South Africa land reform: a delicate balance between history and economy

Aerial view of 500 hectars of Zunckel Farms in KwaZulu Natal with the backdrop of the Drakensberg mountain range.
Aerial view of 500 hectars of Zunckel Farms in KwaZulu Natal with the backdrop of the Drakensberg mountain range. (Tyson Zunckel)

South Africa is moving forward with its land reform, 25 years after the end of apartheid. A recent report recommended land expropriation without compensation – in specific circumstances. The government now has the delicate task of redressing the injustices of the past while protecting the economy.


South Africa's much awaited land reform is meant to redress the country's history of segregation, which resulted in the majority of the land being held by the white minority.

The black population, including the coloured and Indian communities, were dispossessed of their land under apartheid legislation.

A panel of ten South Africans, appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa, published its report on 28 July. It had eight months to review all aspects of the land reform process in South Africa and to make recommendations for law, policy and implementation.

It its  final report, approved by the South African cabinet last Wednesday, the panel concludes that land expropriation is legitimate as it is already allowed for in the 1996 South African constitution.

“Expropriation does not, in every case, have to include compensation to the owner and certainly not at market price,” says Ruth Hall, a panel member and professor with the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape. “There should be expropriation without compensation in limited circumstances.”


The final report of the presidential advisory panel on land reform and agriculture lists 10 cases where expropriation without compensation is deemed “justified and fair”. Among them: abandoned land, land held purely for speculative purposes, informal settlement areas, unutilised land held by state entities.

The report recommends compensation in cases where the land has been used for farming.

“Our panel was not unanimous as to whether there is a need for an amendment to the constitution,” adds Hall. “The majority view within our panel was that there is a need for the constitution to be amended just to clarify that there could be no compensation in limited circumstances.”

An alternative report

Two of the members of the presidential panel, Dan Kriek, President of AgriSA and Nick Serfontein, chairman of the Sernick Group, submitted an alternative report directly to president Ramaphosa - and not presented to cabinet - to address the recommendations they felt could be improved.

Dr Vuyokazi Mahlati, chairman of the panel, told RFI that only the main final report of the advisory panel on land reform and agriculture on the government website has official status.

“There is a lot of good work in the report and we do list them. But the devil is in the detail,” explains Kriek who heads AgriSA, a federation of agricultural organisations established in 1904.

“The main report proposes an amendment to Section 25 of our constitution which is the property clause. I do believe that if we go the way of amending the constitution, we will do much harm to our economy. We will not get foreign investment. We will see inward and external investment drying up as the levels of uncertainty will increase.”

Thandeka Mbabana, the shadow minister for agriculture, land reform and rural development for the opposition Democratic Alliance, shares Kriek’s views that the recommendations of this report will not help grow the South African economy.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) had to come up with this report and provide concrete proposals because it felt pressured by the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) hold on the land reform debates in the country.

Too much control to the ANC

Mbabana fears that the recommendations of the land reform report give too much power to the government.

“We, the DA, are not sure we should be trusting this particular government because in the past 25 years they have messed up land reform,” she told RFI. “When the ANC are in charge, it leads to rampant corruption because they give land to friends and business associates.

“This land reform did not get to the people who actually need it, like labour tenants on the farm, small scale growers, emerging farmers on the ground.”

Kriek is concerned that allowing land expropriation without compensation will endanger the constitution’s role to safeguard civil liberties.

“I believe if we amend the constitution to enable expropriation without compensation, we will open a door which we should not open,” he declares.“We will give powers to this government and to a next government with more radical parties. That is why the powers of politicians are limited by a constitution.”


Hall says that, in devising their recommendations, the panel of experts were keenly aware of existing corruption.

“We are concerned that in some cases the state has been buying up farms and giving them to the existing elite – people who are wealthy or politically connected,” she says.

The recommendations suggest tightening up the process of identifying who should get the land “because corruption doesn’t only come with buying the land, but also allocating it.”

The report proposes a new approach to identifying and prioritising beneficiaries and limiting how much any one person can get from the land reform process.

The report suggests a legal clarification of “equitable access” to land which, according to Hall, has never been interpreted in law or policy.

“The state has an obligation to prioritise people with the greatest need and not simply to hand out large farms to its political allies,” declares Hall.

The panel made another recommendation to combat corruption by establishing a “land right protector” who will act as an ombudsman with “wide ranging powers to investigate cases of land corruption, to gather evidence and to make findings.”


“Nobody is against land reform, we all know in South Africa that we need to rectify past injustices,” declares Kriek. “But it is the balance that you have to strike now between rectifying those injustices and growing the economy of the country.”

Mbabana says the recommendations will not redress history as “our people will not get land ownership.”

“What they will get is property to rent which is not what the Democratic Alliance would like to see happening on the ground,” she says.

Mbabana says that as the government will not issue title deeds to the new owners, it will make it difficult for them to get credit in order to carry out farming which is very risky in South Africa.

Hall tells RFI that South Africans claiming back land, of which they were unfairly dispossessed under the Natives Land Act of 1913, are entitled to get it back as private owners of that land. However, those applying for land under the discretionary land redistribution process are not given private title – instead they become tenants of the state and are expected to pay rent.

Hall admits this system is “not working well at all” and raises questions as to whether the state should be the owner of land.

“Our own research suggests that the state is not able to manage the system,” she adds. “We think that land administration is a particularly weak area of the South African government and it needs to be strengthened.

"But this question of whether or not there should be private titles or state ownership was not a matter of agreement within our panel.”

South Africa's parliament is due to start debates on the land expropriation bill in October.

An inter-ministerial committee of ten cabinet ministers is expected to meet every two weeks to discuss steps towards implementing recommendations.


Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt

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