Property rights

2008-06-27 00:00

The recent history of Zimbabwe provides a salutary reminder of the possible consequences of failure to address land reform. The South African government wishes to see 30% of farmland in black hands by 2014, but at the present rate this is a remote ambition. Progress is slow, it is said, because of the willing-seller, willing-buyer mechanism and the operation of the free market.

Landowners dispute this, citing numerous examples of sellers thwarted by bureaucratic shortcomings within the Department of Agriculture and Land Affairs. Farms remain unproductive while official wheels grind slowly, or not at all. The government’s response is to introduce legislation enabling expropriation in the public interest. This includes land reform: the new law, it is argued, has transformative purpose. Parliament’s own lawyers have suggested that the Expropriation Bill is unconstitutional, adding weight to the call from the official opposition for its suspension. Its most contentious provision is the power given to the minister to order an expropriation and set a value on compensation. The threat to constitutional rights involves property, the role of the courts and just administrative action.

Security of tenure is not a matter to be taken lightly. Food security in an age of escalating input costs and general economic uncertainty depends upon a strong agricultural sector. This requires a commitment to the land by skilled farmers who have sufficient confidence to invest over the long term. Potentially draconian powers wielded by the executive and largely beyond the review of the courts will provide little encouragement.

Any general threat to property rights will discourage much needed investment in all sectors of the economy. Spokespeople for the agricultural sector have voiced fears of a breakdown in trust between farmers and the government. These are reasons why the call for the bill to be redrafted makes good sense.

The government is trying to cover its failures by acquiring greater executive control rather than fixing administrative shortcomings. This proposed legislation contains the seeds of land nationalisation and is yet more evidence of the ruling party’s desire for a further concentration of power. It should be strongly resisted.

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