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South Africa debates land expropriation

Aarni Kuoppamäki im
March 16, 2018

South Africa is considering an amendment to its constitution which will allow the expropriation of land without compensation. The government claims it is addressing lingering injustice from the apartheid era.

Workers dig up sweet potatoes on a farm near Pretoria, South Africa
Image: AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, South Africa's new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, faced questions from the opposition in parliament. For around 40 minutes he spoke about the issue of land ownership and redistribution, which has gripped the nation for months.

"The expropriation of land without compensation is one of the mechanisms that the government will use to achieve land reform and land redistribution," Ramaphosa said. Back in December, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) passed a resolution to the effect. 

President Ramaphosa and the ANC responded to pressure from the left-wing party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by Julius Malema. They have long demanded the expropriation of land — particularly from white farmers. By the time apartheid ended in 1994, discriminatory land laws meant whites owned at least 87 percent of the country. But not enough has changed between then and now, says the EFF. In February, the government issued a report which revealed farms account for more than 97 percent of the country's overall land area of approximately 120 million hectares. Almost a third of the country (37 million hectares) is privately owned — 72 percent of it by white South Africans.

A dairy farmer stands in his field at Little Barnet farm in South Africa
More than two decades after the end of apartheid the country is struggling to provide its black population with land while maintaining productivity. Image: DW/T. Andrews

"The time for reconciliation is over – now is the time for justice," Malema said in parliament. "We do not seek revenge though they caused so much evil in our land. We do not wish for their suffering, though they caused so much humiliation of countless generations. All we want, all our people ever wanted, is their land to which their dignity is rooted and founded." Many poor South Africans are now calling for faster land redistribution.

Success the second time around?

A year ago the EFF unsuccessfully sought a constitutional amendment which would allow expropriations to occur without compensation. Their second amendment request was approved on February 27 with 241 votes to 83, largely thanks to the support of the ANC. A parliamentary committee is now set to clarify whether paragraph 25 of the South African constitution — which determines the right to property — should be changed.

But a number of opposition parties have criticized the sudden push to change land laws. In parliament on Wednesday, the leader of the small center-left Congress of the People (COPE), Mosiuoa Lekota, voiced his concern: "I am very disturbed that suddenly we are no longer all South Africans. Some of us are Indians, others are colored, others are white. The constitution to which we show allegiance says we're all South Africans. We have the same rights."

Reclaiming the land

The leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), Mmusi Maimane, warned that expropriations could lead to a decline in foreign investment in South Africa, an increase in unemployment and even reduced life expectancy. Poor people would be hurt the most. Rather than expropriation, the DA is demanding the transfer of land from state owners to potential farmers.

"[Expropriations] are tantamount to theft — that is the definition of taking something from somebody without compensating them for it," CEO of AfriBusiness Piet le Roux told DW. "Moreover it is economically disastrous, and this will be harmful to everybody in South Africa."

According to le Roux, people who were unlawfully expropriated before or during apartheid should be able to get their land back — or otherwise be compensated individually. The current legislation and free sale of land is the right way to balance ownership. In addition, she says the government's numbers are wrong: if land owned by the state is taken into account, as well as fertile land in the former homelands, 27 percent of arable land is owned by black South Africans.

Drawing parallels with Zimbabwe

Time and time again, parallels are drawn between South Africa and Zimbabwe, where thousands of white farmers were expropriated under the rule of Robert Mugabe following controversial land reform in 2000 — often by force. Many large farms went to members of the political elite who did not farm the land. The production of goods such as coffee and milk soon collapsed. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), corn exports fell from 107,000 to 2,000 tons in a year.

But others profited from the land reform. Now 200,000 black Zimbabweans own the farms. In recent years, the production of maize has recovered and is even higher than before the reform, says Joseph Hanlon from the London School of Economics. Farmers followed market demand and produced what they had a better chance of selling — for example corn production went up based on high local demand, as did tobacco due to high export prices.

Südafrika - neuer Präsident Cyril Ramaphosa
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa says its time to open the conversation on land reformImage: Reuters/M. Hutchings

Ramaphosa promises cooperation over confrontation

But the South African government wants to dispel fears that land reform in South African will mirror the events in Zimbabwe during the Mugabe era. The ANC states that land reform should be implemented in such a way that leads to higher agricultural production, improved food security and compensates those who lost land as a result of colonialism. Expropriations without compensation should mainly apply to unused land. Also, a redistribution of state property is on the cards, as well as the legal status of land which is managed by traditional leaders.

Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini warns that his warriors are ready to defend their country. "We should not be too angry, too scared or too anxious to get into this debate," Ramaphosa told parliament. He recalled the feelings of uncertainty following the end of the apartheid regime. Once again, he says, the time has come to talk, collaborate and find solutions. On August 30 the parliamentary committee is expected to submit its report on a possible constitutional amendment to allow for expropriations without compensation. But the outcome of this debate remains uncertain.