South Africa’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has pledged to return the lands owned by white farmers since the 1600s to the black citizens of the country.
The government plans to accelerate land redistribution through expropriation without compensation.
“The expropriation of land without compensation is envisaged as one of the measures that we will use to accelerate the redistribution of land to black South Africans,” said Ramaphosa, who was sworn into office to succeed Jacob Zuma as president last week.
The millionaire ex-businessman Ramaphosa promised that land expropriation operations will not be a “smash and grab” exercise and promised to handle the matter properly, adding that people “must see this process as an opportunity.”
“No-one is saying that land must be taken away from our people,” he said, “Rather, it is how we can make sure that our people have equitable access to land and security of tenure. We must see this process of accelerated land redistribution as an opportunity and not as a threat,” he added during a speech to parliament on Tuesday.
Such a drastic move would not damage the country’s agriculture or economy, the South African president promised.
“We will handle it with responsibility. We will handle it in a way that will not damage our economy, that is not going to damage agricultural production,” he said.
More than two decades after the end of apartheid in the 1990s, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party is under pressure to tackle racial disparities in land ownership in South Africa. The country is home to over 50 million people, with whites owning most of the land.
According to a recent study, black South Africans constitute 79 percent of the population, but directly own only 1.2 percent of the country’s rural land. Meanwhile, white South Africans, who constitute 9 percent of the country’s population, directly own 23.6 percent of its rural land, and 11.4 percent of land in towns and cities, according to the Land Audit report.
Zimbabwe embarked on a violent land reform programme in 2000, taking over white-owned farms to resettle landless blacks.
Thousands of white farmers were forced off their land by mobs or evicted, with ex-president Robert Mugabe saying the reforms would help black people marginalised under British colonial rule.
Critics blamed the land redistribution for the collapse in agricultural production that saw the former regional breadbasket become a perennial food importer.
The Daily News reported that close to 690 000 hectares of land were forcibly taken from the white farmers, including farming equipment, livestock and personal possessions.
In 2010, the Guardian reported that Mugabe used land reform to reward his allies rather than ordinary black Zimbabweans. In 2016, Mugabe signed a decree that foreign companies would face closure unless they sold or gave up 51 percent of their shares.
Speaking about the redistribution of land in his country, Ramaphosa said that “in dealing with this complex matter” South Africa would not “make the mistakes that others have made.”
South Africa is one of the five largest economies in Sub Sahara Africa. It is the only country in the region with a sophisticated and profitable agricultural sector, and is the region’s most food-secure country. It is also not expected to contribute much to regional population growth.
Although it has been particularly badly affected by the 2015/2016 drought, South Africa remains the largest net food exporter of major foodstuffs in Africa.
This is primarily due the competitiveness of the country’s commercial farmers, who are the main producers of export commodities – marketing mainly to Africa, the European Union (EU), the UK and Asia.
“The time for reconciliation is over; now is the time for justice,” EFF leader Julius Malema told parliament.
“It is about our dignity. We do not seek revenge… all that our people ever wanted is their land to which their dignity is rooted and founded.”
Uncontrolled redistribution of land will trigger a massive drop in production with an inevitable economic crisis ahead. It’s nice to have dignity, but it doen’t fill your stomach.