Looking Out: Land Reform

For decades, one of the main policy priorities of leftists across the globe was land reform. Land was the principal mean of production, and agriculture the critical sector. It has fed a country, employed its people, drove its exports and, because of cotton, even formed the backbone of textile-driven industrialization. As left-wing parties campaigned in rural Turkey in the 1960s and 70s, land reform promises were a massive appeal. The promise of fair land distribution drove huge populations to leftist ideologies in rural Latin America. Land reform was a hallmark promise of Reconstruction that was left largely unfulfilled, and it was high on the mind of Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate for the President of the United States in 1900–1920.

Only after massive rural to urban migration across Africa and Asia after the 1970s, and after the Great Migration in the United States, did land reform lose its place as an important and vote-winning policy for the left. In today’s Turkey, or Peru, or United States, land distribution is not a priority. It does not directly correlate with socioeconomic disparities as it used to. Those who own land are not the extreme wealthy anymore, and land does not bring the massive income it once did.

However, in an agriculture-exporting economy like South Africa, land reform is still critically important, making the recent news on a reform law taking land away from white owners more than just a symbolic move. The disparity of land ownership between whites and blacks is massive, though it is unclear by exactly how much. While there are fears that this law could lead to unproductive food production in the short run, the law easily passed parliament. This short-term worry is not very serious, as South Africa produces more than enough food for itself and exports. A more serious concern was the constitutional issue of taking away land without compensation, which the South African constitution proclaims a breach of private property rights. How the law will fare in the courts is unclear.

The most cynical interpretation is that this will become an opportunity for government corruption as land is taken from white owners for supposed distribution and passed on to government cronies by the notoriously corrupt ANC-led government, which was recently rocked by the resignation of President Zuma due to corruption. The follow-up to this, which many opposition members suggest, is the theory that this law is supposed to rile up the ANC base and shift the national conversation away from ANC corruption under Zuma.

Thus, while land reform should still be part of political discourse everywhere with a large agricultural sector, it is sadly being used as a tool for political opportunism. A just distribution of land will not happen by itself, just as a just distribution of income will not happen automatically. Though it is of little use when practiced by corrupt agents looking to reshuffle the news cycle.