quicktake

Why Land Seizure Is Back in News in South Africa

Aerial view of the city skyline in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Photographer: Dean Hutton/Bloomberg

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. The ruling African National Congress has vowed to step up wealth distribution and promised “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. A government land audit released in February showed that farms and agricultural holdings comprise 97 percent of the 121.9 million hectares of the nation’s area, and that whites own 72 percent of the 37 million hectares held by individuals. This tallies with the results of a separate audit released Nov. 1 by Agri Development Solutions and farm lobby group AGRI SA, which found non-whites own 27 percent of the nation’s farmland compared with 14 percent in 1994.

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 former Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti. Those who didn’t want the land allocated to them opted for money instead, with 11.6 billion rand ($910 million) paid out from 1994 until January 2017. 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 had proposed legislation that would allow the government to pay “just and equitable” compensation -- meaning, less than market prices -- for land it expropriates. Former President Jacob Zuma sent the bill back to lawmakers, saying it wouldn’t pass constitutional muster. Another bill, offered for public comment in March 2017 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. On Dec. 20, the ANC, under newly elected party president Cyril Ramaphosa, said expropriating land without compensation should be among mechanisms to effect land reform, as long as it doesn’t undermine the economy, agricultural production and food security.

4. What is the party’s plan?

On Feb. 27, lawmakers agreed to the principle of land expropriation without compensation, and parliament’s Constitutional Review Committee will report back to lawmakers on changes to section 25 of the Constitution by Aug. 30. The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party proposed a motion to allow land seizures to the legislature, while the ANC proposed amendments. Zuma has also called for a precolonial audit of land ownership, use and occupation patterns.

5. Is taking land without compensation legal?

Not at the moment. 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.

6. Why is the ANC doing this now?

The party was initially reticent to allow expropriation without paying. Under Zuma, it came under pressure as economic growth stagnated, and there were 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. He left as the nation’s president in February and was replaced by Ramaphosa. The ANC lost voters in 2016 local elections to parties including the EFF, and Zuma’s reputation eroded the party’s standing to such an extent that it was at risk of losing its majority in 2019 elections. The party needs policies that will gain traction among the nation’s poor, who make up the majority of the electorate.

7. 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 .

The Reference Shelf

  • ANC statement on adopting expropriation without compensation
  • 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 2017 land audit, released in February 2018, and its 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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