Tag Archives: South Africa

End of an era

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its not such a shock given his long period of declining health, but it is truly a loss. On rare occasions when I have been asked to name my heroes, Mandela was always the first name to spring to mind and the only virtually un-caveated endorsement I could make.

It is hard to imagine anyone else in our lifetime who so actively and consciously wrought such an unlikely positive story out of what had been an unmitigated negative factor in world affairs. Whatever your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, imagine a leader emerging who could not only resolve the conflict but render the region an inspiration to the rest of the world. It’s a stretch.

I am old enough to remember a Cold War world where Mandela was both a powerful symbol and a cypher. Obscured behind the walls of Robben Island, he was rendered no more – and no less – than a potent name to be shouted at protests against an all-powerful system of structural racism. I recall regularly hurling the man’s name at the South African residence in London (conveniently near the dorm where I followed my Dad on the study-abroad program he taught). I had not the least idea who he was, beyond the most prominent victim of an odious injustice.

And that is precisely what made the decisions he took upon his release in 1990 so breathtaking. He could so easily have decided to narrowly define his political community and exclusively promote its interests, joining the arid list of creeps and charlatans that steered their moments of breathless post-Cold War indecision into a tunnel of dissolution and violence. Gamsakhurdia, Milosevic, Samuel Doe, Than Shwe, there was no shortage of names in the pantheon and room for plenty more. But he had already chosen a different way, and he stayed true to it.

In a fine piece in Foreign Affairs, Ryan Irwin explains how Mandela came to prominence early by developing a broad coalition across South Africa’s numerous social and political cleavages, denying the Apartheid government legality by presenting a unified opposition front with a vision of the inclusive, just and legal country South Africa could one day be.

This is precisely the type of strategy that activists sought to employ early on in Syria – and which was successfully countered by an Assad regime strategy of predicting an ethnic bloodbath and then taking calculated steps to make one happen. How Mandela succeeded in holding together a narrative that secured peace is little short of miraculous.

There is no doubt that South Africa remains deeply troubled and potentially volatile in the wake of the Marikana massacre. But had it not been for Mandela, South Africa in 1992 could have dwarfed the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda and set in train a devastating regional conflagration. By the grace of Mandela, it did not.

Look before you legislate? The challenges facing restitution in Libya

by Rhodri C. Williams

It seems that plans are now afoot in Libya for a full-scale program of restitution of properties nationalized and appropriated under the Ghaddafi regime. Bloomberg reported yesterday that a law envisaging a two phase process will be rolled out as soon as next month:

Libya will announce a law that will return land and buildings expropriated by late ruler Muammar Qaddafi to the original landowners “within weeks,” a senior member of the Land Ownership Committee said.

“Phase one will return unused lands, empty shops, buildings and villas taken by Qaddafi’s regime and then by the rebels to the rightful owners,” said Fawzy Sheibany, legal representative for the committee, in an interview in the capital, Tripoli. “This will mean millions of dinars can be invested in construction projects and provide employment.”

Phase two of the new law involves rehousing families residing in buildings on expropriated land and could take several years to implement fully, he said. The Ministry of Justice will deal with individual cases through a civil court.

On the face of it, there is every reason to welcome this development. The Ghaddafi-era expropriations were ostensibly meant to further public purposes but became, by all accounts, an arbitrary means of both punishing enemies and rewarding those the regime favored. Moreover, the resulting legal uncertainty in property relations was cited (in 2004) by a leading Middle Eastern law firm as a key structural obstacle to legal reform efforts during the run-up to the uprising:

As a result of abolishing real property ownership for investment purposes, the commercial real estate market has been completely distorted. There exists now a private land market and a public land market with a price gap that creates considerable uncertainty for both foreign and local investors. Compounding the problem, the [1997] Foreign Investment Law is not clear as to whether real property can be used as collateral or even can be freely transferred without government approvals. The government has announced plans to reform the laws governing property and rentals, but their scope is uncertain.

Finally, perhaps the most convincing ground for pushing for quick legislative measures is the need for the National Transitional Council (NTC) to be seen to lead from the front. In the wake of Amnesty International’s widely publicized allegations of human rights abuses by ‘out of control’ militias in Libya, anything the NTC can do to stamp its legitimate authority on matters of broad public interest appears welcome. In fact, this is a particularly important issue in regard to property. Recent reports such as this one by the Guardian indicate that the militias have become part of a pattern of spontaneous restitution, often carried out by means of violent self-help.

