President Donald Trump’s recent tweet about “farm seizures” and the “large scale killing” of white farmers in South Africa has momentarily directed global attention toward debates about land reform in South Africa. Trump’s tweet—inspired by an inflammatory segment on Fox News—grossly misrepresents a long-standing, complex debate and is just one example of the falsifications and misconceptions that surround the issue. In reality, no farm seizures are taking place, and the murder rate of white farmers (always much lower than that of black South Africans) is at its lowest point in 20 years. 

No farm seizures are taking place, and the murder rate of white farmers (always much lower than that of black South Africans) is at its lowest point in 20 years.

Trump’s misleading tweet aside, land reform in fact has recently resurfaced as a contentious political issue in South Africa. The reason for this is the proposal by the African National Congress (ANC) to amend the constitution in order to clarify that, in some cases, it can be legal to expropriate land without compensating landowners. This proposal must be examined in the context of a 24-year-long conversation in South African society about how to reverse racial imbalances in landownership that have resulted from half a century of apartheid and persist in the face of ineffective reforms in the post-apartheid era. 

The Land Question

In the wake of the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, the ANC, under the leadership of former President Nelson Mandela, announced an ambitious program of land reform. It comprises land restitution (to restore land to those who lost it as a result of discriminatory laws from 1913 onward); land redistribution (to create a more equitable pattern of ownership); and tenure reform (to secure the land rights of black South Africans). Progress has been extremely slow, and South Africans now widely recognize that the program failed to achieve most of its objectives. Several factors are to blame, including lack of sufficient political will, a small budget, weak state capacity, and corruption.

In February 2018, the South African Parliament adopted a motion to explore whether a constitutional amendment is in fact required to legalize expropriation without compensation if certain criteria are met. It established a constitutional review committee that has convened hearings for members of the public around the country. Citizens have made hundreds of thousands of written submissions weighing in on whether the constitution needs to be changed, and next month the committee will report its findings to Parliament.

The notion of expropriating land without compensation and then redistributing it to black South Africans has generated panic among property owners, whites in particular. AfriForum, an advocacy group that claims to speak for Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans, has portrayed this as the beginning of large-scale land grabs and white genocide. Its representatives have even toured the United States soliciting support from right-wing groups in its campaign against expropriation. These efforts were without a doubt behind the Fox News story on land reform that inspired Trump’s tweet. 

The ruling ANC, however, has repeatedly emphasized that land reform will not involve land grabs. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who replaced the discredited former President Jacob Zuma at the beginning of 2018, has stated that land reform must support a growing agricultural economy and not endanger national food security. At the same time, it must address the “original sin” of land dispossession in a much more effective manner than government programs have to date. Existing programs have overseen the transfer of around nine percent of commercial farmland to black South Africans in 24 years, falling short of the interim target of 30 percent by 2014. Black South Africans suffered large-scale dispossession over centuries at the hands of the privileged white minority. At least 3.5 million people were forcibly removed from their land between 1948 and 1990. Given the historical context of colonization and apartheid in South Africa, it is easy to understand why there is wide support for Ramaphosa’s position.

Black South Africans suffered large-scale dispossession over centuries at the hands of the privileged white minority.

The most powerful union representing white farmers, Agri SA, does not support AfriForum’s view that the ANC’s renewed commitment to land reform and the use of expropriation to acquire land for redistribution are the thin edge of the wedge. It opposes amending the constitution but is offering its support to the government in efforts to make land reform more effective. Financial institutions, such as South Africa’s four leading banks, have adopted a similar view.

Where does the notion of expropriation without compensation come from? The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a small but radical opposition party led by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, has made the land question central to its political manifesto since it emerged in 2013. Its calls for “taking back the stolen land” have resonated strongly with young black South Africans, for whom unemployment stands at around 55 percent. 

