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South Africa’s ANC mulls land reforms, rejects occupation

Sella Oneko
May 21, 2018

South Africa has a land problem. For years the ANC has been criticized over its failure to redistribute land after apartheid and recently land occupation is rife. President Ramaphosa is now under pressure to fix this.

Cyril Ramaphosa
Image: Reuters/M. Hutchings

"This is our historic task,” South Africa's president Cyril Ramaphosa told members of the African National Congress, at the ruling party's first major land summit. This is why the ANC was formed, he continued. "Land, agrarian reform, is the issue, that can be low-hanging fruit, but that can also begin to change the fortunes of our people to improve their lives and inject growth in our economy.”

Since Ramaphosa took over the ANC leadership and the presidency, land reform has been a main focus area for the ANC. Partly, perhaps because the 2019 general election is just around the corner, but also because of political and public pressure.

It is almost a year since Ramaphosa's predecessor, Jacob Zuma, first mentioned the possibility of land being expropriated without compensation, sparking public debate on white-owned land in particular. 

In the past few months, several areas in South Africa, including the financial capital Johannesburg have seen the occupation of mainly unused land. The left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party has claimed to be behind the occupations.

Indeed the EFF has long demanded the expropriation of land — particularly from white South Africans who still own 72 percent of the private land. A year ago the EFF sought a change to the constitution which would allow land expropriation to occur without compensation. In February 2018, parliament decided to establish a committee to look into a change in the law. Aside from land expropriation, the EFF would like to see all land to be transferred to the state, which could use and redistribute the land as it sees fit. 

South Africa's main opposition group, the Democratic Alliance (DA) on the other hand has warned that expropriations could lead to a decline in foreign investment in South Africa and would hurt poor people the most.

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

Südafrika brachliegendes Land in Olievenhoutbosch
A mother demarcates vacant land in Gauteng ProvinceImage: Reuters/S. Sibeko

Not just taking land away

What the ANC's land summit has, however, shown is that the land issue is more complex than simply taking land away and that the ANC is aware of that.

The summit emphasized that the ANC plans to push ahead the constitutional reforms, to allow for land expropriation without compensation. It mentioned the importance of clarifying which land would be affected by this. It also discussed the redistribution of unused land and buildings.

While the summit seemed to end in agreement, the debate wasn't without controversy. The lawyer, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, who made a name for himself while representing the EFF in past legal cases, cautioned the ANC to make sure that the redistributed land should actually benefit the poor and women in particular. Kgalema Motlanthe, who served as South Africa's president when Thabo Mbeki stepped down in 2008, criticized local ANC government and traditional authorities for abuse of power in their handling of land issues.

Local approaches

While national reform discussions are underway, some provinces have taken their own steps to deal with the land issues. Earlier this month, the government of Gauteng Province announced that it had plans to give unused state-owned land to people in need of it. Through this model, authorities said, people who would otherwise turn to illegal squatting could build houses and eventually acquire title deeds with the support of the provincial government.

In August, a parliamentary committee is expected to submit its report on a possible constitutional amendment to allow for expropriations without compensation.

Aarni Kuoppamäki contributed to this report.