White People in South Africa Should Stop Panicking About Losing Their Land

Ben Cousins, Newsweek, April 5, 2018

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In March, the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, sent out phone messages stating: “ANC & EFF working together to take all private land and homes. You can only stop this if you’re registered correctly to vote! Check now.”

As a result, white South Africans are panicking that they will lose their land and their homes, and some white commercial farmers believe this is the beginning of Zimbabwe-style ‘land grabs.’ Australia’s minister of home affairs even offered to fast-track visas for white farmers.

In contrast, the motion was supported by many other political parties and has been greeted with approval by large numbers of black people. Given the bitter history of large-scale land dispossession, refusing to pay for stolen land is seen by many black South Africans as essential to restoring their dignity.

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The ANC is clearly attempting to regain political ground lost to the small but vocal opposition party, the EFF. The unresolved land question, and in particular the issue of compensation, has been a key rallying cry for the EFF since it first emerged in 2013. It is sure to make land a central issue in national elections due to take place on 2019.

One effect of the controversy is that land reform is now a key topic of public debate. This presents both dangers and opportunities for South African society, which has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world, and continues to experience deep-seated tensions over race.

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In relation to land, the report provides a comprehensive assessment and devastating critique of post-apartheid land reform, as well as detailed recommendations for its renewal. Draft legislation is included the report, in the form of a national framework law for land reform, a land records act, and amendments to existing laws.

On expropriation, the report states that it is not necessary to amend the constitution—expropriation of property can be carried out in the public interest, which includes land reform. Compensation levels must be just and equitable, and market value is only one of several considerations in determining what this means in practice. Some land, for example portions of farms occupied and used by former labour tenants, can probably be expropriated with minimal or no compensation.

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As parliament’s report makes clear, acquiring land for restitution and redistribution is the least of the problems besetting the programme. More important are questions of which beneficiaries are targeted (the poor or emerging business people?), which land is targeted (does it have water for irrigation?) and how to provide effective post-settlement support for production and livelihood systems (in large-scale or small-scale enterprises?).

Parliament’s report also focuses on the weaknesses of land tenure reform. This is meant to secure the rights of those discriminated against in the past, such as farmworkers and residents of communal areas under chiefs. In the commotion over the property rights of the white minority, the continuing insecurity of many black people is often lost sight of.

Government’s abject failure to prevent evictions of farmworkers and dwellers has meant that many more rural people have lost access to land since 1994 than have gained it through land reform. In relation to communal areas, where systems of land rights draw on the norms and values of customary law, government has failed to promulgate protective legislation, despite the Bill of Rights requiring that it does so.

These failures have resulted in the continuing dispossession of black South Africans living in communal areas. Some have lost their land to mining companies, with little or no compensation, as chiefs often enter into crooked deals with mining companies that benefit only themselves and their cronies. The platinum belt is the locus of many of these, and it is here that the EFF has made most of its gains.

Currently, land rights in KwaZulu-Natal are under threat from the Ingonyama Trust, which is converting strong rights under custom into rent-paying leaseholds.

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This means that land reform policy must begin to focus on urban and peri-urban areas. As in rural areas, this should involve not only securing rights, but also enabling economic development. Given the fact that poor South Africans spend around 25 percent of their incomes on transport, the location of low cost housing in areas close to employment or self-employment opportunities is crucial. Supporting the growth of the informal sector is also key.

Are land grabs about to begin?

Will the ANC, together with the EFF, amend the constitution in an attempt to facilitate land grabbing on a large scale? Or will the ruling party, under a new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, begin to address the failings of its land reform programme? Time will tell. In my view, the latter is more likely.

The challenge is to do so in a manner that addresses the political challenges that arise from an unresolved ‘land question,’ but also contributes to poverty reduction.

In the meantime, white South Africans should be offering their energies (and for farmers, some of their land) to help find solutions. This will help secure their future in the country. Whereas attempts to defend their privilege could well lead to the loss of everything they own—an important lesson from Zimbabwe in the early 2000s.

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