Land Reform Watch

Is expropriation really needed for land reform?

Nkandla - colonial legacy,

If not managed properly Cyril Ramaphosa’s promises of “land expropriation without compensation” could become South Africa’s biggest constitutional crisis since 1996.

The issue of land reform came, and especially the question of the ‘redistribution of land via expropriation without compensation’, since the ANC’s national conference in December, where now president Cyril Ramaphosa was elected as leader of the party.

The subject then also featured strongly in President Ramaphosa’s maiden state of the nation address(SONA), and even the leader official opposition, the Democratic Alliance’s Mmusi Maimane, used 1913’s Native Land Act as apartheid's "original sin," as his point of departure when addressing the subject.

There can be no argument about it that if the legacy of the past, which has delivered a highly unequal distribution of land, is not properly addressed it can in turn become a serious threat to social stability in the country.

More factors in play

However, there are also elements, other than the country’s colonial- and apartheid history that turned the issue of land, its ownership, its occupation, its role in the economy and, its productive use into a very complex, and highly emotional one.

For one, in the order of a third of South Africa’s population live on traditional tribal areas, which are not only largely under-developed rural areas, but also hugely under-developed agricultural potential. However, it is deeply linked to the cultural heritage of much of the black population.

And, just to complicate matters, at various stages in the country’s history there was also interplay between tribal leaders, and both colonial powers and apartheid rulers.

For example, during the controversy over the upgrades at ex-president Jacob Zuma’s private residence at Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal’s tribal component, we reported on how it was impossible for the Zuma family to secure a bond to finance the upgrades. The family cannot get title on the property, which is held in trust by the Ingonyama on behalf of the government, with King Goodwill Zwelithini heading it. The trust manages about 32% of all land in KwaZulu-Natal on behalf of the state for the benefit of its occupants.

There is, however, also a colonial sting in the tail of the Nkandla story. The Zuma family have occupied the Nkandla area since 1879 as a reward for collaboration with the British colonial forces to defeat the armies of Zulu king Cetshwayo.

That the issue could trigger a serious constitutional crisis, was illustrated by COPE leader, Terror Lekota’s contribution to the SONA debate – pointing out that property rights are protected under the constitution. He also warned against an interpretation of the term “our people” that excludes “non-blacks.”

In the same debate the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, chief Mangosutho Buthelezi highlighted the cultural factors that comes into play when he questioned why the ANC wanted to take away control of land in KwaZulu-Natal from the Ingonyama Trust, which is overseen by Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini.

How problematic a racial definitionof land property ownership can become, and also the huge economic implications of ownership patterns in the country, came to light in Wednesday’s budget by Minister of Finance Maluzi Gigaba.

He said a property audit conducted by the Department of Public Works shows that national government owns up to 195 000 properties, with an estimated value of over R40 billion. He, however promised that government will introduce a programme to improve the use of these properties or to dispose of them in the short to medium term.

The question of land ownership reform is clearly an issue that needs to be handled with great care, and holistically. The new president should put as much energy and effort as he can afford too give practical content to his vision of a national accord on the matter.

by Piet Coetzer

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