Land Expropriation in South Africa. Is it justified? What are the implications?

Land Expropriation in South Africa. Is it justified? What are the implications?

By Prince Kurupati*

On 10 May 1994, Nelson Mandela gave his first speech as the first Black President of the Republic of South Africa. In the speech, President Mandela stressed much on the birth of Africa’s ‘rainbow nation’, a nation where people from every race were welcome. This was the birth of South Africa, however, 28 years down the line, the concept of ‘rainbow nation’ is on the brink of collapse due to the age-old Land Question.

Land Question at Independence

Like any other African country at independence, the Land Question was the main focus. The white minority government and the African National Congress (ANC) had since 1990 started negotiations on the Land Question. The negotiations had its ups and downs but by 1994, the two had reached an agreement, the ANC which was to lead government business was to implement the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The RDP was meant at transferring “ownership of agricultural land in white commercial areas to poor black South Africans.” Running for a five year period, the RDP program came to a close in 1999 having managed to transfer less than one percent of the agricultural land. The program was labelled a failure and the government immediately drafted a new plan of action.

Having realised some of the shortcomings of the RDP program, the ANC led government in 2001 started implementing the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) policy. Rather than focusing on simply seeking to redistribute agricultural land, LRAD sought to establish a ‘class of back commercial farmers.’ The LRAD though with subsequent amendments and revisions is the policy framework still guiding the Land Question in South Africa, well, at least in the meantime before the drafting of the Land Expropriation bill.

Land Expropriation. What is it really?

Marking a U-turn to the LRAD, the South African parliament on 27 February by a majority of 241 votes for and 83 against voted to, “review section 25 of the South African Constitution with the view to amending the constitution to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation as tabled by the Economic Freedom Fighters.” Before explaining further on this, one needs to understand the context in which the EFF moved the motion for the expropriation of land without compensation. The EFF was guided by the need ‘to redress colonial imbalances’ meaning the land to be expropriated is primarily the land held by ‘white’ commercial farmers in South Africa.

The Zimbabwean comparison

The journey laid out and set to be undertaken by the government of South Africa is in many ways similar to the same journey taken by the Zimbabwean government at the turn of the millennium. Zimbabwe in 2000 enacted the Land Reform Bill which set out to retake indigenous land that had been taken by the white man without compensation. The Land Reform policy which came about as a result of the Land Reform Bill as was to be seen was nothing but bloody and violent land grabs that saw many white and blacks (farm workers) injured, impoverished and on some occasions dead. The whole Land Reform program proved to be Zimbabwe’s downfall, the economy collapsed, and social fabric of society destroyed as youths became resorted to crime and drugs due to unemployment while the political landscape became tense and violent.

18 years after the start of the Land Reform program in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwean government led by the country’s second President, Emmerson Mnangagwa acknowledged the failure of the program and introduced a commission tasked with inviting back and compensating former white farmers chased out. With estimated compensation costs amounting to $11 billion, the broke Zimbabwean government will have to bear the costs of ill-conceived policies.

Taking the same route that its neighbour is now backtracking on, South Africa is a classic case of a bad copycat.

Key Questions

With the path already set, it’s absurd at this point in time to think that a reversal is on the cards. As such, let’s explore two of the most pertinent questions not currently covered by the South African constitution that pose a serious threat to current landowners and the state itself.

Farm Operations

Agricultural experts state that the land (farmland in South Africa) accounts for just 10 percent of the total value of the farm itself. The rest i.e. assets on the farm and improvements done on the land account for 90 percent of the value of the land. From the motion on expropriation of and without compensation tabled and approved by the South African parliament, there are no references as to what will become of farm assets. Will the farmers be allowed to take along farm machinery and equipment? If not, then will they receive compensation for that or the assets will be taken also without compensation. If allowed to take their assets, what becomes of the immovable assets? Traditionally, land maybe for the blacks but whites did not forcibly take the land together with the assets, how the government deal with this challenge will go a long way in maintaining its stature in the international community.

Indebted land

In addition to the above, there is also a question of indebted land. The Land and Agricultural Development Bank of South Africa postulates that banks in the country are owed close to $13.7 billion by farmers who secure loans using title deeds. By forcibly taking away the land, who will foot this debt, the farmers won’t be able to service their debt as their source of livelihoods would be taken. The state would have to raise massive amounts of money and the only way this is possible is via massive tax increases. Will the majority allow tax increases to bail out the state on something many won’t be part of (being real, not many black persons in South Africa will get the land)? As such, the debt can’t be left to become a bad debt as this will have huge repercussions on the banking industry as well as the economy.

White Response

Feeling the danger coming their way, white commercial farmers have already started seeking recourse. The most vocal voice thus far has been the Freedom Front Plus which launched the ‘Fight Back South Africa’ initiative to stop land expropriation without compensation. The leader of the Freedom Front Plus, Pieter Groenewald using the ‘Fight Back South Africa’ initiative said he has a six-point action plan that will see his party (1) launch information sessions (2) engaging President Ramaphosa (3) launching an online petition (4) embarking on protest action (5) meeting with international bodies (6) launching a trust to fund legal action against land expropriation without compensation.

Land Expropriation vs International Law

The path soon to be taken by South Africa will not only put it at loggerheads with white commercial farmers but it will also challenge the international bodies and international treaties the country is part of. For starters, article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” Land expropriation without compensation clearly contravenes this article. With other bodies and treaties such as the International Trade Law also stressing the importance of property ownership and arguing against seizing of property, the path taken by South Africa is likely to isolate the country, a thing to avoid as seen in the case of Zimbabwe.

Redressing historical imbalances vs Vote buying

Though the motion of expropriation of land without compensation was tabled by the EFF in parliament, the ANC was already in a similar journey as expropriation of land without compensation was discussed and passed as a resolution by the Congress in December 2017. At the December Congress, land expropriation had been introduced as a populist policy and measure meant at garnering votes for one of the competing presidential candidates. As such, it was a matter of expediency by the EFF to table it in parliament during the first days of Ramaphosa as South Africa president.

While delivering the motion, EFF argued it was doing so with regards to redressing historical imbalances. However, the mere fact it was a race between the ANC and the EFF to be the first to move the motion suggests there was another motive and possibly the bigger motive than the one cited and that is, to gain more votes among the rural and urban poor black South Africans.

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