Back in the Wild West days of the United States economy – when robber barons still ruled and farmers and small businesses were being relentlessly gouged by ruthless monopolies – a rabble-rouser and friend of the people nearly became president. In a mesmerising speech while running to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1896, William Jennings Bryan decried the actions of the financial elites he believed were ruining the lives of the majority of the population for their own selfish ends: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” It was a turning point not just for the Democrats. It also helped to create space for President Theodore Roosevelt to fight his own Republican Party and drive through the trust-busting reforms that led to the ‘Progressive Age’. Better the devil you know than the true revolutionary… So is it possible that the chaotic South African politics of the day may actually be pushing in the right direction for land reform? The revolutionaries are making speeches again: Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have made it a cause célèbre. “We remain a conquered nation because white monopoly capital still owns the means of production, and at the centre of that is the land question,” Malema said during a parliamentary debate in 2017. That was the year when the EFF drove the land reform question into the frontline of South Africa’s political landscape, taking advantage of Jacob Zuma’s deep unpopularity. “People of South Africa, where you see a beautiful land, take it, it belongs to you,” Malema added. On the other side of the debate lies the Democratic Alliance (DA): historically white and sympathetic to – and funded by – the land-owning class. The DA has been steadfast in its opposition to any idea that land should be taken without proper compensation. Its case is not helped by fringe group Afriforum, whose hysterical appeals for help over what they call a ‘white genocide’ are in poor taste given the generations of black men and women press-ganged to work for a cup of wine on white farms. This debate has now come to the boil – helped by a very public and very uninformed September intervention by US President Donald Trump, who instructed his vice-president to look into the issue of land seizures and farm attacks. But, perhaps, this has given President Cyril Ramaphosa the space to act. His first move was in July – proposing an amendment to the constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation. But, in what is becoming Ramaphosa’s trademark, it will go through a process that tries to keep all parties on board. In a recent opinion column, Ramaphosa said that the amendment would ‘prohibit the arbitrary deprivation of property’. Critics will say that this is Bill Clinton-style tr iangu lation, positioning on an issue that sucks the oxygen out of your opposition. But others say that, for a change, serious voices have entered the conversation. Professor Ruth Hall, for example, has been appointed by Ramaphosa to the advisory panel on land reform. If anyone can transplant the pioneering ideas of the late, great Sam Moyo on deep but sensible land reform in Zimbabwe to the South African context, it is her. What is certain is that land reform in South Africa is not working. The majority of land remains under white ownership, and just 10% of the land owned by whites has been transferred to black hands since the end of apartheid. And while the white population has remained stable, the black population has grown quickly. After the Second World War in Japan and South Korea, governments booted landed elites off the land. Rigorous, locally determined land reform handed out 3ha plots to millions of families. The result was the largest historical boom in agricultural employment, and, over the next few decades, the creation of a huge consumer class. Perhaps, while history never really repeats itself, might it rhyme?
Is it possible that the chaotic South African politics of the day may actually be pushing in the right direction for land reform?