South Africa is undergoing what may be the most consequential policy push since the inception of democracy in 1994 and the adoption of its internationally respected constitution two years later. In its popular formulation, this is about land and land ownership, and the historical context of dispossession – what is often termed the ‘land question’. It has become indelibly associated with the notion of Expropriation without Compensation (EWC).
This phrase has come to occupy a prominent position in South Africa’s lexicon, so much so that ‘Land Expropriation without Compensation’ was chosen by the Pan South African Language Board as the word of the year in 2018. Widely acknowledged though it is, its full implications are not properly understood across the country – for this could determine South Africa’s political and socio-economic trajectory for decades.
The current round of the issue – though not its genesis – can be traced to the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) 2017 national conference in Nasrec, whose report read:
The 54th National Conference reaffirmed that the ANC will guide the South African economy in accordance with the Freedom Charter’s call that the people shall share in the country’s wealth. We shall, as urgently as possible, bring together, government, the labour movement, business and communities in a social pact to accelerate economic growth and create jobs. Conference resolved that the ANC should, as a matter of policy, pursue expropriation of land without compensation. This should be pursued without destabilising the agricultural sector, without endangering food security in our country and without undermining economic growth and job creation.
On 27 February 2018, the South African Parliament approved a motion – introduced by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), and supported (with amendments) by the ANC – to facilitate EWC.
The resolution tasked Parliament’s Constitutional Review Committee with considering amendments to Section 25 of the Constitution (the so-called ‘property clause’) to enable such seizures. Invoking the painful history of land dispossession, it instructed the committee to investigate both whether a constitutional amendment was necessary and whether new ‘land tenure system’ was needed (this second issue, although receiving less public attention, could prove more important).
Reactions were intense. Members of the government and ruling party, the African National Congress– including President Cyril Ramaphosa – have repeatedly expressed support for the principle, while being vague on the form EWC would take. President Ramaphosa memorably declared that EWC would transform the country into a Garden of Eden. The EFF, a party whose ideological position combines vulgar Marxism and racial nationalism, was more emphatic, proposing a complete overthrow of the system of landholding. ‘Every title deed will be meaningless’, the EFF tweeted, ‘and the state will be the custodian of all the land.’
The direction of policy caused profound disquiet in the country and abroad, with many warning of the damaging impact on investment, irrespective of the promises to the contrary. Others claimed that it would be a fatal blow to the post-apartheid constitutional settlement. Yet for the ANC and its putatively ‘reformist’ president – to say nothing of the EFF – this was presented as non-negotiable.
How did it come to this?
It is necessary to look both at South Africa’s distant and its recent history, extending to the colonial period. Conquest and displacement of people during colonial- and ‘white’ expansion (from the arrival of the Dutch East India Company to the freelance movement of trekboers, British Empire and the Boer Republics, to the Union of South Africa and the Republic in 1961) has marked South Africa’s political narrative. The 1913 and 1936 Land Acts together apportioned a mere 13% of the country to the African population. Grand apartheid sought to remove Africans from South Africa entirely, creating separate states and citizenships for them – and often violently removing individuals and communities in the course of this social engineering.
This intruded into the legal recognition of the rights even of those able to exist in ‘white’ South Africa. Rights in fixed property were largely denied to Africans; they were expected to exercise what property rights they had within their ‘homelands’. In practice, this meant Africans seldom enjoyed freehold rights. In the homelands, their holdings tended to be under the authority of traditional leaders, and in South Africa’s urban centres, they typically had to rent accommodation from the state.
The apartheid government attempted, well into the 1980s, to control the influx of Africans into ‘white’ South Africa by deporting those without permission to live there. An estimated 3.5 million people were shifted in these ‘forced removals’, which symbolised apartheid’s callousness and did much to turn international opinion against it.
Nevertheless, the push of rural destitution and the pull of aspirations for inclusion in a modern economy exposed the implausibility of apartheid planning. Accelerating urbanisation – in defiance of apartheid strictures – resulted in rising demand for housing (and land to live on), though it was only in the mid-1980s that the possibility of freehold ownership for African residents of most urban areas was introduced.
Thinking around land has also been profoundly ideological. Land signifies and symbolises belonging and possession, and it was an emotive metaphor for competing nationalisms. Rural people are often romanticised as the authentic and uncorrupted bearers of culture. In the South African context, a corollary is that the white farmer came to be a Feindbild, the signifier of depravity and abuse in the countryside. (A chant once popular within the ANC went ‘kill the farmer, kill the boer’.)
Perhaps ironically, the ‘land question’ had important political significance, but in the years following the transition to democracy, it attracted little real policy attention. Though the ANC pledged in 1994 to redistribute 30% of white-owned land, it paid little attention to this issue in its election campaign. This was unsurprising: South Africa was an urbanising society. Land demand predominantly registered as a need for urban housing. Land reform – in the agrarian sense – was poorly resourced, typically receiving less than 1% of state budgets. As a policy backwater, then, land reform was never properly addressed. Redistribution was slow, not least because of administrative shortcomings – delays of two decades in finalising land claims have not been unknown. Many projects collapsed as a result of poor post-settlement support. Yet, the ‘land question’ remained a potent symbol of past injustices, and farmers remained the target of rhetorical attacks.
There is a wider background. Democracy was accompanied by the hope (particularly among black people) of economic betterment. And, contrary to the narrative of decline, much was achieved. Prudent economic management saw GDP growth average 3% between 1994 and 2003, and 5% between 2004 and 2007. Expanded social services and state-provided housing meant real-time improvements for millions.
But these gains violated some of the ANC’s key ideological assumptions – a strongly activist state envisaged in its master narrative, the so-called National Democratic Revolution, which was, for many within the party, to be a path to a communist society. In veering away from this, former president Thabo Mbeki made implacable enemies of the hard left of his party. More than this, Mbeki also made some chronic mistakes; his handling of the AIDS crisis, in particular, alienated many supporters.
In addition, the signal failure to generate employment sufficient to absorb South Africa’s millions of jobless provided Mbeki’s opponents with the useful message that ‘neo-liberal’ economics had failed and that a ‘radical’ leftward lurch could deliver results.
In Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s opponents found the figurehead for their fightback campaign. Under his leadership, a combination of the global financial crisis, the pathologies in the state which were already significant but were given space to grow under Zuma, as well as the turn to a more statist economic strategy (which was inherently implausible, given the weaknesses and failings of the state), ensured South Africa remained in its low-growth trap.
Moreover, the ANC felt the impact in declining electoral performance.
Its response, however, was not introspection and reform, but a reassertion of ‘revolutionary’ ideology and racial nationalist incitement.