President Cyril Ramaphosa has often stressed that there will be no ‘land grabs’ in South Africa. But the pending constitutional amendment bill to allow expropriation without compensation (EWC) and the new Expropriation Bill of 2020 will ensure that the government becomes the biggest land grabber of all.
Already, the state is grabbing land from current owners or occupiers to a significant extent. But the present scale is nothing compared to what lies ahead – once these bills become law.
Let’s take just some of the relevant examples. Since these are evident across the country and go back many years, they point to a pervasive pattern of abuse and/or incompetence that cannot be attributed to a few ‘bad apples’.
At least a third of the 700 000 hectares of supposedly ‘vacant or under-utilised’ state land the government is now planning to allocate to new beneficiaries is already being used by emergent black farmers. The government is effectively proposing to grab their land from them so that it can pass it on to others (through complex new bureaucratic processes employing many cadres).
Some of the people facing dispossession under the 700 000 ha scheme have fought long and hard for title to their land. David Rakgase, for example, recently won a court ruling compelling the state to honour its 2002 agreement to sell him the Nooitgedacht farm in Limpopo. That this farm has now been included in the 700 000 ha scheme shows a contempt for the court ruling. It also smacks of ‘vindictive victimisation’, as the Democratic Alliance (DA) has commented.
Then there’s the Gwatyu community in the Eastern Cape, which has been trying for many years to have some 42 000 hectares of land transferred into the ownership of the Gwatyu Communal Property Association. Some 1 500 community members have lived on the land for some 40 years and want secure title. But this community has now found that its land is also part of the 700 000 ha to be allocated to others.
Some black farmers face dispossession after failing to pay bribes to bureaucrats. Velly John Mabasa, for example, is a successful farmer in Mpumalanga whose Goedhoop farm has been used by his family for generations. He declined to pay the R250 000 ‘administration fee’ that provincial officials demanded for granting him a 30-year lease. Now, like other black farmers who declined to pay a bribe, he faces eviction.
Also relevant is the story of Vuyani Zigana, who has been farming on state land near Kokstad since 2012. In August 2020 he was suddenly evicted on the basis that his occupation was ‘illegal’. This, it seems, was because a high-ranking ANC cadre in the Eastern Cape wanted Mr Zigana’s farm as a ‘gift’ for a friend who is also a wealthy businessman. This injustice has reportedly been reversed through the DA’s intervention, but Mr Zigana remains vulnerable to threats of this kind.
Lulama Kapa is another black farmer at risk of losing his state land to people with close ANC connections. Mr Kapa and his wife have successfully operated an Eastern Cape farm for some 31 years. For the past decade, Mr Kapa has been battling to get officials to transfer the lease into his name. But this is now unlikely to happen, as a politically connected family has been claiming for some time that the land belongs to it (though the deeds registry contradicts this).
One of the government’s land grabs goes back to 2009, when Veronica Moos was suddenly evicted from the state land she was leasing under the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS). Ms Moos had received only a fraction of the financial support promised by the state, but had managed to keep her farm modestly productive by using her pension savings as working capital. But in 2009 she was summarily evicted on the basis that she had failed to use the land properly. According to media reports, the real reason was that the then land minister wanted her farm for a friend.
Sometimes land grabs have taken the form of defective expropriations, implemented without complying with the current Expropriation Act of 1975. In 2014, for example, Louis Nathan Langer, a pensioner classified as ‘coloured’ under apartheid, had his half hectare of land expropriated by the KwaDukuza Municipality. This was done despite his objections and without his knowledge. Since the relevant documents were not served on him, it was only in 2016 that he discovered, to his shock, that the property had been registered in the municipality’s name some two years earlier.
Much the same thing happened to Bheki Dlamini, whose 3 000 or so hectares in the Groutville area were likewise expropriated by the KwaDukuza Municipality. He too was dismayed to learn, long after the fact, that his land had been registered in the municipality’s name in 2014. The notice of expropriation required by the Act was never served on him. Nor did he receive the small amount of compensation the municipality had offered.
In some instances, the land grab has been even cruder and accompanied by violence. This is illustrated by the story of the KwaNdengezi settlement near Pinetown, where much of the land is held in communal tenure. Only some community members have ‘permission to occupy’ documents, but the customary land-use rights of all are known and recognised.
In 2010, however, ANC branch chairman and local councillor Mduduzi Ngcobo announced the start of a housing project in the KwaNdengezi area. The project was supposed to be agreed with the community, but was instead imposed on it. RDP houses were simply built on people’s plots without their consent and then sold by Mr Ngcobo to outsiders. Community objections were ignored, prompting the Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) movement to become involved.
A number of AbM members in the settlement were threatened or attacked, while the police largely turned a blind eye. Matters came to a head in September 2014, when AbM chairperson Thuli Ndlovu was shot dead in her home by a hitman hired by Mr Ndlovu and paid R15 000 to assassinate her. Mr Ndlovu and another ANC councillor, together with the hitman, were convicted of Ms Ndlovu’s murder in 2016.
Confined to leasehold tenure
One of the most telling land grabs took place in 2010, when the government cancelled the option to purchase it had previously included in its standard PLAS lease agreement. This sparked great concern among many black farmers, who found themselves confined to leasehold tenure and denied any prospect of obtaining title to the land they worked.
This approach was formalised in 2013, with the government’s adoption of the State Land Lease and Disposal Policy (SLDDP). Under the SLDPP, small black subsistence farmers must remain perpetual tenants of the state. Bigger farmers with some capacity for commercial production must lease their farms for 30 years, and then possibly another 20. Only after five decades may these farmers have an option to buy. In the interim, their leases may be terminated at any time for what the SLLDP describes as a lack of ‘production discipline’. Any fixed improvements they have made will then go to the government, generally without any compensation being paid.
Worse still, the long leases supposedly on offer under the SLLDP have mostly not been granted. Instead, many black farmers have nothing but ‘caretaker’ agreements that run from month to month and can easily be terminated by officials for no good reason.
The biggest government land grabs still lie ahead. Once the EWC constitutional amendment bill and the Expropriation Bill are enacted into law, municipalities and many other organs of state will find it remarkably easy – after a few preliminary requirements have been ticked off – to expropriate significant tracts of farming, residential, commercial, industrial, and mining land for inadequate or ‘nil’ compensation.
Many of the current soothing comments on these bills – whether from the government or its praise singers elsewhere – assume that the land (and other property) grabbed by the state will be transferred into the ownership of black South Africans to provide them with effective redress for apartheid’s many wrongs.
But ANC policy and ideology will instead ensure that the government retains ownership of all it seizes. Black South Africans will be confined to leases alone – and will be just as vulnerable to bureaucratic abuse and incompetence as Mr Rakgase and many others have been.
Expropriation, in short, will not bring redress. Instead, it will be used to expand state power, feed the ruling party’s patronage machine, and further cripple the market economy en route to the socialist ‘nirvana’ the ANC and its communist allies have been pursuing for decades.