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In 2018, the South African Parliament passed the motion to expropriate land without compensation by an overwhelming majority of 241 votes in favour and 83 against. There was celebration across the nation. The possibility to address the land question was finally on the horizon. However, five years later the land expropriation agenda has fallen off the political table. While the last national elections were calibrated by land expropriation, the 2024 elections won’t be energised by the land question. This piece traces the rise and fall of the land expropriation policy debate in South Africa.

To understand the structure of the South African society—which is overdetermined by racism—one ought to understand the land question. At the core of the racist nature of the South African society is the land question. After three hundred and seventy one years since the arrival of colonialists and seventy one years of apartheid, the position of blacks has not changed, despite almost thirty years of democracy. We hold that apartheid didn’t end in 1994 with the advent of democracy, it simply was reborn under the ANC rule.

From the land question rose social relations which put blacks at the bottom of society, with the consequence that today white households earn six times more than black households. Despite whites being about ten percent of the population, they represent over 70% occupation of senior management. While one-third of blacks live on social grants and are considered poor, only about five percent of whites are classified as poor.

The employment statistics also confirm the racialised truth of the South African social order. Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) released its Quarterly Labour Force Survey report for 2022’s first quarter. It showed 38% unemployment amongst blacks and 10% unemployment for whites.

The 2017 South African Human Rights report states that “64% of blacks, 41% of coloureds, 6% of Indians, and 1% of white South Africans are living in poverty”. The very low levels of poverty amongst whites is the direct outcomes of the colonial and apartheid legacies. All predicated on land dispossession. The racially-skewed power dynamic finds graphic representation in land ownership patterns. The government land audit of 2017 showed that whites own 72% of the land and blacks 4%. In fact, the land ownership structure reflects the apartheid social hierarchy with both Indians and coloureds owning more land than Africans, despite the fact that they together constitute about 10% of the population and Africans are 80%.

Correctly, the South African society is charecterised as racial capitalism with concentration of economic assets in the hands of a settler white minority. The primitive accumulation process that gave rise to modern South Africa is predicated on land dispossession, which proletarianised the African and rendered them landless providers of labour to white capital.

The whole history of resistance by the disposed blacks was based on the land question. By 1913, colonial settlers had defeated the Africans and were able to codify into law their victory over the natives by enacting the 1913 Natives Land Act. The Act designated 87% of South African land as white-owned and relegated Africans to 13% of the land.

The ANC was formed in response to the Native Land Act Bill. So, from inception of modern resistance and formation of nationalism amongst blacks, the land question was central. If this is true, what explains the failure of the ANC to address the land question?

A huge part of why in almost thirty years of ANC rule the land question has not been addressed goes back to 1955 with the adoption of the Freedom Charter. This iconic document watered down the land claims of the Africans and thereby opened the door to the property clause in the post 1994 Constitution. The property clause is true to the Freedom Charter’s assertion that South Africa belongs to both white and black.

The tension between the black nationalist roots of the ANC and its abandonment of it for white liberalism is demonstrated in the policy tensions between the Constitution—which protects land theft—and the Reconstruction and Development (RDP) policy proposals. The Constitution protects property and the RDP proposed thirty percent land return in the first five years of democracy. Needless to say, less than 1% was redistributed in that period and only 8% is redistributed almost 30 years on.

The failure of land redistribution occurred within a framework of continued land dispossession. Almost a million farm dwellers were evicted from farms between 1994 and 2004, according to a study by Marc Wegerief titled, ‘Still Searching for Security: The Reality of Farm Dweller Evictions in South Africa’. The mass evictions of farm workers has created a new under class living an impossible existence in new squatter camps of South Africa.

The land expropriation policy was articulated within this graphic failure of land redistribution and found national profile. Parliament became the main arena where the policy articulation found expression. First the ANC rejected land expropriation. However, towards the end of the Presidency of Jacob Zuma, with his back against the wall, he adopted land expropriation without compensation. Zuma, addressing traditional leaders in the annual opening of the National House of Traditional Leaders in Parliament in 2017, called on black political parties to unite to address the land question.

This call by former President Zuma provoked a response from former President Thabo Mbeki. The Mbeki response enacted the ideological tension within the ANC between black nationalism and white liberalism. Mbeki, representing the liberal tradition, wrote a thirty page response in defence of non-racialism and rejected the call for black unity for land expropriation. He argued in the paper titled, ‘What About Land Expropriation?’, that black unity was inimical to non-racialism of the ANC. He went on to denounce land expropriation.

This Mbeki thinking explains why the ANC under his presidency didn’t use the two-thirds majority to amend the property clause to ensure land redistribution to blacks. It is therefore clear that in the ANC DNA is the contradictory commitment to land redress side-by-side with land surrender.

The contradictory commitment to land by the ruling party finds expression in the multiple parliamentary processes. Three processes were unleashed to manage the momentum towards land expropriation: the Presidential Land Panel under former President Kgalema Motlanthe, the Constitutional Review process under the Minister of Land Affairs, and the ongoing amendment of Expropriation Act by the Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure.

The ideological watering down of land expropriation happened in different forms but is united by the same ideological considerations. In 2015, Julius Malema assured land owners in Paarl that the conception of land expropriation was limited to “unproductive land”. In the same vein, the Presidential panel introduced the motion of “nil compensation”. The ANC’s latest resolution expressed in the Expropriation Bill refers to expropriation at nil compensation of abandoned property; highly indebted land; and state land. This is the abandonment of the real objectives of land expropriation which is to redress the colonial and apartheid land dispossession of Africans.

The land expropriation agenda was emasculated in the political and bureaucratic parliamentary processes. The on-off moves and proliferation of claims to push the land expropriation agenda has been haemorrhaged by fatigue into a stand still. It is clear that land expropriation without compensation has lost its political usefulness. Little is in the public arena.

A great part that explains the petering out of land expropriation lies in the ideological tension within the ANC and those parties which are ideologically guided by the Freedom Charter. These groupings don’t have the necessary ideological gumption to press for land return. Under the dominance of the current pro Freedom Charter political parties, there shall be no land expropriation without compensation. 


By Editor