OPINION | Expropriation of land in SA is no new thing

Almost 17 000 land claims settled in the Eastern Cape.
Land Almost 17 000 land claims settled in the Eastern Cape.
Image: File

The South African government, whether under apartheid or post-1994, always had the powers of expropriation. It is nothing new. Part of the purpose of this Bill is to repeal laws going back to 1975.

The growing policy shift towards expropriation without compensation, which we see within the ruling party; in Parliament and; an imminent constitutional amendment affecting all further laws, is also nothing new.

Land has been expropriated without compensation in this country for a few hundred years.

Under apartheid, land was expropriated for the benefit of white people exclusively, and for the relocation, separation and subjugation of all black peoples specifically, and that was wrong.

It does not mean the principle of state expropriation is wrong. If anything it proved the wisdom of state and government expropriation of property for the benefit of the nation, but now it needs to be done equitably. This law must action the land ambitions of those who say they feel the injustices of now – radical movements of the youth, the landless, unemployed, women, rural people, fisher folk, non-government organisations, trade unions and political parties, who testified across the country as to why there must be land expropriation without compensation.

They did not make this call as if it was a solution to their oppression, but overwhelmingly it was the oppressed and downtrodden who made this call when we were asked, what should the country do?

The call was by no means unanimous. It came from a very specific radical left section of the nation.

And some of the country's elite – most government officials, presidents, some strong political parties, radical academics, political commentators, and many ordinary landed black middle class people - heard this call and, for whatever reasons, amplified this call.

Indeed many of them also recognised some of the injustices of our times and the ways in which government can respond (not solve or end) to some of these injustices through land expropriation.

And it is through some of this elite that we are now here, at the point where we can shape a law that can help the state (in only one of many ways) respond to the needs and welfare of the nation.

Thanks to the ruling ANC, the current and immediate former presidents of the country, the EFF, and the smaller Left parties, PAC and Azapo – parliament approved the Constitutional Review Commission report calling for a constitutional amendment and once again (it's the second time) introduced an Expropriation Bill.

It's a terrible Bill. It fails to capture the radical spirit of the debates on expropriation over the past three years, nor does it accommodate the envisaged change to the constitution to explicitly allow for expropriation without compensation. It is a Bill designed on many levels to thwart effective government action on land expropriation.

Despite the radical context of the debates around land expropriation, expanded government powers to expropriate property does not mean:

  • A cancellation of private property and private ownership of land;
  • That people will no longer be able to, or want to sell or buy property;
  • That white people will lose their land and houses arbitrarily; or
  • That black people will no longer have to save and aim towards buying land, as everyone's up for a title deed.

Private property, and private ownership of land specifically, remains sacred and indeed under protection.

It is no doubt a human right in a free-market capitalist South Africa.

Nevertheless, there is land that should not be owned; or private land that may be required for an urgent developmental need; or abandoned land; or under-utilised land, all of which, if expropriated does not cancel out the right to private ownership of land.

The ANC, at its National Congress in December 2017, adopted a resolution on expropriation without compensation that precluded wholesale state ownership of land or arbitrary expropriation.

The party confirmed that it was one of a number of strategies that can be used to give effect to land reform and redistribution, and then added: “We must ensure that we do not undermine future investment in the economy, or damage agricultural production of food security. Furthermore, our interventions must not cause harm to other sectors of the economy”.

This wise approach is welcomed. There are many examples around the world, in Asia and Middle Eastern countries, where governments expropriate land to stimulate a property market and enable first-time home buyers; not to just hand out free land and property.

Needless to say, once this law is passed, we'll be able to develop more clarity on what should be achieved through expropriation, and how this law can in fact change the skewed land holding patterns in the country.

Furthermore, in this law, we can guard against expropriation being used for the benefit of private individual gain, or the creation and advancement of new landed elites.

Expropriation powers are needed to remove obstacles arising from private property or real estate markets that may impede the state's ability to acquire land for the welfare and development of the country, and local communities.

However, expropriated property should not be used for or awarded to anybody for individual personal gain.

Where property has been expropriated, it should only be used in the public interest, and should only be awarded on behalf of the state to a group or trust, but not an individual.

Of course there's no getting away from the fact that some land will be taken, and that some people will at some point lose some property.

However, this should not happen arbitrarily, but after a process of deliberation.

The SA public has an opportunity now to suggest exactly how this process can work.

Raashied Galant is media officer at Trust for Community Outreach and Education.