Research shows Ramaphosa is right - South Africans do want land reform

Mikhail Moosa

New research from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) shows most South Africans believe land reform is important to address inequality and further the reconciliation process. 

The findings, released ahead of a series of public hearings organised by Parliament's constitution review committee on "land expropriation without compensation", suggests South Africans believe there are both economic and social benefits to land reform. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa believes accelerated land redistribution could benefit the economy. On the other hand, sceptics have suggested adopting expropriation without compensation is merely an election tactic for a party in decline, with some claiming South Africans do not want land reform.

While the issue of land can be used opportunistically by politicians and their supporters, it is disingenuous to suggest South Africans are unconcerned. When South Africans were asked directly about land reform – not only as part of a general question about problems in the country, but its relationship to reconciliation and inequality – most believe it can be beneficial to society.

This is borne out of the results of the 2017 South African Reconciliation Barometer (SARB), IJR's nationwide public opinion survey, which suggests that 64% of South Africans believe land reform can play an important role in addressing inequality.

Although many agree on the potential benefits of land reform, some are more optimistic than others. 

While only 49% of white and 51% of Indian respondents agree on the importance of land reform as a remedy for inequality, support for it was more widespread amongst black and coloured respondents with 67% and 59% respectively. Only 8% of South Africans disagreed that land reform is important to address inequality.

Since 2003, the SARB surveys consistently show South Africans believe "inequality" – phrased as the gap between rich and poor – is the "greatest division in society". Inequality is perceived to be the primary obstacle to post-apartheid reconciliation.

While different metrics produce different results on the degree of income inequality, there is no doubt that South Africa's is amongst the highest in the world. Even more stark is the degree of wealth inequality, with a study from the Research Project on Employment, Income Distribution and Inclusive Growth claiming that "10% of the population own at least 90-95% of all wealth". 

The end of apartheid did not halt the rise in inequality. A World Bank study, Overcoming Poverty and Inequality in South Africa, recently confirmed "inequality has increased since the end of apartheid in 1994". 

According to the High Level Panel Report, chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, "land redistribution is a key element to reducing wealth inequality". Also Thomas Piketty recently singled out South Africa's lack of a "big phase of redistribution of property" as a likely cause of apartheid's lingering legacy. 

Aside from the potential economic benefit, accelerated land reform can help address centuries of dispossession and foster a sense of belonging. Land in South Africa is not merely an economic asset. Land carries generations of cultural, spiritual and historical significance. 

When Sol Plaatje reflected on the 1913 Land Act, which legislated the dispossession of the vast majority of South Africans, he called the black South African "not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth". 20 June marks 105 years since the commencement of the Land Act, yet its pernicious legacy remains pervasive in society. 

Although government's land audits have proven to be flawed, the Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) Institute claims "apartheid patterns of land ownership remain largely intact". 

SARB data reveals around two-in-three South Africans believe "residential areas are still racially segregated" and "many black South Africans today do not own land because of the lasting effects of apartheid". 

63% of South Africans agree land reform is important for the reconciliation process in South Africa. SARB data shows South Africans want a united nation, and land reform can go some way to unifying an unequal society. 

While the SARB survey did not ask questions relating to expropriation or compensation, only around one-in-ten South Africans believe private property should be the sole target of accelerated redistribution. Most South African agree both government and privately owned land should be redistributed.

Whether Parliament opts to amend the Constitution or not, IJR's new research shows there is a substantial mandate for effective land reform. It is an essential component of a broader project of historical justice, which has yet to be pursued with sufficient urgency in post-apartheid South Africa.

The conversation now needs to shift from asking whether or not accelerated land reform has popular support, to ensure restitution for those who suffered dispossession. An effective programme of land redistribution that extends protections to vulnerable citizens and allows for a more equitable distribution of land could go a long way towards reconciliation.

- Mikhail Moosa is a Programme intern in the Research and Policy programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in Cape Town. He holds an Honours degree in Politics from the University of Cape Town and his research focuses on political economy in Africa.

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