So what, one might ask, is not to like in a bill that serves not only justice but also economic development and political consolidation? The answer is that if it is rushed through without consultation, this bill may actually have the opposite effect, generating new cycles of grievance, reducing legal certainty and even undermining the authority of government in Libya if it proves impossible to effectively and consistently implement. Perhaps the most cogent argument for a deliberative approach to restitution for the prior regime’s confiscations is that this is to some extent a constitutional decision rather than merely a legislative one. Continue reading

The week in links – week 09/2011

I thought I would begin this one with a plug for a Roger Cohen column. It ostensibly focuses on the unfolding of ‘Obama-ism’ as a nascent foreign policy doctrine, but beautifully makes the point that just as 2001 was seen as interring the spirit of 1989, 2011 may signal an equally new and more hopeful turning point in human affairs. The uplifted tone invites a certain amount of skepticism, but one can also choose to simply indulge in a moment of abandoned optimism.

Events in North Africa have obscured what would otherwise be headline (well at least visible) news from other parts of Africa. Perhaps most notably, Cote d’Ivoire continues its slide toward civil war. Turtle Bay recently reported that South Africa’s contributions to the mediation efforts have been viewed with some skepticism, as it is not clear whether an effort is afoot to impose the type of power-sharing agreement that has worked so brilliantly in Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe itself, political repression by Mugabe’s paramilitaries and displacement continue apace. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has unsurprisingly upheld the country’s draconian land reforms, as reported in ASIL’s most recent ‘International Law in Brief’. Finally, returning to South Africa, the BBC reports this week on a bid by Georgia to poach  white farmers disgruntled by the far less arbitrary but ambitious and problematic land restitution program there.

A year on, BBC also provides a useful followup report on the earthquake in Chile. Although Chile’s relatively advanced state of preparedness spared it from loss of life on anything like the scale seen a month earlier in Haiti, the economic consequences were devastating. BBC points out that the cost of the damage was one-third of all costs caused by disasters worldwide in 2010 and amounted to one-fifth of Chile’s GNP. As in Haiti, the greatest challenge a year on is presented by the need to move survivors from ad hoc shelter arrangements to more sustainable housing.

Back to the land for displaced persons?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I was recently struck by a CSM commentary on peace-building in Liberia by Greg Mills. Mr. Mills heads the Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg which is, by its own terms, dedicated to “strengthening Africa’s economic performance”. They operate in an advisory capacity in a number of African countries including Liberia, and appear to be juggling any number of initiatives, ranging from extracting applicable lessons from economic reforms in Georgia to improving corporate social responsibility in Liberia based on African principles. So it wasn’t too much of a surprise that the thrust of the CSM comment was the need to, in effect, improve attitudes and end a wartime culture of dependency:

Making an immediate impact after the conflict ends is relatively easy. Taking things to the next level involves more than providing potable water, roads, ports, and electricity, however challenging this may be. It requires aquiring the soft infrastructure of training, skills, work ethic, and mind-set right in getting Liberians working again.

What was striking was not so much this general diagnosis of what ails Liberia but rather the cure that was then put forward. In essence, Liberians are advised to seek their fortune in agriculture:

Right now, Liberia cannot feed itself and there is little appetite to work the land. But if Liberia is to be a sustained success story, it will have to get people working on the land where its biggest comparative advantage exists.

Low population density, rich soil, and plenty of water make it the perfect location for growing rice and other staples. As Patrick Mazimhaka, a veteran Rwandan and African Union politician notes, “One thing we have not got right is how difficult it seems to be for people to go back to agriculture after long wars.”

The author goes on to acknowledge the significant obstacles – insecure tenure, persistent disputes and ethnic schisms – that complicate such a proposal in Liberia. However, he concludes by noting that the inculcation of a culture of responsibility could provide the solution. While this was a well-put if slightly paternalistic argument, the device of encouraging a return of urban internally displaced persons (IDPs) to agriculture seems to play on an almost romantic idea of national renewal through a return to the yeoman virtues of hard work and self-sufficiency. It also seemed to strike a chord with efforts underway in Haiti, posted on earlier here, to ensure that those displaced to the countryside are encouraged to remain there rather than drifting back to overcrowded camps in the cities directly affected by the January 12 quake.

