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The Land Expropriation Debate: Why, How And What Else?

PLAAS Seminar Explores Land Expropriation Without Compensation: Why, How And What Else Can Be Done?

“This is an exciting moment in the national debate around land reform. The questions, really, are these: who should get what land? And what do they want the land for? And what are the broader issues land redistribution is intended to address?”

These were the questions posed by Professor Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty‚ Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at a public seminar at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on 10 April 2018, addressing Land expropriation without compensation: Why, how and what else?

“Exciting” could be underselling it. While land redistribution in particular, and land reform more generally, have been important topics ever since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, and were addressed 22 years ago in the South African Constitution, the debate about the best way to achieve such reform has recently grown far more intense.

The issue has come into sharp focus after the ANC elective conference in December and President Cyril Ramaphosa State of the Nation Address in February reiterated the party’s intention to expropriate land without compensation.

“Historically, land reform typically happens at moments of major political change: revolution or major revolt,” Hall noted. “The point of land reform has typically been to change power relations between those who own property and those who don’t.”

In February‚ the EFF and the ANC supported a parliamentary resolution to set up a constitutional review committee to investigate whether Section 25 (known as the property clause) should be amended to provide for expropriation of land without compensation - as a means of helping people to get land to live on‚ and to claim back land they were dispossessed of after 1913 as a result of colonial and apartheid laws.

The DA opposed the move‚ saying it would undermine the property rights enshrined in the Constitution, and criticised the ANC for failing to implement the land redistribution programme that was already in place. The matter has been referred to the Constitutional Review Committee‚ which must report back to Parliament by August 30.

For Hall, an expert in land rights and agrarian reform (particularly in an African context), the debate isn’t really about the Constitution - it’s about careful and considered implementation.

Section 25.3 of the Constitution specifies that compensation for expropriation of property should be “just and equitable” - and, Hall pointed out‚ it has been suggested that the way it was framed could allow compensation to be set at zero.

“Could compensation be R0?” Hall asked. “We don’t know - because it has never been used.”

Hall said all indications are that government failed to make any headway in its programme of land reform despite having the powers to transform land relations. Furthermore, the ANC government has not been willing to provide the kind of support to black farmers that the apartheid government gave to white farmers. And a lot of money has been spent buying farms and giving them to people who are either already wealthy, middle-class or politically connected.

“Will changing the words in the Constitution change the outcome?,” Hall asked. “I don’t think so. It is simply naive to think that expanding state powers which have sat unused for 22 years is going to result in change.”

The question instead is how people can marshal their power‚ mobilize‚ and organize around other alternatives - thereby forcing the state’s hand.

“What is going to drive this change is politics‚ not the law.”

Land Reform & Justice:  In City and Farm, It’s About More  Than Just Land

Land reform is a highly emotive subject in South Africa, and one deeply rooted in the country’s history. But addressing the injustices of the past may require taking a broader view of the situation.

And while land reform has often been equated with farming, it is clearly not only a rural issue - there is also a pressing hunger for well-located land in South Africa’s growing cities. It is expected that by 2050, 77% of South Africans will live in urban areas. Already, urban areas generate as much as 85% of all economic activity.

“Land reform is really about overcoming spatial apartheid,” Hall said. “It’s about dealing with the ways in which people were separated and segregated - in both rural and urban areas.”

“It’s important to address alternatives,” Hall explained. “We don’t only want to replace white commercial farmers with black commercial farmers. We want to have a more inclusive and democratic - and egalitarian - system of landholding.”

When considering this bigger picture, she noted, it becomes clear that the debate is about more than just land - it’s about property and economic equality in a broader sense.

“Land dispensation was the basis for white privilege during apartheid‚” she said. “That white privilege still exists‚ it has just transformed and is now sitting in stocks and bonds and nice residential houses. Shouldn’t these people be paying?”

Hall cautioned against a blanket approach‚ calling for a holistic view that would allow for case-by-case resolution. She also urged South Africans to look beyond their immediate fears about property rights and consider the vision behind land reform.

“If expropriation is the means to the ends, then what is the end?” she asked.

“What would land reformed countryside and cities look like? If land reform were to work, what kind of opportunities could it deliver? This is where the most exciting conversations can happen.”