Fears over private property to fore in South African politics

ANC moving to amend constitution to permit expropriation of land without compensation

The thorny issue of land reform has risen to the top of South Africa’s national agenda ahead of next year’s general election, following parliament’s recent support for a motion to expropriate private property without compensation.

In late February, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party backed a proposal tabled by the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) for parliament to amend the constitution to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation.

Parliament’s constitutional review committee has now been tasked with gathering a wide range of stakeholder views on the matter and plotting a way forward, and it must report back on its findings by the end of August.

To amend the constitution’s property clause, two-thirds of parliament’s 400 MPs must vote in favour of the proposed changes. The ANC currently holds 62 per cent of seats in the lower house, and with the support of the EFF alone it would reach that threshold.


The move to change the constitution has led to panic among a range of South Africans who fear it signals the ANC is about to embark on a form of land redistribution that would threaten economic development and scare off investors.

Whether this is the case remains to be seen, but since its December elective conference the ANC has begun introducing policies designed to gain traction with the nation’s poor, who make up the majority of voters, ahead of next year’s poll.

Facilitating corruption

Under the ANC's former leader, Jacob Zuma, the party's reputation was damaged significantly. It even lost control of four major cities to opposition parties in the 2016 municipal elections, primarily due to the perception that Zuma was facilitating corruption in government.

Even though South Africa's new president Cyril Ramaphosa – who replaced Zuma in early February – is popular with traditional ANC voters, many experts believe the movement still risks losing its majority in 2019.

In response to the hysteria, Mr Ramaphosa has tried to calm people’s fears while insisting that tackling historical grievances around land is essential to society’s wellbeing.

“There is no reason to panic and start beating war drums. Farming activities must continue as normal, and investments in land and farming must continue,” he told traditional leaders recently.

That land reform must take place in South Africa is accepted. The introduction of the Natives Land Act of 1913 stripped most black people of the right to own property, and this racist policy remained in place until the end of apartheid in 1994.

Since then successive ANC-led governments have introduced a range of initiatives to affect land reform, but none has proven widely successful, and the rate of redistribution has been too slow for many people.

In February, a government land audit revealed that whites still own 72 per cent of the 37 million hectares held by individuals in South Africa, even though they make up only about 9 per cent of the population.

At this stage, no one knows what kind of proposals will emerge from the parliamentary review of the constitution’s property clauses. But if the EFF were to get its way, the state would become the custodians of all land in South Africa and people would then have to lease it for specified periods.

Licensing system

“State custodianship of land will mean those who currently occupy land should apply for licensing to continue using the land,” the EFF’s land policy document states.

Although white commercial farmers who own most of South Africa’s agricultural holdings are the public targets of the EFF’s land reform rallying cry, they are not the only ones who could be negatively affected by such an approach.

In many rural areas, traditional authorities have significant powers to allocate communal land to tribal members. Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini has called on his people to rise up and defend their land from being taken away from them, saying land was the “soul” of traditional leadership and it would be defended it all costs.

Up until now the ANC has been reticent for good reason about the idea of taking land without paying for it, in order to right some of the wrongs of apartheid and colonialism.

The negative effects it could have on the economy, food security and race relations, if applied in a manner akin to Zimbabwe's land reform policy under the recently ousted former president, Robert Mugabe, are there for all to see.

Between 2000 and 2016 most white farmers in that country lost their land to indigenous Zimbabweans in a chaotic form of land redistribution that damaged the economy and collapsed the commercial agriculture sector.

Given that Mr Ramaphosa has maintained that expropriating land without compensation should not harm economic growth and food security, it is hoped the ANC’s eventual preferred approach will relate to specific pieces of land for use in reform projects, rather than transferring all land to the state.