The issues of land policy debate in South Africa has gone beyond the country to attract other countries, will to mediate so the policy does not cause chaos and acrimony.
For nearly 50 years, starting in the late 1940s, the black Africans who make up the majority of South Africa’s population were subjected to an official government policy of institutionalized political and economic discrimination and strict racial segregation by the white European minority who ruled the country under a system known as apartheid. (In practice, discrimination against black Africans had gone on for hundreds of years before it ever became official policy.)
Among many, many other infringements on their basic rights, black South Africans were legally barred from living on, operating businesses in, or owning land in vast swaths of the country that were set aside for whites only. By the time apartheid formally ended in 1994, nearly 90 percent of all land in the country was owned by whites — despite the fact that they made up just 10 percent of the population.
Land reform efforts aimed at remedying this situation began when apartheid ended. But after nearly 25 years, the huge disparity hasn’t gone away:
A 2017 audit by the South African government found that whites still owned 72 percent of private farmland in South Africa.
In 2016, the country’s parliament passed a bill allowing for “the expropriation of property for a public purpose or in the public interest, subject to just and equitable compensation.” In other words, the government could legally force white landowners to give up their land in return for a fair price. The land would then be redistributed to black South Africans.
But that process, too, has been slow — and people are getting tired of waiting. Support for a small, far-left political party that advocates for nationalizing all land in South Africa has been growing.
So now, with elections looming next year, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has decided to take more drastic action: amending the constitution to make it legal for the government to seize land without providing compensation.
That move is being welcomed by many in the country, but not everyone is convinced it’s a good idea. Some, including investors, worry that it could trigger a catastrophic economic crisis like the one that occurred in neighboring Zimbabwe when it enacted similar reforms in 2000. There, rapid land seizures panicked investors, causing them to flee the market in droves. That led to massive hyperinflation and food shortages that effectively collapsed the country’s economy: Experts put the cost to Zimbabwe’s economy at around $20 billion.