THE alarmingly named Expropriation Bill, passed on May 26th by South Africa’s parliament, is being hailed by the ruling party as a victory for blacks who were dispossessed of their land by white colonists. More than two decades after the first democratic election of 1994, the vast majority of land is still owned by white South Africans. The African National Congress (ANC) has until now operated a “willing seller, willing buyer” policy of land reform. But this has proved slow and ineffective. Only about 8-10% of white-owned land has been transferred to black owners since the party came to power, a third of its target of 30%.
The new bill, which still needs to be signed by the president, Jacob Zuma, aims to speed this up, by allowing the state to expropriate land by paying an amount determined by a “Valuer-General”.
Critics fear the bill could affect agricultural production at a time when South Africa is recovering from a serious drought, as well as suffering from creakingly slow economic growth and an expected downgrade of its credit-rating to junk status later this year. Some white farmers look nervously to Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe’s disastrous land reform policies of the early 2000s.
But others see the bill as more of a populist gesture, unlikely to have a substantial impact. The ANC is heading into municipal elections, set for August 3rd, in a weakened state. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), an upstart rival that promises the nationalisation of mines and expropriation of white-owned land without compensation, has been drawing votes from poor young blacks. Through the Expropriation Bill, the ANC hopes to steal back some of its popularity.
Pierre de Vos, a constitutional law expert, notes that the expropriation of property will still be subject to the South African constitution, and that fair market prices will have to be paid. He thinks that “people get a bit hysterical” about the bill, and argues it is unlikely to make a major difference. The government lacks the cash to buy large amounts of land at market prices for redistribution—and handing it out to people without the money to invest in it is a recipe for failure. Some analysts have speculated that Mr Zuma might take his time signing the bill, as has happened in the past with controversial parliamentary measures.
There are still reasons to be concerned, however. The Democratic Alliance, the biggest opposition party, says it is concerned about the lack of clarity in the bill, with the term “property” left open to interpretation (land, in other words, might not be all that can be purchased compulsorily). AgriSA, a union of commercial farmers, says that it will scrutinise the bill’s implementation, and take to court any attempts to expropriate agricultural land without full compensation.
John Kane-Berman, a fellow at the Johannesburg-based Institute of Race Relations, argues that the demand for farmland is far less than the ANC assumes. The more pressing demand, he says, is land for housing in cities. “The view in the ANC that land is the answer to poverty, inequality, and unemployment has no basis in reality,” he writes. “Ordinary people have long since voted against this idea with their feet by moving to town.”
Source: The Economist