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Pieces of land: on land redistribution in South Africa

South Africa still struggles with the post-apartheid promise of redistribution

As South Africa debates contentious legislative proposals on land redistribution, few see any risk of Zimbabwe-style violent farm seizures of the 1990s in Africa’s most industrialised country. But President Cyril Ramaphosa, a former business tycoon and trade union leader, faces the delicate task of making good on the constitutional principle of land “expropriation without compensation”, not undermining the right to private property. Land ownership patterns remain skewed against the black majority, 24 years since the end of apartheid. Official statistics on land holdings among racial groups are contested on their details. Yet, there is no denying that the majority were dispossessed of their holdings during the colonial period. Impatience for speedy transformation has gripped South Africans since they saw off the corrupt rule of Jacob Zuma and as the country approaches the 25-year milestone of liberation from apartheid. The annual growth rate is poor, and unemployment hovers around 25%, even as the country comes to terms with the role of top African National Congress leaders in the loot of its natural wealth. The data on inequality and economic drift have led to a sense of despair that the mission of Nelson Mandela has dissipated under successive governments. Against this backdrop, nothing seems to be more pressing than reforms to colonial-era land holding patterns that have displaced the majority for centuries and hampered their prospects. The World Bank has rated unequal distribution and access to land as South Africa’s second greatest obstacle to reducing poverty, after skill deficits.

Amendments to the Constitution that are under consideration aim to make land expropriation provisions more explicit. The proposals target unutilised land, derelict buildings and land used for speculative purposes. The implications of these changes for the mining sector could be significant. His business acumen and trade union experience should equip Mr. Ramaphosa to balance competing and conflicting interests. It remains to be seen whether the amendments will satisfy the Economic Freedom Fighters, the radical breakaway party of the ANC. But for Mr. Ramaphosa, the moves are about instilling public confidence in his leadership and that of the ANC ahead of the 2019 general election. His bold initiatives as President have seen the return of competent Ministers sacked by his predecessor, manoeuvres to revive investor confidence and restoration of an independent prosecutor’s office. The land reforms he has started are potentially the most transformative yet for South Africa, and also the most difficult as they are politically contentious. Mr. Ramaphosa should stand his ground.

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