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South Africa proceeding with land seizure laws

August 1, 2018

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced plans to change the country's constitution so farmlands can be seized without compensation. White farmers still own far more land than the black majority.

Cyril Ramaphosa gestures during a media address in April 2018
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Safodien

The ruling party in South Africa, African National Congress (ANC), will submit a proposal to amend the country's constitution to help push through its land reform, the country's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, told the nation on Tuesday.

The controversial reform would allow the government to take land from white farmers without paying for it.

"It has become patently clear that our people want the constitution to be more explicit about expropriation of land without compensation," Ramaphosa said in a televised address.

Read more: South Africa's land reform - a never-ending story

"The ANC will, through the parliamentary process, finalize a proposed amendment to the constitution that outlines more clearly the conditions under which expropriation of land without compensation can be effected," he added.

Farmers brace, activists push as land hearings begin in South Africa

No 'land invasion'

Almost one-third of the arable land in South Africa is privately owned, and white farmers own 72 percent of it, compared to only 4 percent from the majority black population. The discrepancy stems from the apartheid era, which ended in 1994.

Last year, South Africa's then-president, Jacob Zuma, publically endorsed the idea of seizing land, previously floated by the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party. Zuma said that the reform would be conducted "within the law, within the constitution" but only where is "necessary and unavoidable."

Zuma's successor Ramaphosa reportedly opposed the idea at first, but changed course as the country's election, set for next year, loomed closer. Still, he sought to temper fears of a state-sanctioned land grab, saying that the state would focus on parcels that are not being used.

"We will not allow land invasion because it is illegal," he said in March.

EFF needed to vote for reform

Also, the parliament has set up a committee to determine whether the measure warrants a constitutional change, which is due to present its findings by the end of August.

During his Tuesday address, Ramaphosa said the reform would "unlock economic growth by bringing more land in South Africa to full use" and let millions more contribute to the nation's economy.

The ANC does not have enough lawmakers in the parliament to amend the constitution on its own, but support from the EFF would allow it to pass the two-thirds threshold.

Lessons from Zimbabwe

Many observers are drawing parallels between the ANC's plans and similar reforms in neighboring Zimbabwe in 2000. The land seizure, championed by Robert Mugabe, triggered a mass exodus of white farmers and effectively collapsed coffee and milk production in the impoverished country. Experts believe the reform caused around $20 billion (€17.1 billion) in expenses to the Zimbabwean tax payers and economy, and the country's government eventually decided it would retroactively reimburse the farmers.

Read more: Will Zimbabwe's economic downfall be repeated in South Africa?

However, the ANC has pledged to consider the consequences of its plans and conduct its reform in a way that would bring about economic growth.

Earlier this year, the Australian government signaled it was willing to open its doors to South African farmers if they decide to emigrate from the country.

dj/aw (AFP, Reuters)