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January 18th, 2016
In South Africa, an Uneven Transformation with Land Reform

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When South Africa’s brutal and racially oppressive policies of apartheid came to a close in 1994, it was promised by Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress party that as much as 30 percent of land seized from native farmers by white landowners would be returned to them within 10 years.It didn’t come close.

It didn’t come close.

“They didn’t get to 0.3 percent,” said Brent McCusker, associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geography at West Virginia University. “By 15 to 20 years on, they’re at about 3 to 4 percent. It’s sputtering along and it’s not really doing anything.”
Under Mandela’s administration, an entire legislative process was created to help the process. If native landowners could prove they had a legitimate claim to stolen lands, they would be compensated with new property. If they chose a financial claim, they would be compensated with financial restitution and development grants for their current homes or themselves.

The practice has proven ineffective, McCusker said.

In his new book, “Land Reform In South Africa: An Uneven Transformation,” McCusker and his co-authors present a new framework to explore why land reformation didn’t work. In South Africa, many texts published on the subject take a “technicist” approach to explain why it didn’t work – namely blaming everything from a lack of incentives, to it being a poorly designed program and even political parties just not living up to promises made.

McCusker examines, through case studies, different groups who have dominated land ownership in the region and how their interactions and influence has helped shape policy in their favor.

“We use the concept of hegemony – the different groups in society will always try to dominate and cajole each other and force each other to do things,” McCusker said. “”This has been a longstanding process – it isn’t something that hasn’t happened recently. We apply that concept of hegemony to land policy, which nobody else had done.”

The issue of land reformation is still hotly contested in South Africa. President Jacob Zuma recently prohibited foreign land ownership in South Africa, and other policies are calling for corporate farms to give up as much as 50 percent of their properties. And with any political issue, there are calls it isn’t going far enough, and doubts whether it will work.

Without an effective transfer of land ownership in place, still short of goals set 21 years ago, McCusker said it’s important for his team to examine how and why those promises haven’t delivered.

“We still have a lot of poverty in South Africa,” McCusker said. “You still have millions of people that are reliant on their own production but they’re still ham-strung to poor quality land. All of those supposed benefits have not trickled down to the poorest of the poor. They’re left without any sort of viable livelihood system.”

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