South Africa should not copy Mugabe’s land reform

OF THE many grievances from South Africa’s decades of white rule, the theft of land still smarts more than most. The “Natives Land Act” of 1913 set aside 90% of the country for whites, who made up less than a third of its people. Over the next eight decades a succession of white governments evicted 3.5m black South Africans from their homes, in cities and in the countryside, prodding them onto the backs of lorries at gunpoint and dumping them in barren reservations misleadingly called “homelands”. “Even criminals dropping straight from the gallows have an undisputed claim to six feet of ground,” mourned Sol Plaatje, one of the founders of the African National Congress (ANC), in 1916.

When apartheid ended in 1994 the courts returned land to individuals who could show that they had been wrongfully deprived of it (a minority, given poor records and the passage of time). And the ANC, now in government, promised to buy 30% of the country’s farmland at market rates to distribute to blacks by 1999 (see article). It has met only a third of this target and has extended the deadline for another ten years. Corruption, red tape and incompetence have hobbled land reform. Even without these problems, finding enough money to satisfy the ANC’s ambition would be hard. The budget deficit is 4% of GDP and public debt has ballooned to over 50%.

Inevitably, the slow pace of redistribution is leading to calls for South Africa to take a short cut, by copying Robert Mugabe, the deposed ruler of Zimbabwe, who confiscated land from white farmers without paying. Julius Malema, South Africa’s foremost populist firebrand, has urged his followers to take whatever land they fancy, because “it belongs to you.” Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, wants to change the constitution to let the state seize land without paying for it. At a conference in December the ANC voted to make this party policy.

It is a terrible idea. A central plank of the negotiated deal that ended apartheid peacefully was that property rights should be respected. If the government rips up title deeds, no sane investor will put money into South Africa and the economy will nosedive, as Zimbabwe tragically shows.

South Africa’s government should certainly try to improve the lot of the poor, both because it is the right thing to do and to prevent the likes of Mr Malema from winning elections. But policy must fit South Africa as it is today. Two-thirds of South Africans now live in cities, and they are not going back to the countryside. They want jobs, schools and cleaner government, not fields to grow maize in. More than 70% list unemployment as their biggest worry. Only 2% say farming is. This is hardly surprising, as farming is about 2% of the economy.

The future is urban

Land reform is still a good idea, but it must be well-designed, cost-effective and part of a broader strategy to promote economic growth. First, the government should look in its own backyard. The state directly owns about 10% of South Africa’s land. Some tracts, urban and rural, have squatters on them. Long-standing squatters should be given the land they live on. Much of the rest should be sold, and the money used to plug the deficit or improve social services. Another 15% of South Africa is “communal” land, most of which is owned by the state and which was reserved for black people under apartheid. Those who farm this land should be given title to it. This would give them an asset against which they could borrow, and the security of ownership that would encourage them to invest. Or they could sell up and move to Johannesburg. South Africa has plenty of land, but its future prosperity will be generated by clustering in cities, not scratching out a living on the farm.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the Economists print edition under the headline “Don’t do as Robert Mugabe did”