(5) of the constitution states: “The state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis.”

The basis for redistribution in this section is to put in measures which allow land to be held and gained accessed to on equitable basis considering the existing skewed and highly racial landholding informed by both apartheid and colonialism. Therefore, the government is entrusted with converting this section into the existing law. However, thus far, the ANC-led government has not tested these measures in the courts of law.
Nevertheless, given the constitutional framework, the decision was made that doing redistribution was on a ‘willing seller-willing buyer’ basis, meaning – the government will make offers to landholders to purchase that land for redistribution and a price will be negotiated. Worryingly, for most acquired land for redistribution, the market price has been paid while the formula in the constitution is of less than market value called ‘just and equitable compensation’.

In 1995 regarding agriculture, the land redistribution programme targeted to redistribute 30% of agricultural land in 5 years.
There have been numerous initiatives for redistribution. Between 1995 and 2000, there was Settlement/Land Acquisition Grant(SLAG) which was a budget allocated to target individuals from households earning less than R1 500 per month. Qualified persons were each granted R16 000 that would collectively be used to purchase land. For an example, 100 people each with R16 000 grants would purchase a farm worth R16 million. However, because of the small size of the grant, groups were often too large and crippled by internal conflict and poor post-settlement from the government then failed to meet the target that was set to be met in the remaining years.

In 2001, SLAG was replaced with Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development(LRAD) which was more of a flexible grant which could extend as high as R100 000 for the applicants. However, it was no longer aimed at the poor but relatively wealthy emerging black commercial farmers. Then, it attracted more criticism for its failure to address the relevant needs by the farmers and its slow pace in transferring land into previously disadvantaged people.

In 2010, LRAD was replaced with Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy(PLAS) in which government pro-actively purchase a property before they could identify beneficiaries. Again, beneficiaries ended up being privileged individuals and only premised on the large-scale commercial farming model.
By 2014, all forms of land reform – including restitution and security of tenure, only 7 million of hectares were transferred which is equal to 8% of white-owned agricultural land then failing to meet the set target of 30%.

The land reform has been happening at a relatively slow case and one key aspect is that the land reform budget has been very small as less than 1% of the national budget to as little as 0,4%. Interpreting that it has never been of priority for the ruling party.
Most recently, there are set of land policies introduced. The State Land Lease and Disposal policy stated that people who will be getting land through land reform would not be getting ownership of that land but pay rent and leased by the state. This implicates the functions of land reform as ownership is no longer transferred to the beneficiaries by the government.

The other was Recapitalisation and Development Programme (Recap) which is a way of providing funds to beneficiaries of land reform programme also demanding that beneficiaries should have mentors and strategic partners. The Recap is now only the grant and support system for land redistribution and restitution.

With Recap, the state provides funds for 5 years and issues a lease to beneficiaries. Requirements for a lease is that one must create a legal entity, create a bank account, have a 5-year probation, have registered assets and get a permission for improvement. This is all subjected to a government committee to select beneficiaries, determine a farm size and allocate farms.

On the other hand, there is a major role for the agribusiness and white farmers who become mentors and strategic partners with equity shareholding. They are also tasked to draw a business plan which the committee will use to determine whether or not to issue a lease. This leaves black farmers with little to manoeuvre in decision-making while these white strategic partners and mentors are earning money from partnerships.

Therefore, the state control land and resources to support historically disadvantaged black people through land dispossession are redirected to the elites: emerging black commercial farmers often with political connections, agribusiness and white farmers. Thus, reflecting a continuing reconciliation of faction between the liberation movement and the white old guard in the interest of capital at the expense of the rural poor.

Constitutional amendment: policy framework versus political will

Following the flux 22 years of adamant failure to deliver on land reform as indicated above, the ANC seeks to move away from its ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ approach to ‘expropriation of land without compensation’ policy. It now argues that slow pace to deliver is due the limits imposed by the constitution, ignoring criticism raised above.

In principle, considering crises land reform is faced with, it is difficult to oppose expropriation of land without compensation to fast-track the land reform programme. This is a historic move by the ANC to respond to the clarion call from the left and millions of disfranchised blacks. However, considering regressive policies it has introduced in the last 22 years, its decline in voters’ turnout in the previous election and the rural majority still remaining to be its grip, it cannot be ignored that this is ANC’s discourse of accession to reclaim its territory.

