By Ranga Mataire
Ahead of elections next year, many anticipated the land reform programme to dominate political discourses in South Africa, a country sharply divided by past historical injustices.
Not that the governing ANC party lacks sincerity. Far from it, the ANC government’s new verve in implementing an equitable land system is informed by recurrent recommendations from its annual national conferences.
The latest of such conferences is the one held last year at Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg from 16-21 December which resoled that “the ANC should, as a matter of policy, pursue expropriation of land without compensation”.
Cognisant of the emotive nature of the land issue, the Nasrec conference further emphasised that expropriation of land “should be pursued without destabilising the agricultural sector, without endangering food security in our country and without undermining economic growth and job creation”.
The Nascrec conference was to be followed by another summit convened by the ANC National Executive Committee on May 21, 2018 specifically to focus on the 54th national conference resolution on land redistribution, and in particular expropriation without compensation as a primary instrument to speed up land and agrarian reform.
The summit, which was also attended by representatives from COSATU, South African Communist Party (SACP), the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO), non-governmental organisations, black farmers associations, lawyers, valuators and other professionals working in the sector further reinforced the need to speed up the land redistribution exercise.
It called for, among other recommendations, the immediate use of section 25 of the Constitution to press ahead with expropriation of land in order to test the argument that the constitution does permit expropriation without compensation in certain circumstances; immediate passing of the Expropriation Bill and Land Redistribution Bill to bring greater clarity to the transformative intent and impact of the Constitution and ensure that the Constitutional review process is used to avoid ambiguity and bring greater clarity to Section 24 (2)(B) of the Constitution, if it is found that the current legal formulations impede or slow down effective land redistribution.
In essence, as guided by the ANC’s 54th conference resolution on land redistribution, the subsequent national executive committee summit was a call to action and to decisively break with the historical injustices of colonial, apartheid and patriarchal patterns of land ownership and to build a South Africa that belongs to all.
This is the context within which President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new found verve on land redistribution must be understood. The land issue has been a long standing residual mandate that the ANC government needed to deliver. It is an issue that is informed by the failure of the willing-buyer, willing-seller policy which the ANC government has been pursuing since the country gained freedom.
While some pseudo-analysts might be forgiven for always drawing negative parallels with Zimbabwe’s own land reform programme, the truth is that South Africa’s land situation is much more complex than in Zimbabwe.
The land ownership in South Africa is a mix of state, private and communal land ownership that present challenges for redistribution, urban development and agrarian reform. For its part, the South African government has tried to make the discussion on land reform open and transparent since it began 24 years ago.
It has reached a crescendo this year mainly because of a myriad of challenges that still persists in black communities still reeling under the debilitating effects of poverty. Much of the economic inequalities that persists in South Africa have more to do with apartheid, a policy of governance that sanctioned racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-whites.
It is thus bewildering that in 2018, a whole president of the most powerful country on earth, United States’ Donald Trump, displays crass ignorance about the historical land imbalances in South Africa.
In a tweet that echoed white supremacist propaganda about SA’s land reform agenda, Trump sparked outrage last week when he announced that he has asked his Secretary of State to study farm seizures and the "large scale killing of white farmers" in SA.
So shocking was the tweet that President Ramaphosa was forced to rebut it within hours in a forceful message that literally made Trump look like a buffoon from Mars.
Borrowing from Zimbabwe’s ex-president Robert Mugabe’s famous speech of 2002 speech at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, Ramaphosa told Trump to “keep his America” while he takes care of SA.
Ramaphosa made it clear that SA is an unequal society and that the distribution of land is at the centre of that inequality, along with education, income, jobs and skills.
Ramaphosa feels compelled to address this inequality resulting from land dispossession during the colonial and apartheid eras. It is shocking that Trump conveniently chose to ignore the glaring historical injustices of apartheid and formed an opinion based on a report from a right wing television station, Fox News.
If he had bothered to research a bit, Trump would have realised that far from being targeted in mass killings, crime in SA is generally high and criminals normally target the haves and not the have-nots.
Trump would also have come to the realisation that inequality on land distribution in SA is rooted in the 1913 Natives Land Act that reserved almost 93 percent of the land for the white minority. It is this act that made it “lawful” to completely dispossess black people of their land.
Attempts by the 1936 Native Trust and Land Act to slightly reduce the share to 87 percent did not alter the vast inequalities in land ownership.
What Trump and Afriforum need to know is that the ANC government did not just wake up one sunny day and start agitating for equitable land reform. The current Constitution that gave birth to SA’s freedom clearly states that land should be given back to the people and communities dispossessed during the colonial and apartheid eras.
Section 25 of the Constitution as highlighted by the ANC executive committee on May 21, 2018 stipulates that there should be just and equitable compensation for expropriated land. It is this section that inspired the “willing-seller, willing-buyer” policy. However, progress remained slow because property owners refused to sell and in some cases the prices were exorbitant. The slow pace led a lot of people to re-think about the efficacy of the policy in light of the crisis of expectations from thousands of black people.
Realising the limitations of the “willing-seller, willing-buyer” policy, the then government of President Jacob Zuma passed a bill in 2016 to enable the government to pay at adjudicator value and expropriate land for the public interest. It is that bill that has culminated in the ANC national conference of 2017 adopting a resolution to redistribute land without compensation, which was backed by parliament for inclusion in the constitution in 2018 and followed by public hearings on amending Section 25 of the constitution.
It is also important for Trump and his ilk to appreciate the fact that whites, who make up 8.2 percent of the population, own almost all the commercial farm land in South Africa while 80.2 percent blacks own just 4 percent of the land.
Several studies attest of the need for an equitable land distribution in SA for the sustenance of peace and stability. A recent study by the World Bank titled “Overcoming the legacy of exclusion in South Africa” advocates for a well-managed system of land distribution as being critical in redressing the country’s economic inequality.
The study attributes inequality to the limited titling of property, limited access to finance, weak property rights, limited land valorisation, and lack of sustainable investment among other factors.
According to Ramaphosa, his government intends to reform its land policy with the hope of boosting productive land use among the poor in order to curb rising poverty levels in the country.
South Africa has the highest levels of inequality in the world with a particularly high level of unemployment, about 26.7 percent in the last quarter of 2017 and about 50 percent among youths.
Equitable land reform programme will therefore go a long way in boosting overall productive use of land and might also work in reversing the high unemployment, extreme poverty, and inequality faced in South Africa, including in rural areas which host about 35 percent of the population.
What’s next for South Africa?
South Africa is on the right track as it is strongly supported by a constitution widely regarded as progressive and which Ramaphosa was involved in its crafting during independence negotiations. The aspersions cast by Trump to the effect that land reform in South Africa is disorderly and unlawful is misleading. The ANC government intends to propose a constitutional amendment that would make it clear the conditions under which land could justifiably be expropriated without compensation, which include unused land, informal settlements and abandoned inner-city buildings.
Trump and his assorted white supremacists must desist from issuing distorted assertions that have the effect of stocking volatile racial relations. Ramaphosa has never advocated for the violent occupation of white-owned farms but has made land redistribution his government’s priority because the continued disparities have become morally and political untenable.
There seems to be no other way out for Ramaphosa. The land redistribution exercise, just like in Namibia, is long overdue if the countries are to ensure stability and economic inclusiveness of the previously marginalised indigenes.