On August 6, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board compared South Africa’s Ramaphosa government to the dictatorships in Venezuela and Zimbabwe and their seizure of private property. The focus of the editorial board's ire is proposals within the governing African National Congress (ANC) for constitutional changes that allegedly would facilitate the confiscation of land without compensation. This is an overstatement. The Ramaphosa government is not going down the Zimbabwe or Venezuelan path. More credibly, however, the Journal also attacks the oft-cited claim of those who support expropriation that blacks own a miniscule proportion of land in South Africa.
The ANC's proposed legislation would clarify the constitutional provisions that already provide for the government to take ownership of land, but not expand them. Ramaphosa and the ANC acknowledge that the constitution’s property clause already “enables the state to effect expropriation of land with just and equitable compensation and also expropriation without compensation in the public interest.” State President Cyril Ramaphosa had opposed a constitutional amendment as unnecessary. It is likely that the ANC has adopted the proposal for a constitutional amendment that will do little or nothing to outflank the left opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) on the land question in the run-up to the 2019 national elections.
The EFF has become the third largest party in parliament largely because of its advocacy of “expropriation without compensation” of white wealth in general, farmland and mines specifically. Even so, it is easy to exaggerate the importance of the EFF because of the media attention it gets; it won only 6.35 percent of the total vote in the 2014 elections and 8.19 percent in 2016.
This should also be seen as the context for the ANC’s statement that it has identified “139 farms” to be test cases for expropriation without compensation. But, such “test cases” would take years to work their way through the courts. Unlike Venezuela or Zimbabwe, South Africa is a constitutional democracy conducted according to the rule of law with a strong judiciary, civil society, and free press. Hence, Ramaphosa appears to be looking for other ways to increase black ownership of land. Up to now, ANC governments have allotted a miniscule percentage of the budget to land reform, reflecting the traditional urban base of the party and the reality of very rapid urbanization of the country. (The ANC’s base became predominately rural only during the Zuma administration.)
How much of South Africa’s surface is owned by which race is a largely meaningless question. Under apartheid, government-owned land was seen as “white-owned” Now, the government is non-racial. A significant percentage of South Africa’s land is held by tribal trusts, not by individuals. In effect, it is under the control of traditional tribal chiefs. As in the United States, big, commercial farms are increasingly owned by corporations rather than by individuals. In fact, the number of white farmers in South Africa is shrinking, even as the white population has grown by 6.8 percent since the 2001 census. The white percentage of South Africa’s total population continues to decline, largely because of a lower birthrate compared to other racial groups and migration from other African countries. The Journal cites the highly credible South Africa Institute of Race Relations’ (SAIIR) estimate that blacks “control” 30–50 percent of the land, and also correctly notes that where Africans were compensated for the loss of their land under apartheid, the overwhelming majority chose cash rather than land.
If land reform would appear to be largely a red herring, why does it resonate among blacks? Part of the reason is the continued under performance of the South African economy and its slow recovery from the worldwide recession that began in 2008. Slow recovery has been exacerbated by the bad economic policies and the corruption, known as “state capture,” of the 2009–2018 Zuma administration.
But, perhaps the most fundamental reason for the focus on “expropriation without compensation” is the intractable reality of black poverty. The social and economic realities for the black majority in South Africa have changed little since apartheid, while the gulf between white wealth and that of other racial groups has probably increased. The causes of black poverty range from the ongoing consequences of hundreds of years of exclusion of black Africans from much of the economy to the persistent failure of primary and secondary education for blacks since the end of apartheid. There are many other factors, including the fact that South Africa has eleven legal languages, and English—the language of the international economy—is the first language of less than 10 percent of the population. But, “expropriation without compensation” presents itself as a solution to poverty. That is a more attractive alternative explanation for poverty that more abstract discussions around economic policy or the shortcomings of the educational system.