Nelson Mandela’s selfless brand of leadership surprised the world and won him universal accolades during his lifetime. After being confined to Robben Island for most of his 27 years in prison, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, and his goal was always reconciliation rather than revenge. But now that we have had a year to mourn his death, it’s important to also begin to critically evaluate his legacy, including his role in cementing the land-based inequalities created under colonialism and apartheid.
Starting in the 18th century, colonial and apartheid governments systematically stole property from black South Africans and gave it to whites at nominal cost. As a result, when Mandela took office in 1994, whites owned about 87% of the land, although they constituted less than 10% of the population.
In a political bargain with the outgoing apartheid regime, Mandela and his party, the African National Congress, allowed whites to keep their property. This meant that even if, for instance, the apartheid government had forcibly removed a village of black people in order to sell their land to a white farmer at far less than its value, the farmer would retain clear title to that land post-apartheid. If the new government later decided to take the land and return it to its former owners, then the state would have to pay the white farmer just compensation.
In exchange for this sizable concession, blacks were promised land reform, which is outlined in South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution. Millions of blacks who were robbed of ownership or tenancy rights after 1913 could file claims for compensation; those who never owned land could gain land through the redistribution program; and through tenure upgrading, blacks who were allowed to be tenants only under white rule became owners. The ANC’s land reform goal was to redistribute 30% of the land in the first five years of the new democracy.
But if the promises sounded equitable in theory, in practice they have been far from fair. Only one side of the bargain has been upheld: South African whites kept their property, but blacks still have not received theirs. This year marks 20 years of democracy in South Africa, and only 10% of the land has changed hands from whites back to blacks. Political apartheid may have ended, but economic apartheid lives on.
For a recent book, I interviewed 150 South Africans whose land was seized during colonialism and apartheid and who received either money or land through the land restitution program. Their stories illuminate the ongoing injustice.
When the post-apartheid state expropriates land for redistributive purposes from current owners (who are mostly white), they receive market-based compensation. But when former owners whose land was grabbed under apartheid file successful claims for that land, most are granted modest symbolic awards called “Standard Settlement Offers.” These offers have ranged from about $2,000 to about $6,000, a mere fraction of the land’s value today.
Equity demands that black and white owners should either both receive symbolic compensation or both receive market-related compensation. Whites should not continue to get higher rates of compensation than blacks.
Some argue that these inequalities exist because the ANC is corrupt. Although corruption is undoubtedly a problem, the bigger problem in this case is the injustice of the initial political bargain. White South Africans benefited immediately from the new policies, with assurances that they had the right to keep their land or receive just compensation. Blacks, on the other hand, had to wait for institutions to be created and claims to be evaluated. And the programs established to benefit them were underfunded, because they had to compete with other urgent funding priorities such as the AIDS pandemic, a broken education system and spiraling crime rates.
Land reform is failing and land inequalities persist, in large part because of structural flaws in the political bargain that Mandela struck. The upside of the bargain was that it ensured South Africa transitioned from apartheid to democracy without massive bloodshed or economic disintegration. Mandela may well have chosen the best option available to him. But was the system fair? Hardly.
As we pay homage to Mandela on the first anniversary of his death, he should not be deified. He was a man forced to make hard choices, and he left a legacy of both reconciliation and inequality.
Bernadette Atuahene is a professor of law at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago-Kent, and the author of We Want What’s Ours: Learning from South Africa’s Land Restitution Program. wewantwhatsours.com