- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2007

Annabel Hughes was the executive director of the Washington-based Zimbabwe Democracy Trust. Banned from returning to Zimbabwe, she is currently writing a memoir about her experiences fighting for her country’s freedom. She recently spoke with The Washington Times about South Africa’s land reform.

Question: At the end of apartheid, South Africa’s government promised to redistribute land from rich, white farm owners to poor, displaced blacks. Can South Africa do land reform in a way that is fair to the current owners?

Answer: As long as the redistribution is undertaken within the rule of law, and ideally on a willing buyer, willing seller basis then, yes, it can be fair. The number of willing sellers in South Africa today amount to about 5 percent per annum, which makes it easier.

Q: What is right and what is wrong with the current process?

A: To date the [African National Congress] government has transferred land on a willing buyer, willing seller basis. What appears to be wrong is the slow pace with which an incompetent, inexperienced bureaucracy is handling the redistribution. This frustrates all South Africans, regardless of background, and could have a negative impact on an orderly process.

Q: Is South Africa taking steps down the same road that led Zimbabwe to its current situation?

A: The public posturing among South Africa’s ruling elite about reclaiming land to give to the landless is a replay of what happened in Zimbabwe. Political heavyweights in Zimbabwe — particularly the beneficiaries from black empowerment programs, who had money and land already — threatened white landowners for years, especially at election time. When Zimbabwe’s illegal land grab began, it was these same heavyweights who took most of it for themselves, not the poor.

Q: Will the land in South Africa be redistributed to the landless or will it go to those with influence, like in Zimbabwe?

A: It remains to be seen. Virtually all the land reclaimed in Zimbabwe has ended up in the hands of the rich and powerful [both black and white], many of whom know nothing about farming. While the new owners use the former farmers’ homesteads as weekend retreats, some 2 million farm workers and their families are now homeless. It’s ironic that the land is supporting far less people today, and over half of the population needs food aid.

Q: How is the South African situation different than what happened in Zimbabwe?

A: There is a disparity of scale between the two countries: today there are 45,000 white farmers in South Africa, whereas in Zimbabwe there were only 4,000 in 2000. Additionally, South Africa’s economy is much more sophisticated and diverse than Zimbabwe’s ever was, and could probably handle an orderly land reform process. Zimbabwe’s was an agro-based economy, so destroying commercial agriculture took the legs out from underneath a number of the country’s other economic components.

Q: Will South African land reform scare away future international investment and jobs?

A: If it is undertaken illegally, yes. Foreign investors know too well that land reform is necessary in South Africa. It is how the ANC government chooses to deal with the issue that will positively or negatively influence international investment.

Q: Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. It now imports food. Will this happen in South Africa?

A: There are massive food-producing conglomerates in South Africa today. Right now, I cannot see that land reform, unless unleashed in a reckless and chaotic style, would threaten South Africa’s food security.

Q: Why won’t South African President Thabo Mbeki condemn Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe?

A: Their positions are analogous in many ways: as presidents, leaders of all-powerful political parties, self-proclaimed liberation heroes. Criticizing President Mugabe would be like criticizing himself.