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Land Expropriation without Compensation in South Africa

What happened in South Africa has only served to keep the oppressor in control of what matters most to the people: land.

Land is something that Africans fought for as it was the focal point of the African struggle for emancipation, especially in Southern Africa. On our continent, as elsewhere, land is more than just a geographical place or a potential economic investment opportunity; it is intimately tied to our identity and our being. Anyone who takes land away from us tramples on the very source of our identity, violates our dignity, and ultimately negates our humanity. It’s no wonder that in Southern Africa, the issue of land has dominated the post-colonial discourses. Yet, more than two decades after the end of apartheid in South Africa, the political elite are yet to come to an agreement about resolving the issue of land redistribution.

It has taken the African National Congress (ANC) almost four years of political manoeuvring to finally push forward the process – started in February 2018 – of changing some parts of the South African constitution to explicitly allow for the expropriation of land without compensation. On Tuesday, 7th of December 2021,  the bill that would permit for the amendment of Section 25 of the constitution was to be debated and passed into law. For any change of the constitution to take place, the law requires a two-thirds majority, which is about 267 votes from the National Assembly. With a total of 230 votes under its control, the ANC which introduced the bill needed the support of the two main opposition parties (the Democratic Alliance (DA)’s 91 votes or the Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF)’s 44 votes) to push the bill through. Unfortunately, both parties rejected the amendments, and the bill failed to pass.

The DA’s opposition to the amendment was not surprising as its position was clear from the beginning. This is a party that has always sought to promote the interests of its white members and supporters who still possess most of the South African land. Hence, the DA has always been staunchly opposed to any possible amendment that permits land expropriation without compensation, with  MP Annelie Lotriet of the DA arguing that the Constitution and  Section 25 were not stumbling blocks in the way of land reform. She further went on to say that “Creating uncertainty around property rights goes counter to the rule of law,” adding that “there is no need to amend Section 25, and this bill falls foul of the Bill of Rights.” 

However, it surprised many that the EFF, which brought the initial motion for such an amendment, rejected ANC’s proposal. Given EFF’s and ANC’s common rhetoric that invokes the redemptive mantra that seeks to lift the masses from poverty, one would have expected their positions to align on this crucial matter. The leader of the EFF, Julius Malema, explained that they rejected the constitutional amendment bill because it stands as an impediment to Black people’s struggle for land repossession. According to him, the version presented by the government was watered down and a complete departure from the radical proposal that was made.

“The current bill makes meaningless provisions for the state to be a custodian of certain land and does not define what this certain land is… If this bill is allowed to pass, it would signify a sell-out position and further disenfranchisement of black people,” Malema said.

Malema also pointed out that his party tried to negotiate with the ANC, and that the EFF only pulled its support when “the ANC rejected its proposals of state custodianship for all land, and after a series of bilateral political meetings.”  For Malema, this fallout was simply because the ruling party does not represent the interests of the dispossessed majority. It is noteworthy that the reason why the EFF insists on the need to put all land under state custodianship is to ultimately achieve equitable redistribution. The EFF believes that the position taken by the ruling party is inspired by the convictions of  ANC sell-outs “captured by white monopoly capital.” The EFF is convinced that the ANC wants to maintain the status quo, thereby implicitly protecting the property rights of white landowners just like the DA and other liberal parties.

The ANC, on its part, accused those who do not support the bill of being against the poor landless Black South Africans. For example, an ANC member of parliament, Mathole Motshekga, who was the chair of the ad hoc committee that drafted the bill, said “the House had an opportunity by adopting the bill to eradicate the original sin in the interest of all South Africans.” He went on to say the “bill sought to address the crime against the African humanity – the dispossession of land.”

By this statement, he was implying that those who choose to oppose the bill are confirming, through their actions, that “the suffering of African people in particular and black people, in general, should continue until sometime in the future when they are in power, something that will never happen.”  In other words, both the ANC and the EFF accuse each other of sacrificing the cause of liberation at the altar of selfish, sectarian interests.

But when all is said and done, it is the Black landless people that lose. What happened in South Africa has only served to keep the oppressor in control of what matters most to the dispossessed: land. Whether the bill was passed or not is not as important as our leaders’ priorities. It is crucial to ask ourselves whether South African leaders’ priorities are the people or are based on their loyalty to private interests while using the masses as their ticket to positions of power.

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