South African land reform has been a concern even after the end of apartheid, with President Donald Trump’s recent tweet asking his Secretary of State to ‘closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriation and large-scale killing of farmers’ placing the issue on the front of the world stage.
South Africa is regarded as having one of the largest levels of inequality in the world in terms of land ownership that falls along racial lines. In South Africa today, 72% of land is owned by white people, which is down from 85% when the apartheid ended in 1994. Due to this, reforming has been an important issue, with the government wanting to expropriate land for the purpose of equality.
In the South Africa Property clause, Section 25 allows land to be expropriated, only where land reform is considered ‘a public purpose or in the public interest’, but the government must provide compensation, stating:
Subject to compensation, the amount of which and the time and manner of payment of which have either been agreed to by those affected or decided or approved by a court. The amount of the compensation and the time and manner of payment must be just and equitable, reflecting an equitable balance between the public interest and the interests of those affected.
The policy since 1996 has been ‘willing buyer, willing seller’, as described in South Africa’s constitution, meaning the government offers the landowners a price to sell, which is either accepted or rejected. While this policy was aimed to restore land that some South Africans believed were unjustly taken in the past, many critics say that this policy allows farmers sell their land at market value, making the progress for reform slow.
Even though a poll taken last year by South Africa’s Institute of Race Relations found that 1% of black South Africans saw ‘speeding up land reform’ as a priority, with 35% opting for ‘Creating more jobs’ instead, the South African Parliament voted to have a constitutional change in relation to land reform. Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Party (EFF), introduced a new motion in February revising Section 25, opting for ‘expropriation without compensation’ instead. When presenting the motion, Malema stated to parliament:
The time for reconciliation is over. Now is the time for justice. We must ensure that we restore the dignity of our people without compensation the criminals who stole our land. All of us must come together and say ‘enough is enough, our people must get the land’.
This new motion was supported by President Cyril Ramaphosa, leader of the African National Congress (ANC). With the ANC being the ruling party, the motion passed with 241 in favour versus 83 against. The official opposition party, Democratic Alliance (DA), voted against, stating this amendment would ‘undermine property rights while scaring off potential investors’. Other opposition parties such as Congress of the People (COPE) and Freedom Front Plus (FF+) also opposed the motion. The constitutional review committee is currently reviewing the proposed amendment.
In addition to land reform, the issue of attacks on farmers has concerned many people on the opposition side, with some claiming that these attacks are racial motivated, potentially sparked by controversial comments made by Malema in the past about ‘not calling for the slaughter of white people, at least for now’. However, it should be noted, attacks on farmers have become a common occurrence in South Africa for decades. A study by AgriSa, an association of South African agricultural producers, showed a 20 year low of murders of farmers with 47 killings between 2017-18, compared to 153 in 1998.
Critics of the motion have pointed towards the similarities with Zimbabwe, where they sanctioned the purge of white African farmers and seizure of their land, which was blamed for the economic collapse of the country. The ANC has responded saying no seizure is happening and the proposed amendment isn’t an assault on private ownership, but claims it will ensure the rights of all South Africans.
While the media’s main focus is on whether land should be expropriated without compensation, if the constitutional amendment goes ahead, the question of who should own this expropriated land could ultimately be what affects the future economic and racial relations in the country.