South Africa's Land Reform Crisis

Eliminating the Legacy of Apartheid

Under colonialism and apartheid, the ruling white minority stole vast amounts of land from black Africans in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Reclaiming this land became an important rallying cry for liberation movements in both countries; but in the years after white minority rule ended, it was extremely difficult for the new regimes to redistribute the land fairly and efficiently. In recent years, as the unaddressed land inequality in Zimbabwe became a pretext for President Robert Mugabe's demagoguery and led to Zimbabwe's demise, many observers have asked: Could South Africa be next?

When Nelson Mandela took power in South Africa in 1994, 87 percent of the country's land was owned by whites, even though they represented less than ten percent of the population. Advised by the World Bank, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) aimed to redistribute 30 percent of the land from whites to blacks in the first five years of the new democracy. By 2010 -- 16 years later -- only eight percent had been reallocated.

In failing to redistribute this land, the ANC has undermined a crucial aspect of the negotiated settlement to end apartheid, otherwise known as the liberation bargain. According to Section 25 of the new South African constitution, promulgated in 1994, existing property owners (who were primarily white) would receive valid legal title to property acquired under prior regimes, despite the potentially dubious circumstances of its acquisition. In exchange, blacks (in South Africa, considered to include people of mixed racial descent and Indians) were promised land reform. But the new government upheld only one side of the liberation bargain: South African whites kept their property, but blacks still have not received theirs. Political apartheid may have ended, but economic apartheid lives on.

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