Land reform: Kenyan lessons for South Africa

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The news that South Africa, under new president Cyril Ramaphosa may turn to expropriating white farmers who still control an overwhelming proportion of the country’s rural land, should resonate with Kenyans who know (or remember) how a comparable problem was handled during the country’s transition to independence. 

On balance, I think one would agree that for all the corruption, controversy, and not insignificant violence surrounding land politics in Kenya in the fifty-five years since its independence, Kenya is still in a better place today on land issues as a consequence of its transfer programs than South Africa, or Zimbabwe with its ravaged economy and unstable, unfree polity.

On the one hand, Kenya today has a measure of the democracy, relative economic health, democracy, and political stability that Zimbabwe lacks. Zimbabwe’s plight is attributable in significant measure to the violence and intimidation accompanying the Mugabe regime’s expropriations without compensation of White-held land since 2000. On the other hand, since political apartheid ended in 1994, South Africa has been one of the continent’s most democratically governed countries. But the ruling ANC, under its first three presidents, has been sitting on a powder keg in the form of grossly disproportionate white control of over 70 percent of the country’s agricultural land.

South Africa has purchased only about five million hectares from white farmers for redistribution, out of more than 35 million hectares country-wide. In addition, a 50-50 program started in 2016, under which the government purchases half a farmer’s land to give to labourers working on it. Accordingly, Ramaphosa has determined that his government has no option but to start down the road of expropriation without compensation, or sub-market price purchase, with all the dangers that implies and Zimbabwe’s experience has dramatised. He recognises, however, that a constitutional amendment will be necessary to do so, thus, unless artfully worded, it will likely enshrine an assault on the rule of law in an otherwise model democratic constitution.

By contrast to both South Africa and Zimbabwe, over the course of its transition to independence and beyond, Kenya has faced both challenges and singular circumstances to get to where it is today on the politics of land. While European farmers controlled a very significant percentage of Kenya’s agricultural land, with the benefit of external research, it became apparent at the time that much of the best land remained in African hands, so that while still important to the well-being of the economy, European farm contributions were not as indispensable as some asserted. Thus, while clearly necessary, land transfer programs were not the whole foundation of a stable post-independence Kenyan agricultural economy. 

Prompted by the Mau Mau Emergency, a royal commission successfully mandated an end to racially compartmentalized landholding in Kenya. Meanwhile, the colonial administration had begun land consolidation and registration of African landholdings with a view to ending ethnic land holding compartmentalisation, which jumpstarted Kenya’s agricultural economy.

Feeling threatened by the prospect of African independence, European farmers themselves demanded resettlement programs to buy them out and subdivide the land for small scale African farmers. The World Bank and the British Government obliged, forcing the hand of what was to be the incoming KANU government before it came to power.

As it stands, Kenya’s still fragile democratic institutions have demonstrated at best limited ability to address six decades of land tenure politicisation, corruption, and significant violence, or to follow through on Agenda 4 of Kenya’s 2007-2008 electoral meltdown settlement brokered by the late Kofi Annan.

Kenyan experience may hold useful lessons for South Africa’s current land policy struggles. South Africa is unlikely to attract the international assistance Kenya enjoyed in an earlier era, but at least it has a democratic framework within which to address its land issues. (

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