This year is the 25th anniversary of the first democratic elections which brought Nelson Mandela to power and officially ended the apartheid regime. But last year a government study found that 72% of the nation’s private farmland is owned by white people, who make up 9% of the population.
The ruling ANC party wants to amend the country’s constitution to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation. But there are concerns among white farmers, banks and the business sector about the consequences of such a move.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party has put the land issue at the top of the political agenda. Founded five years ago by Julius Malema, a former leader of the ANC’s Youth League, the EFF wants to see all land nationalised.
Following a consultation process, the ANC has committed to amending the constitution to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation but said this will be limited to state owned, unused and abandoned lands.
The ANC’s National Executive member, Ronald Lamola, said that the issue needs to be addressed once and for all. “If you do not do it you can also end up like Zimbabwe because the majority of the population is excluded from the ownership of the land and they are already itching, they are restless“.
EFF General Secretary Godrick Gardee said his party wants black people to be given access to land that was taken from them under colonial rule. “All we are saying is let us share the land, you cannot keep the land to yourself and we are not apologetic about that“.
Moletsi Mbeki, the brother of the former president Thabo Mbeki, said he believes the policy is an anti-white one, driven by the fact that a low turnout in the last elections damaged the ANC. “The ANC have been in government for 25 years it never saw this (land) as an issue. They’re whipping up racist emotion and they think that will motivate the black voters to go and vote“.
The fact that the proposal requires a change to the constitution is part of the controversy. South Africa’s relatively young constitution and its Bill of Rights is widely regarded as one of the most progressive documents in the world.
Roelf Meyer, a former National Party government minister who worked with South Africa’s current President Cyril Ramaphosa to end the apartheid regime, said the time has come to address the land ownership issue and that he doesn’t believe there’s a problem with changing the constitution to do so. “The fact that in the broad mindset most black people don’t have access to land and never owned it, is an issue and it’s a very emotional issue and understandably so. My view is that we will have to do something about it very drastically now or the problem will stay and it will repeat itself in the future“.
Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, a lawyer and author of ‘The Land is Ours’ wants ownership rates to change but believes it can be achieved without interfering with the constitution. “South Africa has enough resources to finance land acquisition, we have enough money for land acquisition, in fact the budget is usually returned back to the national treasury … and we don’t have a legal problem either. I think the primary problem is that there has not been enough political will“.
The business and banking sectors are anxious about the impact the changes could have. CEO of Business Unity South Africa Tanya Cohen said while South African businesses understand the need for land reform international businesses are more alarmed. “South African businesses are much more conscious of the fact that this land reform process is a necessary process, it is a transition that we have to go through and I think there’s less uncertainty in that regard. But certainly international investors are very circumspect about the implications“.
Cas Coovadia of the Banking Association of South Africa has warned that if the reform isn’t carried out properly it could affect inward investment, damage the economy and divide the country. “There would be a significant risk to the banking sector number one, and a sector that’s recognised as one of our best sectors could be impacted upon negatively. Secondly I think that if we don’t do this right, the President’s efforts to draw economic growth into the country will fall flat on its face. And thirdly it will fracture the country even more. Let’s do this in a way that will brings us together. This isn’t a black South African problem. This isn’t a problem of people who are deprived of their land. This is a problem of South Africans and for our futures together; we need to address this problem in a constructive way“.