Will South Africa’s Plans To Expropriate White-Owned Land Turn It Into Zimbabwe?

REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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South Africa’s parliament has cleared the way for a constitutional amendment that would let the government seize land from white landowners without compensation, raising concerns about potential economic catastrophe in the name of racial justice.

In a 241 to 83 vote earlier this week, lawmakers approved the motion brought by the radical Marxist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party as part of a so-called “land reform” program to even the disparity in ownership between South Africa’s black majority and white minority.

“We must ensure that we restore the dignity of our people without compensating the criminals who stole our land,” EFF leader Julius Malema told parliament ahead of the vote.

Newly elected South African President Cyril Ramaphosa reassured lawmakers Thursday that “there will be no smash and grab” of white-owned land, saying that any redistribution program would be done in a way that does not disrupt normal farming operations. His party, the ruling African National Congress (ANC), widely supports an amendment authorizing expropriation.

But some lawmakers in the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party, along with agricultural economists, worry that South Africa is about to take the same path pursued by its neighbor, Zimbabwe, which initiated its own mass land expropriation program in the early 2000s. Under the direction of former dictator Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe seized and redistributed land from about 4,000 white farmers to landless blacks in an effort to compensate them for years of colonial rule.

Far from improving the economic well-being of the black majority, the land confiscation destroyed Zimbabwe’s once thriving agricultural sector and forced the government to rely on international aid to feed 25 percent of its population. Between 2000 and 2009, agricultural revenue declined by $12 billion, the Washington Post reported, citing Zimbabwe’s commercial farmers’ union.

Adding insult to injury, the Mugabe regime redistributed the biggest and most fertile farms to supporters of the ruling party, most of whom had no farming expertise or experience. The expropriation initiative ended up enriching a small group of political cronies at the expense of million of poor blacks.

Ironically, South Africa is taking steps toward uncompensated land confiscation at the same time that Zimbabwe is reimbursing some white farmers for the value of land that was seized last decade. South African agricultural economists Johann Kirsten and Wandile Sihlobo say the government is wading into a morass of legal and economic problems that could be avoided by looking at what happened in Zimbabwe.

“With the benefit of hindsight, the Zimbabwean experience tells us is that the notion of expropriation without compensation is a bad idea,” they wrote Thursday in Quartz Africa. “Zimbabweans might have seized the land without compensation 18 years ago, but they collectively paid for it through eight consecutive years of economic decline that led to job losses, deindustrialization and a loss of agricultural export revenues.”


For now, the ANC appears committed to following through on its policy, adopted at a conference in December, of narrowing racial ownership disparities by taking white-owned land without compensation. More than two decades after the end of white minority rule, whites own 72 percent of the 37 million hectares held by individuals, according to a government audit released in February.

Ramaphosa told parliament Thursday that expropriation is needed to atone for the “original sin” of colonial rule and apartheid.

“We are going to address this and make sure that we come up with resolutions that resolve this once and for all,” he said, according to Reuters.

It remains unclear when any change to South Africa’s constitution to allow expropriation of land without compensation would take place. The matter will now be referred to the Constitutional Review Committee, which must report back to parliament with a plan by August 30.

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Will Racke