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South Africa’s looming land battle

Published on 08/06/2018

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed to "accelerate" land reform to fix the "grave historical injustices" suffered by the black majority during apartheid and colonialism ahead of elections expected next year.

Here are the key facts of the hugely contentious land issue:

– Historical background –

Black South Africans were dispossessed of their land during three centuries of colonialism and apartheid which officially ended in 1994.

“The extent to which black people were dispossessed of lands in South Africa was greater than in any other African country,” said Ruth Hall, a land expert at the Plaas Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies.

The indigenous land act passed in 1913 awarded the black majority just 13 percent of land — described by Ramaphosa as the “original sin”.

When the ruling African National Congress (ANC) came to power in 1994 on the back of the victorious anti-apartheid struggle, the government pledged to redistribute 30 percent of South Africa’s 60,000 commercial farms to black ownership. Twenty-four years later and only eight percent are in black hands.

– Poor progress since 1994 –

A recent report into the issue led by former president Kgalema Motlanthe painted a picture of the “slow and ineffective pace of land reform”.

The failure was framed as being down to the state’s lack of resources — the issue of land reform accounts for only 0.4 percent of national expenditure.

Even more serious obstacles to land reform are “corruption by officials… lack of political will, and lack of training and capacity”, according to Motlanthe’s report.

Following 1994, two land restitution programmes were launched and received a total of 223,000 requests for redistribution — but only 25 percent of those have been handled.

At that rate, it would take 188 years to process all the applications, according to Hall, the academic.

– Urban-rural divide –

A goal of land reform is to end the disparities in both rural areas and urban locations which are home to 62 percent of South Africans.

In 2018, most towns were still organised along apartheid lines — non-white townships characterised by limited infrastructure and high unemployment isolated from the leafy, largely white suburbs where economic opportunities are abundant.

“This is the remnant of the apartheid social setting for us as black and coloured that we have to travel” hours to work, said Nkosikhona Swaartbooi of the Ndifuna Ukwazi organisation which fights for equal access to land in South Africa’s cities.

Ramaphosa appears fully aware of the battle that lays ahead.

“We are working to ensure that the urban poor can own and occupy land close to places of work, social services and education,” he said recently.

– Expropriation without compensation –

The issue of whether to take land without compensating its current owners is by far the most divisive and emotive issue facing modern South Africa.

Until now the government has pursued a policy of willing buyer, willing seller to allow land transfers.

But in February lawmakers voted to establish a commission charged with re-writing the constitution to allow for forcible land transfers without compensation.

Since then AfriForum, a group that advocates for its largely white membership, has reacted with fury.

“Property rights are the cornerstones of economic development,” said the group.

The war of words between AfriForum and the government even drew the attention of Australia whose interior minister appealed for South Africa’s “persecuted” white minority to move down-under.

It is also debated whether the government needs to change the constitution with players like Motlanthe insisting it should simply make greater use of its existing powers.

Observers have suggested constitutional reform is an electoral ploy by the ANC to win votes, which has faced political pressure from the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party in recent years.

– Another Zimbabwe? –

Some white South African farmers fear the new policies puts the country at risk of emulating Zimbabwe where their counterparts were ejected from their land wholesale from the year 2000 by Robert Mugabe.

Those land seizures plunged Zimbabwe into a deep economic crisis from which the country has yet to recover.

But in South Africa, the EFF has already begun orchestrating illegal land grabs, stepping up its campaign in recent months and leading to clashes between police and squatters.

“We will not make the mistakes (of) others,” Ramaphosa vowed recently. “We will not allow smash-and-grab interventions,” he added, promising the policies would not hurt the economy.