The South African government’s promises to give land taken during apartheid back to black South Africans are under the spotlight during national elections this week, land experts said.
President and African National Congress (ANC) leader Cyril Ramaphosa last year launched a process to change the constitution to make explicit provision for the redistribution of land without pay to address high levels of inequality.
“The land issue over the past 18 months has exploded within South Africa,” land expert Ruth Hall told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It is not merely a rural farming issue anymore. It is also an urban housing issue, and there is a lot of mobilisation around this demand for land,” Hall said.
Land ownership and income inequality remain highly emotive subjects more than two decades after the end of apartheid in a country with 27% of the population unemployed.
Currently, 72% of agricultural land is owned by white South Africans who make up 10% of the population, according to a government land audit.
Voting with their feet
Discontent around land and property rights has triggered protests and land occupations.
“There has been a dramatic spike in organised land occupation since early 2018 around the country. This shows that many people are giving up on waiting for official processes,” said Hall.
“People are voting with their feet and occupying land.”
S’bu Zikode, president of Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), a shack-dwellers movement fighting for housing rights in South African townships, has been one of the voices leading these occupations.
“The constitution is not the barrier to delivering land rights,” Zikode said. “Political unwillingness is.”
The current constitution already allows for expropriation.
“Since 1994 there was no expropriation for land reform. We only saw this begin last year. This conversation around constitutional change is merely a convenient deflection for leadership in electoral season,” land lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi said.
“This is not a crisis around lack of laws, it is a crisis around lack of enforcement in enacting laws.”
But AbM is also concerned that land redistribution will simply involve taking land from white elites and giving it to black elites.
“Political parties talk about the poor to legitimise their projects, but no one speaks to us to understand what we really need,” he said.
The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that their assistance with dispute resolution was one of the ways they aim to protect the land rights of all communities.
Fights around law
Moves towards land expropriation have also worried markets and economists, and farming groups have warned of a potentially devastating impact on the agricultural sector.
“I believe that many concerns around expropriation are ill-informed, and are a reaction to poor political messaging around what is being planned,” said Hall.
While a parliamentary committee has decided that the constitution must be amended, there is a now a new committee that has to decide how this amendment will play out. “We are going to see lots of action on the ground but also lots of contestation in parliament around land rights in the coming year or two to clarify these details,” Hall said.
In the run-up to the elections on May 8, AbM encouraged voters to weaken the ANC’s hold in the political sphere.
“For us this a question of justice for the landless and homeless black majority,” Zikode said.
Though the ANC has won each parliamentary election since the transition from apartheid in 1994, recent opinion polls predict that it will bleed support to opposition coalitions that have gained ground as the ANC has been dogged by political scandal and a flagging economy.
“The ruling party is going to have to move in a much more rapid fashion to show it is delivering on public expectations,” Hall said.