South Africa's Land 'Expropriation Bill' in an Era of Rapid Urbanization

South African maize farmer
Farmers on land outside Lichtenburg, a maize-growing area in the North West province, South Africa, on November 26, 2015. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

There is less than meets the eye to the South African parliament's passage at the end of May of a land reform bill, called the "Expropriation Bill." Ostensibly, the new legislation has some similarity to law of eminent domain in the United States. The new legislation would permit the government to take land for a "public purpose," but (as in the United States) South African landowners would be compensated with an amount determined by a new 'valuer general.' The new legislation replaces the "willing buyer, willing seller" principle of land reform.

The parliamentary vote was almost entirely by the governing African National Congress (ANC); the principal opposition parties, including the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters, were not present or walked out.

It is commonly estimated that since the end of apartheid only about 8 to 10 percent of white-owned land has been transferred to blacks. Background to land reform is to be found in Chapter 6 of my recently released book, Morning in South Africa.

The ANC, facing local and provincial elections in August, is increasingly dependent on a rural, black constituency. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is politically allied with the ANC, along with the South African Communist Party (SACP). Accordingly, the COSATU spokesman hailed the new legislation as addressing "the legacies of apartheid and colonialism." He denounced opposition as "hysterical attacks" by those who "clearly miss and are nostalgic for an era, where this country belonged to [a] minority and the majority was treated as second class citizens." Clearly the ANC sees the new legislation as a populist electoral plus.

However, deputy public works minister and longtime SACP activist Jeremy Cronin correctly cautions: "It's very important to not see this framework bill as some kind of silver bullet that's going to solve all problems in regard to land reform."

Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos is quoted in the media as observing that expropriation of property is subject to the South African constitution and fair market prices. He notes that the government is short of funds to buy large amounts of land at market prices. Nor is there much money for the support of small farmers. His bottom line: the bill is unlikely to make much difference.

AgriSA, a commercial farmers union, tells the media that it will monitor the legislation's implementation and "take to court any attempts to expropriate agricultural land without full compensation." The judiciary has repeatedly and successfully affirmed its independence from the ANC administration.

Other commentators see agricultural land reform as yesterday's issue. John Kane-Berman at the South African Institute of Race Relations is quoted in the media as saying that the black demand for farmland is much less than land for housing in cities: "The view in the ANC that land is the answer to poverty, inequality, and unemployment has no basis in reality. Ordinary people have long since voted against this idea with their feet by moving to town." He makes an important point: the country is rapidly urbanizing, with more than 60 percent of South Africans living in urban areas.

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.