Why Land Seizure Is Back in News in South Africa: QuickTake Q&A

QuickTake: South Africa's Economic, Political Strife

More than two decades after white-minority rule ended in South Africa, most of its profitable farms and estates are still owned by white people, and about 95 percent of the country’s wealth is in the hands of 10 percent of the population. President Jacob Zuma, in his final year as head of the ruling African National Congress, is vowing to step up wealth distribution and promising “radical economic transformation,” including constitutional changes to allow the government to expropriate land without paying for it.

1. Why is land ownership an issue?

Under the rule of European colonists, South Africa’s Natives Land Act of 1913 stripped most black people of their right to own property, a policy reinforced decades later by the National Party and its system of apartheid, or apartness. By 2010, records of who owned what in the country were “uncoordinated, inadequate or incomplete,” according to Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti, prompting the government to embark on a land audit that it released in 2013. Though the audit offered some insight into land ownership -- it showed that 14 percent of land belonged to the state, versus 79 percent by private individuals, companies and trusts -- it didn’t break this down by race.

2. What’s been done until now?

Since 1994, when the ANC became the nation’s dominant post-apartheid party, the state has bought 4.9 million hectares -- about 4 percent of the country’s total territory -- for land redistribution, with about 3.4 million hectares assigned to new owners, according to Nkwinti. Those who didn’t want the land allocated to them opted for money instead, with 11.6 billion rand ($848 million) paid out from 1994 until January. A separate initiative known as the 50-50 program, meant to encourage joint black-white land management, uses government funds to buy half a farmer’s land and give it to laborers working there. It started in 2016.

3. What changes are on the table?

Parliament proposed legislation that would allow the government to pay “just and equitable” compensation -- meaning, less than market prices -- for land it expropriates. Zuma sent the bill back to lawmakers, saying it wouldn’t pass constitutional muster. Another bill, offered for public comment in March by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, would ban foreigners from buying agricultural land and require them instead to enter into long-term leases. It also calls for creating a commission that will set up a register of land ownership that will include race and the size of the holding.

4. What is Zuma’s plan?

He’s urging parliament to change South Africa’s constitution to allow taking land without any compensation. He’s also called for a precolonial audit of land ownership, use and occupation patterns.

5. Is taking land without compensation legal?

AGRI SA, the biggest organization representing the country’s farmers, says the constitution doesn’t provide for expropriation without "just and equitable" compensation. Deprivation of property without compensation “constitutes a very serious breach of an individual’s rights," it said. Zuma hasn’t explained why, if he believed paying below-market prices for land might be unconstitutional, he now thinks paying nothing for land might be OK.

6. Who’s with Zuma on this?

Not his party. Within days of Zuma’s proposal, the ANC released a discussion paper saying the state should pay fair compensation for any land it acquires to address racial inequality. An opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, tried in March to get parliament to change the constitution to permit taking land without paying. The ANC voted against the motion, which was defeated.

7. So why is Zuma moving forward?

He’s due to step down as leader of the ANC in December, and as the nation’s president in 2019, and he’s come under pressure as economic growth stagnates. There have been calls for his resignation from the opposition, civic leaders and senior officials in his own party, following a series of scandals and an unpopular cabinet reshuffle. The ANC lost voters in 2016 local elections to parties including the EFF. Lindiwe Zulu, a minister in Zuma’s cabinet, said in an interview that Zuma decided “enough is enough” and that the country’s laws are hindering the transformation of the economy.

8. What’s the outlook in parliament?

Two-thirds of lawmakers would have to assent to change the constitution. The ANC holds 62 percent of the seats. The EFF, South Africa’s third-biggest political party, has 6.4 percent and has said it would back the ruling party on the constitutional amendment.

The Reference Shelf

  • A QuickTake explainer on South Africans losing faith in Zuma.
  • How Zuma and his deputy differ on "radical economic transformation."
  • A possible wealth tax is also being considered as a way to improve the standard of living of black South Africans.
  • AGRI SA’s take on the constitutionality of expropriation without compensation.
  • The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s 2013 land audit.
  • The University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies overview of the distribution of land.
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