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South Africa: Lawmakers open way for land reform

Martina Schwikowski | Sella Oneko
December 6, 2018

South African lawmakers have agreed to amend the law, making way for land expropriation without compensation. Most of the land is still in the hands of the white minority, traditional leaders and South Africa's elite.

Landscape picture showing sheep against a backdrop of mountains in South Africa
Image: DW

South Africa's National Assembly has given the green light to change the constitution on the issue of land distribution, making way for land expropriation without compensation for the previous owners. The lawmakers agreed to establish a committee of 25 people, representing all parliamentary parties, to flesh out  and introduce a new bill on land reform.

The lawmakers also set a date at the end of March 2019 for the committee to present its first report to parliament. 

After taking over from former president Jacob Zuma in early 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed to speed up reforms ahead of the general elections in 2019. Ramaphosa has repeatedly assured South Africans and the international community that the country won't face a repeat of the land evictions witnessed in neighboring Zimbabwe in the early 2000s. 

More than 20 years after the end of apartheid, race and land ownership in South Africa remain sensitive issues. More than 70 percent of agricultural land is still owned by the white minority, compared to four percent in the hands of black farmers. 

Read more: South Africa is more unequal than ever, 20 years after post-apartheid TRC

A view of the Johannesburg skyline
Experts say South Africa's urban areas require more attention than rural areasImage: Imago

Urban areas and social justice

According to President Ramaphosa, land which has not yet been used should be given precedence for expropriation. The greatest need, however, is not for agricultural land but for urban areas on the outskirts of major cities. "Many more people are moving to the cities to find work, but they cannot afford housing there and the government realizes that the plight of these people and the slums has been growing for years," Anton van Dalsen from the Helen Suzman Foundation in South Africa told DW.

The unemployment rate is currently between 25 and 40 percent. Van Dalsen thinks the question of land is not just about correcting the historical injustice of the expropriation of black South Africans. "Land reform is necessary in order to reduce social inequality," he said.

Read more: Namibia: Who owns the land?

Over the past 20 years, hardly any progress has been made on the issue — partly because the government set aside only 0.3 percent of its budget for land reform purposes.

"Corruption and the lack of political will have delayed real land reform," said van Dalsen. He believes the main problem in the current land reform debate is the lack of clarity. The government still has to decide which land will be targeted, who will benefit, what kind of help will be available after resettlement and what kind of legal rights those who already live there have.

Land reform for electoral votes

With the upcoming elections, Ramaphosa is positioning himself against the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, who are demanding the radical expropriation of white farmers.

"Although the middle classes and the private sector were very alarmed to begin with, they've begun to calm down and feel less panicked, less anxious and they've been convinced that there's a process underway," said Ben Cousins, an expert on land, poverty and agricultural studies at the University of the Western Cape. "You can see this in the response of the white farmers — most of them are not saying this is the end of the world, they're saying that [they] need to be part of the land reform, [they] need to be seen to be helping it and build a social compact."

Read more: South Africa rejects Donald Trump's farm 'seizure' claims

Traditional rulers

Aside from the largely white landowners, traditional leaders also have a stake in the land discussion. In the province of KwaZulu-Natal, King Goodwill Zwelithini and other traditional leaders had in the past made it clear to the South African government that their land was not up for redistribution. The traditional leaders control about 13 percent of South African land.

In an attempt to stop his land being labelled "unused," Zwelithini called on white farmers for help to transform the land of his ancestors into farmland.

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