In targeting for the first time a provision in the Bill of Rights, it set a terrible precedent by threatening constitutional protection. Some of its proponents even claimed that the Constitution in its current form would not prevent the ultimate policy goal, Expropriation without Compensation.

That the measure failed to pass deserves to be viewed with relief. But as we at the Institute of Race Relations have warned in the intervening period, this was at best a respite.

A Land Court Bill, currently before Parliament, seeks to place land (and land expropriation) matters into a specially created court. The Bill itself is intended to ‘promote land reform as a means of redressing the results of past discrimination and facilitate land justice.’  Its proposed design raises a very real danger of proceedings being loaded in favour of particular outcomes. For example, two lay assessors may be appointed to sit alongside a judge, and may overrule the latter on matters of fact. The Bill is silent on how the assessors will be appointed, and it is far from impossible that  activists hostile to land ownership would be in a position to preside over cases. On certain issues, such as whether ‘nil’ compensation should be awarded, or whether a given property has been abandoned, it is likely that the views of these assessors could be decisive.

In addition, there is the Expropriation Bill. President Ramaphosa has declared the government’s intention to pass the Bill into law this year. Dating back in its current iteration to 2019 (but with a policy lineage that extends back over more than a decade), it would establish a new regime for expropriation of property. Among other things, it defines expropriation – and so too, any entitlement to compensation – so as to require the state to take ownership of expropriated property.

This suggests that merely depriving an owner of something – without the state’s acquiring ownership in turn, as was the case with South Africa’s mineral resources under the custodianship provision of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2002 – would not qualify as expropriation. This in turn would make a mass ‘custodial’ taking of a particular asset achievable without any requirement for compensation.

Move on property rights

Simply put, despite the Constitution holding for the moment, the mechanisms for proceeding with a move on property rights are being put in place.

At the same time, there has been a chorus of voices expressing harsh criticisms of the constitutional order, in part or as a whole. These voices include tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu, KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala, former cabinet minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi as well as academics Professors Sipho Seepe and Eddy Maloka.

The basic assertion is that the malaise confronting South Africa arises from a lack of radicalism, this having been constrained by a timid compromise in the 1990s and the Constitution that embodied it.

Thus, Prof Maloka says that: ‘Our approach should not be piecemeal – about land, the judiciary, or this and that. Instead, we should be bold and decisive and overhaul the entire dispensation to align it with our times.’

Prof Seepe was more direct, attacking both the ANC and the state, claiming that ‘the post-1994 dispensation legitimised ill-gotten economic gains under apartheid.’ The ANC had been infiltrated, he went on to write, to the extent that it is ‘now embraced by even the most racist among our citizens’ (does this mean that the ANC is attracting large numbers of bigoted white voters..?), and ‘a state without any revolutionary content is a threat to our hard earned democratic dispensation.’

Sisulu denounced the judiciary as ‘mentally colonised’, while Zikalala proposed replacing the supremacy of the Constitution (and the law) with Parliamentary democracy. ‘We want to issue the call for us to debate whether it is not time to move away from absolute rule by the Constitutional Court to a situation where we have a parliamentary democracy in which the voice of the people who elected is supreme to all other voices,’ Zikalala declared.


In a very real sense, this is an extension of the attempt to alter Section 25. It sees the constitutional order as the problem, not the counterproductive nature or impracticability of policy or its inept implementation. This is part populism, but arguably more fundamentally ideological.

Unsurprisingly, in all of this, land is a central motif. Thus, Minister Sisulu opines: ‘The land is where it all begins. And the law of the land makes or breaks.’ Prof Seepe asserts that land is fundamental to the true revolutionary posture whose absence he bemoans: ‘Land is at the core of any anticolonial struggle. Reclaiming the land would have been the first order of business. With the loss of the ideological narrative, Africans have no control of the future.’

In a similar vein, for Mr Ramathlodi, the Constitution is the culprit: ‘The essence of the 1913 Land Act retained under the New Constitution in section 25 must be reconsidered.’ 

Contained within all of this is the notion that with a more aggressive and assertive form of political mobilisation, with the removal on the limits on the state’s powers, veritable economic miracles are possible. (In 2018, President Ramaphosa claimed that EWC would turn the country into a Garden of Eden – an attempt at allegory that fell flat.) To quote Mr Ramathlodi: ‘In this regard, the developmental state must be activist and take out scissors to perform the necessary caesarean birth.’

Lyrical though that last comment is, it is also delusional. A good part of the reason for the disappointing outcomes of land reform – and support of small business, policing, education and so on – is precisely that the state is not up to the task. South Africa’s state is not developmental, although it certainly tries to be activist. The result, in practical terms, is a mixture of some dire laissez-faire neglect in some areas, and the constraints of an intrusive and often extortionate government apparatus in others.

Actually, in this respect Prof Seepe is partially correct when he says of the ANC that ‘instead of using the state as an instrument at the service of the poor, it does the opposite.’ But he fails to note that much of the blame for this can be placed squarely at the door of the ANC’s conscious decision to politicise the state administration in the 1990s, thereby preventing a meritocratic, professionalised civil service from emerging. In so doing, it destroyed the prospect of a developmental state.

Broad ideological thrust

Such actions were, however, in keeping with the broad ideological thrust of the ANC and with its National Democratic Revolution. One might describe them as the natural outgrowth of the revolutionary impulse.

South Africa’s future needs a good deal less ideology, and a good deal more pragmatism. This is readily apparent to anyone who cares to look, but is unfortunately not entirely clear to our political and intellectual elites.

The disparaging of the constitutional order is intrinsically a threat to property rights, and to land ownership, both on the part of those who own and those who aspire to do so. Indeed, a successful land reform programme holds value for all of us – but it will not be delivered by the ideologues and venal individuals who are using it to frame their arguments.  

The EWC agenda, and all that surrounds it, remains very much in place, and the present is no time for complacency.

This article was first published by the Daily Friend.

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Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think tank promoting individual and societal freedom. Readers are invited to support the IRR by sending...

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