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Bernadette Atuahene Headshot

Happy Birthday Madiba!

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Nelson Mandela celebrated his 92nd birthday this past Sunday (July 18th), an occasion that is cause for the world to celebrate. Madiba, as he is affectionately called in South Africa, was jailed for 27 years on Robben Island, and when he became President his main goal was reconciliation, not revenge. Mandela's selfless brand of leadership shocked the world and won our highest accolades. There is, however, an indelible stain on his legacy that we don't hear much about: how the liberation bargain cemented the land-based inequalities of the past.

Since the 18th century, the colonial and apartheid governments systemically stole property from black communities and gave it to whites for a nominal cost. As a result, when Mandela won the presidency in 1994, whites owned about 87% of the land, although they constituted less than 10% of the population. In an anguished political bargain with the outgoing apartheid regime, Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) party allowed whites to keep their property or to sell it back to the South African state for just compensation. In exchange for this sizable concession, blacks received the promise of land redistribution.

The ANC's goal was to redistribute 30% of the land in the first five years of the new democracy. But about 1% of the country's land was redistributed by 1999, about 3% by 2003, and about 7% 15 years after apartheid's demise. Consequently, one of the most overlooked injustices of the 21st century is that only one side of the bargain has been upheld: South African whites kept their property, but blacks still have not received theirs. Political apartheid may have ended, but economic apartheid lives on.

Some argue that only one side of the bargain has been fulfilled because the ANC is corrupt. While corruption is a problem, the bigger problem is the injustice of the initial bargain: Why should the state pay white landowners just compensation for those particular parcels of land acquired under unjust circumstances? Nevertheless, the ANC's inability to deliver on land redistribution is also a problem. They have failed because of the high cost of purchasing land, an inefficient bureaucracy, and new owner's often lack capital and skill to productively use the land. A recently aired PBS documentary, The Promised Land, gives a detailed, balanced view of the difficulties of redistributing land post-apartheid. Despite the difficulties, if something is not done to correct the skewed and contentious distribution of land, unrest will likely result.

James Gibson, a political scientist at Washington University, St. Louis, surveyed 3,700 South Africans
and found that 85% of black respondents believe that "most land in South Africa was taken unfairly by white settlers, and they therefore have no right to the land today." His most troubling finding is that 2 of every 3 blacks agreed that "land must be returned to blacks in South Africa, no matter what the consequences are for the current owners and for political stability in the country." Surely, quickly and haphazardly redistributing land with no technical or financial support for new owners can have disastrous consequences, as we have witnessed in Zimbabwe. But, Gibson's data suggests that the current dilatory pace of land redistribution in South Africa can also have devastating consequences. If the anger over past land theft explodes, the entire world will feel the reverberations.

The international community must help South Africa avoid potential chaos. International institutions should offer technical support for new landowners and capacity building for South African bureaucrats involved in redistribution so that the money already allocated is used more efficiently. Foundations and philanthropists should strengthen South African NGOs--such as Nkusi Development Organization, Association for Rural Advancement, Southern Cape Land Committee, and the Legal Resources Center--which are diligently and effectively working towards just settlements for individuals and communities whose land was stolen under colonialism and apartheid. Lastly, to increase the money available for redistribution, the international community should find ways to disgorge the ill-gotten gains of individuals and corporations who directly and greatly benefited from racist, apartheid and colonial era policies.

International activists played a significant role in bringing about a democratic South Africa. These battled-tested individuals and groups must once again lend a hand to put the legacy of apartheid to rest once and for all. This is the best birthday present that we can give our beloved Madiba.

I am producing and directing a documentary film about land restitution in South Africa, so if you want to donate, get involved, or just want more information go to: www.discwebsite.org.