Land Reform: Election Ploy or Real priority?
Is there a single sensible person in South Africa who does not believe that the extension of property rights to all South Africans is both necessary and desirable?
And is there a single sensible South African who believes that the current flurry of activity around land reform will lead to real progress in the near future? Perhaps many years of political participation by this writer have led to a certain cynicism, but the whole debate, initiated by the ANC and the EFF, smells strongly of electoral politics aimed at lulling voters into a sense that this time might be different. I have written about this before and make no apology for doing so again.
One of the biggest failures of the government over the past quarter of a century is land reform. The constitutional imperative to broaden land ownership, clearly recognised and provided for in clause 25 of the Constitution has not been honoured to anything like the extent it should have been if this was a real ANC priority. Do you remember a few years ago President Zuma announced that henceforth the “willing buyer/willing seller” principle would not be observed because it was deterring land reform? Precisely nothing happened that sped up land reform thereafter because the truth is that this was not a “principle” at all and the government has always had the right to expropriate property for public purposes. It was an excuse.
Now we have come to the cry for expropriation without compensation (EWC). The excuse is that because of the provision of Clause 25 of the Constitution, providing for just and equitable compensation, land reform has stalled. Another excuse and also untrue. It is clear that the clause would permit EWC if this was just and equitable.
What it would not do is permit unjust and inequitable action because that amounts to theft. For some in the ANC and in the EFF, promoting the theft of property from white people has an attractive ring about it and it is designed to appeal to people who have nothing. It is then explained on the basis that whites stole the land from blacks and therefore EWC is justified.
What ANC protagonists of EWC fail to explain is exactly which land will be expropriated. My townhouse was not stolen from anyone. I paid for it. Presumably, therefore, it will not be taken from me; or will it? If I owned a farm, which I do not, would it be subject to expropriation without compensation because I am white? If I bought it, or my father bought it, would this farm be subject to EWC on the grounds of having been stolen from black people, which clearly it was not?
Or is it only the minuscule number of farms that have been in the same family for a couple of hundred years, having originally in colonial times been stolen from black owners, that will be subject to EWC? And what of the improvements effected over many years? Are they to be forfeited?
As soon as one interrogates the proposition, it becomes clear that this whole thing is a nonsense. It is a lie being sold to gullible people who are told that they will suddenly become landowners. Although to be precise, the EFF wants no-one to be owners. All of us will become tenants of the state.
None of this will pass constitutional muster and any attempt to amend our Constitution to provide for the theft of land from white owners (or even all owners) will be tied up in the Courts for years. Instead of making real progress with land reform, we will retard it even further. What we need in all the hype, is a dose of reality.
That was given to us by the High-Level Panel chaired by former President Kgalema Motlanthe. In a stinging assessment, his panel reported to Parliament on the progress of land reform. In discussing the report, Thandeka Mbabama, the DA MP and spokesperson on land reform stated that it seemed that the ANC’s land reform programmes have completely regressed due to rampant corruption, inefficiency and elite capture. These and many other land reform impediments have resulted in the utter failure to have any meaningful redress in land reform.
The current furious debate about EWC is a handy distraction from the reality of the failure of the government in this sphere. The representations and the debates and the personal testimonies taking place before the parliamentary committee sitting in many areas of the country suit President Ramaphosa’s purpose.
The truth is that he is kicking for touch on an issue that he knows has the potential to wreck the economy and the future prospects of the country. The more time taken to debate EWC, the better, because the election is only a year away and there is no chance whatever that legislation or even a final report will be ready for debate by parliament before the election. After being a handy election issue, other priorities will take over.
What the debate about land reform needs is a commitment to making progress, focusing not just on agricultural land, but far more importantly, recognising that although 7.5 million black people own their own homes, the vast majority do not have proper title deeds. As was stressed by former President de Klerk at the recent Land and Property Conference of the FW de Klerk Foundation and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, anything up to 65% of black South Africans could be dramatically, quickly and effectively enriched and empowered by land reform that transfers – or recognises – real property rights in the hands of beneficiaries and owners.
If only we would get real about land reform, enormous progress could be within our grasp.
Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. This article first appeared in The Star.