Land expropriation’s sound and fury:


President Jacob Zuma is not a man of letters. But he likes to unleash his favourite Shakespearean tragedy to hit back at his critics.

On at least three occasions Zuma invoked Lord Macbeth’s reaction after hearing of the queen’s death. The first was during one of his early dismal attempts at writing a column on the ANC website. The second was during a parliamentary debate on the presidency’s budget vote. The third was in his victory speech after the 2014 elections where he claimed that Nkandla was not an issue during the campaign.

In all three instances Zuma lashed out at opposition parties and the media who had questioned his leadership. He cited in part his favourite Macbeth soliloquy: Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more: it is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

To drive his point home strongly, Zuma would stress the last part. He would suggest that criticism of his conduct was just the sound and fury signifying nothing. As his power wanes, it will dawn on him that the sounds of discontent had signified something big. But that’s a topic for another day.

I couldn’t help but recall Zuma’s favourite Shakespearean political whip when in-depth and sober discussions on land reform took place this week at Nampo Harvest Day expo in Bothaville. Facilitated by Nation In Conversation, the discussions revealed the tragedy of land reform in the country.

As experts deliberated on how best to fast-track land reform, I wished Zuma and some of his lieutenants had been in the audience. They would have learned that their populist remarks about expropriation of land without compensation were the real sound and the fury.

Not only has government failed to meet its targets to redistribute land to the dispossessed, but some of the land reform projects have failed partly due to government’s policy and implementation failures. Without a reasonable number of successful land reform projects, it is difficult to justify expropriation. The failures so far have nothing to do with the property clause in the Constitution.

Mike Mlengana, director general of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, provided an honest assessment of the crisis. He said the government was working on a strategy to recapitalise rundown farms that were previously profitable. “We have had more shameful cases than successes for farmer beneficiaries of land reform,” he said on Monday.

Such honesty is rare. But it is the starting point towards success. Mlengana was not simply pointing out a problem. He is repairing the damage. “We now need to look at the profile of [emerging] farmers and link them with the commercial profile of the land,” he said. “We have to build capacity.”

He also said the government was considering buying equity stakes on farms earmarked for beneficiaries of land reform. He cited an example of a successful land reform project in the Northern Cape where government was a partner in a Rooibos business that exports the product.

His experience was that white commercial farmers were committed to partner with emerging black farmers to change land ownership patterns. But they didn’t understand the government’s plans. All they heard, he said, was that their land would be expropriated without compensation, and that’s what made them defensive. “We are not a threat to farmers. What they don’t like and I also don’t like is to expropriate people’s properties,” Mlengana said.

TP Nchocho, the chief executive officer of the state-owned Land Bank, was also candid about what needed to be done to get failed land reform projects back on track while expanding the reach of the land reform. “We need to make more land available for land reform. But surely, we need to fix what is available now,” Nchocho said.

He added: “What we have proposed to government, and we are succeeding to a certain extent, is to go back to those land parcels that went wrong, set up structures, get Land Bank as a partner and run those businesses on a commercial basis.”

It would be difficult to fault Mlengana’s and Nchocho’s perspectives about land reform. The problem, though, is that their views are undermined by a political noise that we hear from politicians.

Recently, the Economic Freedom Fighters tried in vain to have the Constitution amended to expropriate land without compensation. Prominent ANC leaders, including Zuma have also called for expropriation along similar lines. Zuma even suggested that “black parties” needed to collaborate on this matter.

None of the proponents of expropriation without compensation have come up with a sensible plan of what to do with land that lies fallow after resettlement. We must accept, as Mlengana does, that the shameful cases of land reform have set the country back.

However, the failures must not be used by those opposed to transformation to spread their anti-transformation agenda. Land reform is a constitutional requirement. It is necessary part of the broader economic transformation that is critical for shared economic growth and political stability.

Unless we implement mechanisms to get all agricultural land back to productivity, calls for expropriation without compensation are nothing but sound and the fury that signify political opportunism.

– Mkhabela participated in the Nation In Conversation debates on land reform at Nampo. He is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria.