In his June 20 state of the nation address to parliament, President Cyril Ramaphosa laid out a short-term approach to land reform, including a call for the expropriation of privately owned land without compensation for distribution. Ramaphosa said his Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture has completed a report that will shape his administration’s land reform program. The report will soon be sent to the cabinet. In the meantime, he said the state would continue to identify public land that would be suitable for distribution to urban dwellers and farmers. The Land Bank will support black commercial farmers with an allocation of R3.9 billion (272.8 million USD).
Characteristically, Ramaphosa emphasized an orderly process (the report by the Advisory Panel) and addressed immediate needs (identifying public land suitable for redistribution and support for black commercial farmers who often lack access to capital). This section of his speech avoided emphasis on expropriation without compensation of privately owned land, a lethal third rail for the overseas and domestic investors Ramaphosa seeks to attract to jump-start the South African economy.
Ramaphosa has also appointed the highly regarded Thoko Didiza as Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (the lead implementing agency). Didiza enjoys widespread support, including the white farming sector represented by AgricSA in addition to the NGO activists advocating for the expropriation process, such as the Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.
Especially in foreign media, the land reform issue is too often oversimplified into competing morality plays. On the one hand, some see land reform as taking land stolen from blacks by whites under apartheid and distributing the land back to the poor blacks without providing compensation. A competing narrative sees expropriation without compensation as a violation of constitutionally guaranteed property rights and making a travesty of the country’s vaunted rule of law. Media outside of South Africa often sees the current debate as somehow a rerun of Zimbabwe, where white farmers were driven off their land through violence with no pretense to the rule of law.
There is a broad consensus in South Africa about the need for land reform and a recognition of the complexity of the issue. For example, tribal trust lands are controlled by chiefs and farmers and normally have no security of tenure.
The increased demand for land for housing plots that has resulted in rapid urbanization is a problem more greatly experienced in urban areas rather than in the countryside. In juxtaposition to the constitutional argument against expropriation of privately owned land, publicly owned land could be redistributed without any infringement on private property rights. South Africa’s friends will be eagerly awaiting the publication of the report by the Advisory Panel on Land Reform and how it addresses these multiple issues.