The truth about South African ‘land seizures’

The country is undertaking a difficult but needed debate on how to put more farmland into the hands of its poor black majority. 

Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko/File
Farm workers harvest cabbages at a farm in Eikenhof, near Johannesburg, South Africa in May 2018.

A respect for property rights is seen as a fundamental aspect of American society. So when word comes that an African country is seizing private land from its citizens alarms can be raised. But a closer look reveals a more nuanced situation.

The government of South Africa is dealing with a challenging problem: Its unemployment rate is at 27 percent (the United States unemployment rate is 3.9 percent) and rising. The stability and prosperity of that country, a democracy whose economy provides a vital anchor for Africa, a continent of 1.2 billion people, is at stake.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa (previously a successful businessman), is weighing the possibility of changing the nation’s Constitution to allow the government to take private agricultural land in certain cases. But no law has been passed or decision made.

The reason for such a dramatic move extends back to colonial times, when white immigrants took over and began to farm vast areas of land. Today white farmers own nearly three-quarters of the private farmland, though whites make up less than 10 percent of the population.

Mr. Ramaphosa has promised there will be “no land grab.” Issues of compensation and the details of how a program might work are under discussion. What is most likely to happen first is that undeveloped government-owned land will be offered to black farmers.

Several years ago a land seizure from white farmers in neighboring Zimbabwe did not go well. Although it did raise some rural blacks out of poverty, the scheme was part of a series of economic moves by President Robert Mugabe that, as a whole, failed miserably.

While white South African farmers have reason for concern as to how a government land redistribution program might affect them, many South Africans also know that more land ownership for black farmers, if carried out properly, could be a boon for the country. 

“We need more black farmers on more black farms in an orderly and sustainable way,” Dan Kriek, head of Agri SA, which opposes land seizures, told the Financial Times. 

“The debate needs to happen,” says a successful black South African farmer. “You cannot have six or seven guys with mega farms surrounded by black communities whose only contribution is their labour,” he said. “If we as agriculture don’t radically change … we’re in trouble. The other side of the fence is getting very impatient.”

South Africa needs to talk through its tricky land reform question and find a way forward that is fair and equitable to all. 

What's happening is much more complex than a quick first look might suggest.

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