Every now and again there are vehement political calls from various quarters and “politically conscious” observers for land that was stolen through apartheid colonialism to be given back to its rightful owners. Typically this involves urging, pressuring, and sometimes even heckling the ruling party to somehow effect this land reform at best “immediately” or at worst “with a dash of speed!”. Some radical land reform protagonists often cite that it has now been almost twenty years since the new dispensation in South Africa, and so far we have little to show as positive results from our land reform policy sets. Practically, the lobbied reforms will involve taking land from white South African citizens who now “own” the land by ancestral inheritance (if not colonial inheritance), and handing it to black South African citizens who are now, generations on, disenfranchised as a result.

On this dialectic of apartheid colonialism’s disenfranchising consequences, then for good measure, we should perhaps begin with a concession that all of us ought to agree that the legacy of apartheid has precipitated catastrophic moral horrors, and has left the nation with difficult and painful social contradictions.

However, after reading several strongly worded Facebook status updates recently on this subject of land reform, and having come across this notion several times from other people, including known examples such as Zimbabwe’s “infamous” land reform, I sat pondering by which kind of administrative, legal, and political process it is suggested that in South Africa this giving back of land be executed over and above the policy changes that South Africa’s state president announced in the 2013 State of the Nation address. Is it envisaged then, hopefully on the grounds of a process guided by reasoned and empirical deliberation on public policy, that merely giving back the land will increase the “substantive freedoms” of those who receive this land back? In these deliberations, is land seen as an instrument towards an end, or as an end in itself?

Furthermore, how would we, in the end, evaluate that those who have received their land back, their substantive freedoms have consequently increased, or on the corollary, that their unfreedoms have been reduced or eliminated? How much time would we need to give ourselves as a nation until we can perform this evaluation? Would the action of giving land back in the fashion suggested by some radical voices facilitate for the elementary opportunities such as the capability to escape premature mortality or preventable morbidity or involuntary starvation? Would it improve the “quality of life” or “standard of living” of the recipients and the society at large? Is it determined a priori that wholesale land transfers would, to borrow a social requirement suggested by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, better enable the recipients to “appear in public without shame” and to take a meaningful part in the life of their community? Would such a step affect the effectiveness and sanctity of some of our most sacred constitutional provisions adversely or for the better?

These questions are not just “pedantic” or some tedious pedagogic difficulties. Rather, these are some of the core questions of policy praxis that we must contend with on a frank and serious note. From our line of questioning above, it is clear that there are some nuanced policy considerations to the issue of giving land back to its rightful owners.

While policy-makers and we must never cease to adequately appreciate the injustices borne of the past, redressing them is another matter altogether and it may not lend itself to easy solutions or ease of implementation. That is, it is critically important to distinguish between using the skewed land distribution in South Africa as one unit in which to measure our social inequities, and land as a vehicle for the reduction of the said inequities. This point cannot be stressed enough.

It needs to be impressed upon those genuinely interested in these matters that the policy deliberations concerning compensation or redress raises other consequent considerations. The easy reading of our land disparities along racial lines must not be taken as a suggestion that the corresponding land transfers would necessarily be our nation’s politico-socio-economic panacea. In fact, in several known instances of land reform both domestically and internationally, land transfers have shown to be capable of producing undesirable outcomes both in the short and long run of the economy, this no less so in the developing nations. This fact alone should warrant nothing less than a meticulous approach to such a policy intervention as wholesale land transfers. This is not to deny the advantages of land as a key factor of production, however, we must explicitly reject reacting to populist provisions that are supported by little to no substantive argument or empirical evidence thereof.

As such, in the general sense, anyone who values public scrutiny must be under some obligation to make clear that a judgement is being made in using land disparities, and subsequently land transfers, for the purpose of improving the substantive freedoms of that nation’s subjects, and that the socio-economic weights applied in this policy endeavour must also be subjected to evaluative public scrutiny. This process must not be confined to political rooftop prescriptions.

It is for these and other reasons that we must be encouraged to be more interested in a detailed (even technical) discussion on the all too often cumbersome implementation aspects of redress and redistribution, instead of simply flagging, at a high level, the injustices resulting from of our skewed material social arrangements, and then swiftly proceeding with issuing statements that urge for things to be “given back” on whimsical grounds.


Gareth Setati

Gareth Setati

Gareth Setati holds a masters degree in electrical engineering and qualifications in business management and economics. He is a graduate of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute and is currently...

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