Firstly, this advocacy to amend the Section 25 of the Constitution for ‘land expropriation without compensation’ seeks to assert that Section 25 is the reason for the staggering pace at which land reform is happening. However, this perception created about government’s hands being tied by the constitution to expropriate is based on fallacious premises.

The government has chosen not to evoke constitutional provisions to bring about land reform. It has to be emphasised that the ANC has willingly interpreted the market value as the starting point for compensation of any expropriation ignoring factors listed in Section 25(3). Now, it seeks to abandon those provisions rather than use them.

Arguably, there remains a moral question about the original land acquisition that was unjust. However, the ANC never used the same argument in 22 years of the constitution to discredit compensation as provided in the constitution. Rather, it opted for a market value. The expropriation possibilities have not been properly and legally tested by the ANC-led government, and even the ‘nuanced formula’ for just and fair compensation has not been tested by the government — it isn’t constitutionally necessary to pay market-related prices.

Also, there are class interests that have to be questioned of those even within the state who benefited and colluded with agribusiness from the ways in which the land reform programme has played out when talking about fighting State capture and corruption.

In Mala Mala court judgement, there was an evaluation difference with a white landholder who insisted a compensation above a billion rand. But when a case was set to go to constitutional court for aberration which the state could have utilised to test the constructional provision and lobby to set a progressive precedent, the government minister decided to withdraw the case and pay the full amount as asked by the owner. Therefore, the ANC has actively chosen not to utilise these provisions. Instead, white people have benefitted twice: privileged under apartheid and now paid exorbitant amounts by the state when Section 25 has guarded against, considering past subsidy and support.

Also, if agreed that the constitution hinders land reform, in 2017 the EFF – Economic Freedom Fighters serving as the opposition party in parliament and a breakaway faction from the ANC – tabled a motion in the National Assembly calling for the amendment of the Constitution to accelerate land transformation. However, the ANC with its majority to amend the constitution did not agree with the motion of land expropriation without compensation arguing that the motion is premature. However, a year later – after calling the amendment premature, ANC voted for the motion with EFF in February 2018 when it was posed again in parliament to amend the constitution. This, reflects reconciliation of ideological differences in times of difficulty, considering the ANC’s decline in voters’ turnout in previous local elections.

If the ANC hurdle to attend land question is dismissed on the principle of the unjust history of acquisition – which is also catered for under current constitution, when the constitution is amended, what ways could the constitutional changes under ANC-led government assist in advancing land reform? Besides the tabulated motion which the ad-hoc committee is set to report in August, there are no policy details as yet, no set timeframes to entirely complete the land reform programme. However, the ANC president has been spewing vague sentiment on ‘expropriation of land without compensation’ adding that constitutional amendment must not harm society economically or by threatening food security; and an admission that this issue almost collapsed the conference. Therefore, while it’s clear EFF position on the voted motion is nationalisation – the ANC is zigzagging, it remains palpable that ANC is not standing on any ideological ground guided by revolutionary principles but partisanship rhetoric that will secure its tenure in 2019 general elections.


In the past 22 years of trial and error, the ANC-led government has been its own impediment on land redistribution through a combination of bureaucratic lethargy, corruption and dogmatic adherence to artificial constructs of the “market”. Solidifying the consisted argument throughout this piece that for its capital interests the ANC will continue to reconcile ideological differences zigzagging – shifting destinations and articulating inconsistent and at times contradictory postulations – with both neoliberal and radical policies to cohesively self-correct and continue to cling to exploitative power.

In his seminal characterisation of the post-colonial state, Frantz Fanon contends that there is a recurring trajectory of almost all post-liberation movements in power in Africa: a new middle class that now decides, in its own interests, to opt for an alliance with capital, quasi-colonial and global. With this unresolved historical grievance and the slow pace to complete the land reform programme, there has been a fundamental shift in South Africa with both globalised agricultural sector and liberalised economy while the ANC-led government fails to provide an alternative to respond to the grease of global capitalism. Sad enough, the same tale captured in Fanonian thought could effortlessly be offered as one convincing explanation of the South African case.

Sobantu Mzwakali works as the Advocacy and Campaigns Officer at Tshintsha Amakhaya, a civil society alliance for land and food justice in rural South Africa.

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