As many readers will be aware, these proposals take their place in a protracted debate about the role of return as a “durable solution” to displacement which has been rolling along since the early 1990s. The 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia posited return as a means of undoing the effects of the conflict and included property restitution as an explicit device to bring return about. Ultimately, many who worked in Bosnia, myself included, came to the view that encouraging individual choice about whether to return or resettle was both more meaningful and more challenging than focusing on return, per se.

However, a  preference for return continued to crop up in international policy, arguably culminating in the 2005 adoption of the Pinheiro Principles on property restitution for refugees and displaced persons (which clarify that property remedies cannot be held hostage to return, but place tight restrictions on when compensation can be allowed in lieu of restitution – effectively prioritizing remedies that would allow for return). Since 2005, there has been something of a backlash, perhaps most explicitly expressed by ODI in its recent policy brief on land disputes and humanitarian action:

In the aftermath of war, humanitarian efforts tend to focus on activities that aim to restore the pre-war status quo. These efforts are based on the assumption that there is a clear distinction between war and peace. In reality there is no clear-cut division…. Furthermore, violent conflict destroys not only political, economic and social structures, but is itself a process of transformation in which alternative systems of economic accumulation, social regulation and political governance emerge. These changes are part of an ‘accelerated transition’ that invariably accentuates processes of change that in most cases are already under way, and that are in any event irreversible. Returning to the status quo ante is usually impossible and may in fact not be desirable if it fails to tackle the grievances that led to the conflict in the first place, or that have emerged during the conflict.

In most cases, this ‘accelerated transition’ takes the form of urbanization through displacement, as seen in Liberia. And there is certainly evidence, all rural idylls aside, that urbanization may not only be better for the environment and checking world population growth, but that it may also, if properly managed, provide enormous benefits in terms of improved educational opportunities and living standards for rural migrants, forced or voluntary.

Indeed, coming from South Africa, Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation should be well aware of the problem of getting people to go back to agriculture after long absences. In recent months, the government there has appeared to back away from a highly ambitious goal of redistributing 30% of arable land to blacks by 2014. According to a recent article in the Mail and Guardian, this has come about not only because of the high prospective costs this would impose, but also because of the insight that more than 90% of the nearly 6 million hectares of land previously acquired for redistribution is now fallow, crimping Government revenues and raising food security concerns. In response, the Ministry of Agriculture is not only focusing on support and mentoring programs for new farmers but has also issued a controversial proposal to declare arable land a “national asset”, forcing redistribution beneficiaries to productivity through a “use it or lose it” approach.

The South African redistribution program – which includes a direct restitution component – was meant to respond to the near complete dispossession of black Africans beginning with the 1913 Natives Land Act. Confined to arid tribal ‘homelands’ and peri-urban shantytowns, many South African blacks found themselves in an effective state of protracted internal displacement at the fall of the apartheid regime. However, the current debate over land redistribution may represent a dawning realization that truly durable solutions to such dislocation are likely to result from supporting the choices of those affected themselves. As I described in an earlier publication for ICTJ, the political opposition questioned whether land distribution – and the underlying dream of a black return to agrarian livelihoods – truly resonated with shantytown residents, many of whom may have come to see their future in exclusively urban terms.

In any case, recent international policy documents such as the Framework on Durable Solutions for IDPs (see post here) reinforce the principle that informed choice lies at the heart of durable solutions to displacement. Policy preferences can come in to shape such choices, but the Framework stipulates that they must be “based on serious and objective reasons” (para. 30) and goes on to provide illustrations and criteria that underscore the exceptional nature of permissible restrictions on the right to freedom of movement and choice of residence for IDPs (see paragraphs 29 to 33).

In a sense, this makes Liberia a resolvable conundrum. The rural economic potential appears to be there and if it can be harnessed in a manner that creates tangible opportunities for those now uprooted in urban centers, returns to the land will surely follow. However, actively promoting such returns at a time when the risks involved remain very concrete and the opportunities still notional could put the cart before the horse. The goal should not be to repopulate the countryside by reshuffling displaced people but to end displacement by creating the conditions for sustainable rural return.