In reality, the most urgent demands are not for farmland but for land in urban areas, where economic opportunities are more plentiful. Since the 1980s, black South Africans have been establishing informal shack settlements on vacant plots of land on the periphery of South Africa’s towns and cities. The slow pace of the government’s housing program has forced these newly urbanized groups to take matters into their own hands. The government has constructed over three million houses since the transition to democracy in 1994, but the backlog remains very large—it still needs to build around two million houses. 

People erect a shack during illegal land occupations, in Mitchell's Plain township near Cape Town, South Africa, May 29, 2018.
People erect a shack during illegal land occupations, in Mitchell's Plain township near Cape Town, South Africa, May 29, 2018. 
Mike Hutchings / REUTERS

The notion that expropriation without compensation is legal in certain circumstances is actually already embedded in the negotiated constitution of 1996, which many South Africans regard as a mandate for social transformation. It seeks to promote a range of socioeconomic rights, including the right to restitution of land from which people were deprived through discriminatory laws and practices; the right to security of tenure; and the right of “equitable access” to land and natural resources.

The constitution also states clearly that people cannot be deprived of property rights in an arbitrary manner. It makes provisions for expropriation of property that is in the public interest, which includes development projects and land reform, as well as for public purposes, such as building schools and roads. Compensation must be “just and equitable,” taking into account a range of factors, such as the degree to which the apartheid state subsidized white landowners, the current use of such land, and the purpose of the expropriation.

Constitutional lawyers such as Tembeka Ngcukaitobi convincingly argue that in some instances, “just and equitable” compensation will mean no compensation. Policymakers are considering several possible cases of this, including land on which informal settlements have been long established; land within private farms that labor tenants occupy and use; and abandoned buildings in city centers. It should be noted that all of these situations involve relatively small amounts of land.

If the constitution already allows for such expropriation, why amend it? The answer to this question lies in the political football game being played between a faltering ANC, racked by corruption scandals as a result of “state capture” (the use of public funds for private enrichment) in the Zuma years, and the red-shirted EFF. The EFF is hoping to gain votes from the ANC by highlighting the unresolved land question and has proposed both expropriation without compensation and nationalization of land.

The ANC has been faltering and on several occasions has come close to kicking the ball into its own net. The EFF scored once already by securing the parliamentary motion in February and is pushing forward hard. The ANC is desperately seeking to regain the initiative—hence its recent decision to support a constitutional amendment. But it will likely propose a minor amendment, more a clarification than a sweeping measure that opens the floodgates to large-scale land seizures, as opponents of the proposal are alleging. 

Reversing the Legacy of Apartheid

Trump’s tweet is ultimately a distraction from the much more important takeaway of recent attention to the land reform debates: a focused discussion on how to implement effective land reform, which will help reduce poverty and support job creation, is beginning in South Africa. For one, the government is taking care to avoid the mistakes of past land reform policy failures. Right now, the main obstacles to successful land reform in South Africa are the continuing factional politics within the ANC, which may hamstring Ramaphosa, and the immense challenges involved in rebuilding the broken-down state apparatus. The fearmongering of conservative whites and their allies in the United States is not helping, either, and may discourage elements of the private sector from investing in the South African economy.

Above all, the “land question” in South Africa is a powerful symbol of the failures of post-apartheid democracy to adequately address the structural roots of poverty and racialized inequality. Unemployment is at around 35 percent (if discouraged job seekers are included). The Gini coefficient for income inequality is around 0.7; for wealth it is over 0.9. These numbers are extraordinarily high and are key to understanding the wider resonance of the land debate.

The post-apartheid settlement, achieved through hard bargaining in the early 1990s, is suffering a crisis of legitimacy. The question of whether democracy in South Africa can deliver on its promise of “a better life for all” is increasingly urgent. If it is well designed—avowedly pro-poor and focused on smallholder farms—land reform could make a small but significant contribution to reducing poverty and inequality in both rural and urban areas of South Africa. 

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  • BEN COUSINS is DST/NRF Research Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.
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