White People In South Africa Should Stop Panicking About Losing Their Land: Opinion

Land reform is a key issue in South Africa, due to the long history of dispossession of indigenous populations by white settlers. Progress has been painfully slow over the past 24 years, but the question of land is now suddenly at the top of the political agenda.

A major controversy erupted at the end of February following a motion adopted in parliament, tabled by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and modified by the ANC, which started the process of potentially amending the constitution to allow for the expropriation of (white-owned) land without compensation, and its subsequent redistribution (to black people.)

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.

Parliament recently resolved to investigate whether or not the country's constitution should be amended in order to allow for expropriation without compensation. A constitutional review committee is organising public hearings countrywide, and will report in August.

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.

Residents of the Eldorado Park and Freedom Park districts throw stones during clashes with riot police in Johannesburg on May 8, 2017 following a demonstration against land grabbing, housing and unemployment in the area. GULSHAN KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

We have an opportunity to pay serious attention to the land question, and to convene inclusive processes to develop solutions to this intractable problem. As demonstrated once again, racialized inequalities in land holdings are a ticking time bomb in South Africa. Defusing it will require courageous leadership and imaginative policy making.

In the heat and dust generated by the current controversy, many commentators have missed an important report released by the country's parliament in late 2017. This contains the findings of a two-year investigation of the impact of laws passed since the transition to democracy in 1994, with a particular focus on poverty and inequality, social cohesion, and land. The investigation was carried out under the leadership of former president Kgalema Motlanthe, who is widely respected.

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.

Why have these provisions not been used to date? The answer is lack of political will, given the low priority of land reform for the ANC to date. This is evident in the tiny budget allocated to it, around 0.4 percent of the national budget, and the appointment of a series of incompetent politicians as ministers.

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?).

Demonstrators demand land during a march outside the opening session of the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa, August 31, 2001. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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.

Cyril Ramaphosa at a rally on February 11, 2018 in Cape Town, in the same spot where exactly 28 years before, Nelson Mandela (on poster) had first addressed South Africans, after being released from a 27 year jail term. Cyril Ramaphosa became South Africa's president a day after Jacob Zuma resigned. RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images

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

Other populations who suffer from tenure insecurity include those living in informal settlements on the edges of towns and cities, backyard shacks and derelict inner city buildings. Urban land, not rural land, is where land occupations occur, sometimes led by EFF activists.

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.

Professor Ben Cousins holds a DST/NRF Research Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.