Politics of hunger

Inside South Africa’s land reform debate

By Crystal Orderson, in Cape Town

Posted on March 14, 2019 17:36

A ‘No entry sign’ is seen at an entrance of a farm outside Witbank, Mpumalanga province © Private land ownership remains firmly in the hands of white South Africans. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Private land ownership remains firmly in the hands of white South Africans. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The land question has become a political football for South Africa, as it heads towards elections in May; but pursuit of a constitutional amendment has not stalled.

After decades of white power and 25 years of democracy, private ownership of land in South Africa remains firmly in the hands of white people. And when millions go to bed hungry, the politics of land ownership snap into focus:

  • Buffeted by the radical demands of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – who came third in the 2014 general elections – President Cyril Ramaphosa said the African National Congress (ANC) would pursue an amendment to the Constitution that would allow expropriation without compensation.
  • Elections in May are turning the issue into a political football.

Let’s rewind:

  • 1996 – The great hope: Nelson Mandela and Ramaphosa unveiled the South African Constitution. Article 25 says that people who had land stolen from them had a right to get it back or be recompensed. And it also said expropriation would be compensated.
  • 2013 – The dream deferred: An initial target of 30% white agricultural land to be transferred to black ownership by 1999 had only resulted in a figure of 6.5% by 2013, according to the Department of Rural Development’s most recent land audit.
  • 2018 – The debate reopens: Following Ramaphosa’s pledge, Parliament approved the principle of expropriation without compensation at the end of 2018.

What’s happening now?

An ad hoc group of parliamentarians is working on the new ANC-backed bill – but Thoko Didiza, chairwoman of the drafting commission, says the proposed changes to Article 25 of the Constitution would only come into effect by the end of the year at the earliest.

Ramaphosa is treading a thin line between keeping the dream alive and reassuring international investors.

  • In his parliamentary Q&A on 10 March Ramaphosa said compensationless land expropriation had been raised by international investors. “[I tell them] … We are not going to be expropriating your investment. We are not going to do that because we can’t invite you to help us grow our economy…”

And because the constitutional amendment will not happen before the 8 May general election, expropriation without compensation has become a campaigning point for each party.

  • Say the ANC: “If we just wake up and nationalise the land we will dispossess black people. We have to address the imbalances of the past.” Ronald Lamola, ANC
  • Democratic Alliance: “The current land reform programme is riddled with corruption, the diversion of the land reform budget to elites, lack of political will, and lack of training and capacity – all of which have proved serious stumbling blocks to meaningful land reform.” DA manifesto 2019
  • EFF: “The wealth of people must be restored to the people, says the Freedom Charter. The DA believes in private ownership of land – we believe in collective ownership by all South Africans. The constant scare-tactics reference that we will end up like Zimbabwe is absolutely nonsensical.” Dali Mpofu, EFF

And the experts? 

  • Some point to the  vulnerable: Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi pointed out in an 8 March briefing to the committee that some communities – like Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape and Hlabisa in KwaZulu-Natal – were vulnerable to losing their land to mining and should be able to invoke the Constitution to demand compensation. “It is true we are concerned mostly with a debate [on] how to take from the whites because they took the land unfairly, which is perfectly understandable, but I don’t believe we can design a clause that will make non-compensation the default position.”
  • Others fault reliance on expropriation: Professor Ben Cousins, a land expert from the University of Western Cape, tells The Africa Report: “Acquiring land through expropriation in some instances can form part of the solution [but] it’s unlikely […] to be the main method for acquiring land. It’ll be too slow, too cumbersome, too hedged in by legal challenges and so on. There probably is a role for the state to acquire land on the market through negotiated purchase – possibly at less than market value because if we use the criteria of equitable and just compensation it might be somewhat less than market value, but still not an expropriation.”
  • Yet others point to the danger of arbitrary decisions: Economist Neva Makgetla told a recent land colloquium: “Expropriation is legal in virtually every country, with or without compensation depending on the circumstances. [It must be] structured into system that ensures that it’s not arbitrary, that it’s not seen as being based on corruption or based on individual desires to take over somebody’s farm but rather that it’s clearly linked to a process where the social benefits outweigh the social costs.”

Meanwhile down on the farm, Apple farmer Errol April, a former ANC military veteran and a recipient of the government’s land reform programme, tells The Africa Report: “We need a single, cohesive approach to the problem. Even though the land has been given to me – I’ve got 30-year lease – the banks don’t want to talk to us. We need to address the land issue.”

What comes next? After a 30-day public comment period and potential public hearings, further deliberations will take place before a vote requiring at least a two-thirds majority in the House. The bill goes to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) for approval. All this adds up to several months even without legal challenges, which are likely.

Bottom line: The prospect of land reform offers hope to the landless, and strikes fear into those who risk losing assets. Looking to success stories elsewhere will be critical, but comes with its own difficulties; Brazil and Japan each tell different stories. Negotiating it will test Ramaphosa’s fabled skills as a diplomat.

More on South Africa’s land reform debate here.

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