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Land reform hottest topic after 100 days

Land reform hottest topic after 100 days

Land reform – or the lack thereof – has become one of the most hotly debated issues in South Africa during the first 100 days of Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency. Already at the ANC congress in December, the issue almost tore the organization apart and in the end ANC chose to abandon the willing-seller/willing-buyer-principle and explore “expropriation without compensation” in an attempt to speed up the defunct land reform.

In his very first State of the Nation address, Ramaphosa reaffirmed ANC’s commitment to “expropriation without compensation”. However, he also pointed out that this was not going to affect land already in use, but was aimed at under-utilised land, land owned for speculative purposes and communal land controlled by traditional leaders.

Needless to say, farmers became worried, the opposition parties to the left and to the right were up in arms and traditional leaders came out in opposition as they saw the potential loss of one of their most precious power-tools: land.

To expropriate land without compensation, Ramaphosa argued, the constitution needed to be reviewed and a special committee was tasked with investigating the subject. The committee is expected to report back to the National Assembly by the end of August.

However, it can also be argued that the necessary clause is already in place in the constitution, it’s only the tardiness of the government(s) that has stalled the pace of the land redistribution.

Ever since the fall of apartheid, South Africa has been struggling with the land issue. In 1994, ANC promised that a third of the agricultural land would change hands from white to black land-owners within a few years. 24 years later less than ten per cent of the agricultural land has been subjected to the land reform programme

According to the South African Land Audit Report from 2017 looking at the past ten years the redistribution of land has lost momentum. One third of the land in South Africa is privately owned and out of the privately owned agricultural land, white South Africans own 72 per cent and black South Africans 4 per cent.

This is not an issue about agricultural or rural land only. The land question is just as pressing in the cities where thousands of people living in informal settlements are waiting for proper housing and title deeds. Protesters occupy municipality land on a regular basis to peg out “properties”. Each time law enforcement is called in the quell the protest, and sometimes arrest the land occupants.

One of the most complex urban land disputes is Distric Six in Cape Town (pictured above).

When the first ANC-government invited previously disadvantaged South Africans to hand in their land claims some 2 400 residents of the old District Six asked for compensation having been forcefully removed under the Group Areas Act during the apartheid years. Half of them opted for economic compensation. Out of those who rather wanted to move back to their neighbourhood, only a couple of hundred have been able to do so. District Six was bulldozed to the ground and the 60 000 inhabitants were sent to live in racially segregated townships. The sprawling streets on the slope of Table Mountain were never rebuilt and 1 200 claimants (all of whom got their claims approved) are still waiting for new houses.

Currently, this is where we stand.

A land reform is urgently needed to put past inequalities and injustices to rest, but also to defuse a potential land conflict that could be ignited by political opportunists.


Read our story about District Six and the land reform in Bistandsaktuelt (in Norwegian)


Görrel Espelund

Journalist, author and Africa guide. Read more about Görrel here.