The South African Parliament recently voted to take steps to amend the Constitution to allow the government to expropriate land without compensation. Understandably, this has caused an outcry among those South Africans who either own land and now fear it is about to be taken away from them, or who simply see this as South Africa going down the same disastrous path Zimbabwe did 20 years ago, and who worry about what the policy will do to the country’s food security, and the broader economy.
On Twitter, meanwhile, users in the United Kingdom, Europe, United States and elsewhere are furiously sharing tweets and a video by Katie Hopkins, in which she draws a straight line between the new policy and the horrendous farm murders which continue to take place in South Africa. In her interpretation, the new policy is a flat-out endorsement of Julius Malema’s call for black people to kill white farmers in order to take their land. Those reading Katie’s tweets and watching her video are demanding to know why the mainstream media is not covering this impending disaster.
As a South African living in the UK but with family and friends still living in South Africa, I am not directly affected by the policy but I am deeply concerned about the impact it could have on the country I grew up in, and love dearly. And I am equally concerned about the rise in attacks and murders on South African farms. But while I cannot argue that the two issues are not related – of course they are, as both are rooted in resentment at the huge disparities in income and living standards brought about by colonialism and the apartheid era, and frustration at the slow pace of change – I despair at seeing the horrendously complicated issue of land reform reduced to the soundbite “white genocide”, which only serves to deepen the mistrust between ordinary black and white South Africans, most of whom fervently wish to move on from the divisive apartheid era.
This blog is therefore my best attempt to explain, and provide context for, what “land expropriation without compensation” is – and is not.
Firstly, a bit of background. The Constitution of South Africa, adopted in 1996, allows the government to expropriate land “in the public interest” and subject to payment of appropriate compensation. As it stands, this policy is not particularly controversial – similar policies exist in most other parts of the world, allowing governments to take over private land under “compulsory purchase” or “eminent domain” rules. A recent example of this taking place in the United Kingdom, was when the Olympic park was built in Stratford, East London – owners of property in the area were forced to sell their properties to the government at “market value” in order for the new site to be built.
The South African government, over the past 20 years, has been pursuing land reform policies which seek to redress the imbalance in land ownership in the country – including land restitution policies which aim to restore land that was expropriated from black owners under colonial or apartheid laws, to their living descendents or the communities to which they belonged.
The pace of restitution, however, has been frustratingly slow, with complaints that due to the “willing buyer – willing seller” principle used during negotiations, the government has in many cases been forced to pay greatly inflated prices for land. In 2014, for example, a claim involving the Mala Mala game reserve was finally settled, at a price just short of 1 billion rand – a figure which many felt was extortionate.
So the calls for land to be expropriated without compensation are, in many ways, a knee-jerk effort to speed up the process of land restitution by cutting out the difficult negotiation phase.
The policy is also, though, a cynical attempt by both the EFF and the ANC to win votes by seeming to put the interests of the majority black population ahead of the minority white population. Yet despite initial appearances, the two parties are deeply divided as to their overall aims.
The EFF, at heart, is a firmly socialist party. Its aim is not to take land from white people and give it to black people – in fact, it wishes to expropriate all land, both black-owned and white-owned, for state use. Under EFF policies, no individual would own land – it would all be owned by the state and leased to individuals. So while Julius Malema may sing “Kill the boer, kill the farmer”, he is not, in fact, encouraging people to kill farmers in order to take their land. His calls for violence against farmers, against white men, are simply that – xenophobic calls for violence. His plans for the land, on the other hand, are purely socialist.
The ANC, meanwhile, wishes to right the wrongs of apartheid and colonialism by restoring land to its rightful owners. It also, though, recognises the reality that taking land that is currently well-utilised, and simply handing it over to individuals or communities who would allow it to lie fallow, would be devastating for the country as a whole. In all the fuss about the recent vote in Parliament, the point which doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves, is that the ANC insisted on an amendment to the bill to state that the policy must not result in any risk to South Africa’s food security or the wider economy.
This point is crucial. Because, as former Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas pointed out recently, at present land expropriation without compensation is “just a slogan”. Until the government works out how to actually implement it, in a way that does not harm food security, and does not hurt investor sentiment, nothing will actually happen.
Of course, investor sentiment has already been hit. I pointed out to somebody on Twitter a few days ago that in many ways, the vote for expropriation without compensation is like the vote for Brexit – the UK voted in June 2016 to leave the EU but we have not yet left, many people are still fighting to ensure we never leave, and at present nothing much has changed since the vote. In much the same way, nothing much will change in South Africa until the government works out the finer details of how it can implement the policy without harming the economy – the answer to which, of course, is that it can’t. So either the policy will be abandoned, or the government will have to accept that the economy will be irrevocably damaged. In the meantime, just as the vote for Brexit caused an immediate drop in the value of the pound, so the vote for expropriation without compensation caused an immediate drop in the value of the rand.
But whereas my personal view is that the benefits of Brexit will in the long term outweigh any short-term pain, I think the opposite is the case with land expropriation without compensation.
If this policy is enacted, any short-term joy on the part of the populists who may rejoice at a policy that seeks to punish current landowners for the sins of their forefathers, will soon be replaced by pain when food production dries up and the economy grinds to a halt, as wealthy land and business owners pack up and move elsewhere in search of a more secure livelihood. And if the EFF gets its way, not only will it not result in land being given to black people who don’t yet own land – it will result in land being taken away from those who already have it.
This policy absolutely is not “white genocide”. It is simply the greatest act of self-harm a nation could impose on itself – and it is the poor black majority who will suffer the worst, if it goes ahead.