Siphiwe Sibeko / REUTERS A man uses plastic to mark vacant land in Olievenhoutbosch near Centurion, South Africa, March 2018. 

South Africa’s Misrepresented Land Debate

Reforms Are Needed to Address the Legacy of Apartheid

President Donald Trump’s recent tweet about “farm seizures” and the “large scale killing” of white farmers in South Africa has momentarily directed global attention toward debates about land reform in South Africa. Trump’s tweet—inspired by an inflammatory segment on Fox News—grossly misrepresents a long-standing, complex debate and is just one example of the falsifications and misconceptions that surround the issue. In reality, no farm seizures are taking place, and the murder rate of white farmers (always much lower than that of black South Africans) is at its lowest point in 20 years. 

No farm seizures are taking place, and the murder rate of white farmers (always much lower than that of black South Africans) is at its lowest point in 20 years.

Trump’s misleading tweet aside, land reform in fact has recently resurfaced as a contentious political issue in South Africa. The reason for this is the proposal by the African National Congress (ANC) to amend the constitution in order to clarify that, in some cases, it can be legal to expropriate land without compensating landowners. This proposal must be examined in the context of a 24-year-long conversation in South African society about how to reverse racial imbalances in landownership that have resulted from half a century of apartheid and persist in the face of ineffective reforms in the post-apartheid era. 

The Land Question

In the wake of the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, the ANC, under the leadership of former President Nelson Mandela, announced an ambitious program of land reform. It comprises land restitution (to restore land to those who lost it as a result of discriminatory laws from 1913 onward); land redistribution (to create a more equitable pattern of ownership); and tenure reform (to secure the land rights of black South Africans). Progress has been extremely slow, and South Africans now widely recognize that the program failed to achieve most of its objectives. Several factors are to blame, including lack of sufficient political will, a small budget, weak

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