Let's Think

Without traditional leaders’ land reform won’t fly

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It is probably no coincidence that land redistribution was the main topic that featured in Cyril Ramaphosa’s first high profile public appearance as the new leader of the ANC.

It is not surprising since the expropriation of land without compensation has been the subject of probably the most prominent resolution adopted at the African National Congress’ December national conference. As the newly elected leader of the party, Mr. Ramaphosa is under instruction that it should be included in the policies when, and if, he also becomes President of the country.

However, what does come as a bit of a surprise is that Mr Ramaphosa chose the occasion of his meeting with the most powerful black traditional in the land, King Goodwill Zwelithini at his Osuthu Palace in KwaZulu-Natal, to address the subject.

Some commentators expressed surprise and suspicions about what, to them, looked like an attempt by Mr. Ramaphosa to please all sides in the land reform debate and arguing that his assurances about protecting things like the economy and food security are irreconcilable with expropriation of land without compensation.

Wider context

However, to our mind there are sings that the complicated and highly emotional subject of land reform could now finally receive the balanced attention it deserves – something that will not be possible without the cooperation of traditional leaders, who effectively holds sway over the lives of nearly a third of the population.

To give proper context to the complexities of the land reform issue in the country, we here repeat a shortened version of an article, Land reform should address both black feudalism and colonialism, we wrote in November last year.

At the time, we wrote:

It is a dangerous myth that the need for land reform/redistribution stems only from the legacy of European colonialism while the African version of feudalism can live on unhindered.

Two decades after a democratic constitution has been adopted, close to a third of the country’s population (almost exclusively black), between 17 and 20 million, live on tribal or traditional land where their tenure is legally insecure – robbed of the economic advantages that come with a title deed on a piece of real estate.

This situation prevails despite the fact that the Constitutional Court has frequently held that our constitution requires property law in our country to be interpreted on the basis that there has been massive and unjust dispossession of people from land, that restitution is constitutionally required, and that land reform and upgrading of precarious tenure have to be facilitated.

The constitution also provides in section 25 (6) that a person, or community, whose tenure is legally insecure because of past racially discriminatory laws or practices is entitled to tenure which is legally secure, or to comparable redress. Section 25(9)

provides that parliament must enact the required legislation.

As recently as 2013, government, however, announced policies that reasserted the premise of the power of traditional councils over large tracks of land.

And at the same time traditional leaders launched restitution claims to vast swathes of ‘historical tribal land.’

President Zuma actually encouraged them to do so in an address of the National House of Traditional Leaders.

Historical background

The state’s support for ‘tribal control’ over – and in the process denial of independent land rights for rural Africans – is intimately bound up with our apartheid and colonial past. Much of which we shared with other former colonies in Africa.

Much of the present dispensation has its roots in the outcome of historical interaction between colonial officials and African male elders. Both had an interest in elevating the powers of chiefs, and downplaying the rights of ordinary people, particularly women.

This resulted in the development of an African variant of feudalism, replaced 500 years ago in Europe with what has developed into modern-day capitalism – something from which millions of South Africans are still effectively excluded.

In tandem with this a body of customary law has developed in terms of which land may not be bequeathed, but reverts to the state or the tribe on the death of the holder. They then have the power to re-allocate it.

The South African government has effectively rejected the post-94 rights-based approach to land reform in favour of outsourcing power and control over 17 to 20 million South Africans to traditional leaders in a context where power relations are notoriously unequal and the content of customary law deeply disputed.

It has given rise to a sort of neo-apartheid regime, not based on race but on where you live, determining whether you are allowed to own the land you live on, and enjoy all the benefits that come with it.

Traditional leadership has been the basis of local government in most of Africa throughout history. In pre-colonial Africa, African societies were ruled by kings supported by a hierarchy of chiefs and councillors or advisors, who were either their close relatives or selected from their communities.

They served as political, military, spiritual and cultural leaders and were regarded as custodians of the values of society.

In colonial days, they became mostly extensions of colonial rule, a situation that was inherited and further expanded during the apartheid era.

However, after 1994 there developed increasing tension, and even conflict between traditional and elected leaders. In short, the position of traditional leaders is almost irreconcilable with a democratic society and the development of a modern economy in the areas they control.

Traditional leaders and land reform

The position of traditional leaders also seriously hinders land reform and is used politically by some activists to distort the realities about the distribution of land ownership between especially whites and blacks. A distortion that took place even in an audit conducted in 2014 by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLN), which found that 79% of the country’s land is in private hands. It did not, however, reveal whether those hands were black or white. But, this is used by people like the Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader, Julius Malema, to claim whites own 80% of the land,

And, an ‘independent’ audit for the Free State Agricultural Union, which found that only 2.96% of agricultural land in the province is held by black people, excluded the former ‘Bantustan’ of QwaQwa.

A similar audit in KwaZulu-Natal, however, found that 46.29% of land in that province is fully black owned and 2.3% is partially black owned, 15.6% is white owned and the ownership of about 35.8% of the province’s land is unknown. It included the land in the former Bantustan of KwaZulu, which is 100% black owned.

To form a true picture of the actual position becomes almost impossible. And the further one goes back in history the more complicated it becomes to determine who were the real ‘original’ owners of the land.

Before and after the colonisation of Africa started, our patch of Africa, like the rest of the continent, experienced the mass migration of large groups of people.

This process went together with conflict, displacement, and the conquering of some tribes by other tribes.

This process is well described in an article by Rian Malan, a research fellow of the Institute of Race Relations. If history is properly scrutinised, blacks were the first colonisers in Southern Africa. Chief among them were Shaka and Mzilikazi.


If South Africa can rid itself of the ‘feudalism’ that still exists in so-called traditional areas, making it possible for financial institutions to register bonds there, and embark on well-integrated urban development programmes in some rural areas, it could trigger huge financial injections to the economy. It will also go a long way in boosting new job opportunities.

Mr. Ramaphosa’s address at the Osuthu Palace was thin on detail, but according to reports King Zwelithini urged him to pursue this policy. The new leader is also expected to visit the Xhosa King Zwelonke Sigcawu and Rharhabe Queen Noloyiso Sandile in the Eastern Cape.

If he can bring the traditional leaders on board, his dreams of true land and agricultural reform, helping to drive economic growth, food security, and job creation, can become a reality in the not to distant future. We think the country has been waiting long enough for it to happen.

by Piet Coetzer

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