Guest Column

Malema's soothing words on land mask barbed realities

2018-03-05 11:31
Land claims beneficiaries marching in Polokwane to demand a speedy resolution on their claims. (Foto24)

Land claims beneficiaries marching in Polokwane to demand a speedy resolution on their claims. (Foto24)

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Terence Corrigan

Considerable attention has been paid to EFF leader Julius Malema's assurances that the revision of the property clause in the Constitution and the implementation of expropriation without compensation were measures that would be limited to land. Other property would not be affected.

Striking an unusually conciliatory note outside the National Assembly after the vote, he said: "No one is going to lose his or her house, no one is going to lose his or her flat, no one is going to lose his or her factory or industry. All we are saying is they will not have the ownership of the land."

This is at once an important admission and a doubtful contention.

It is an important admission because it foregrounds the intention to bring all land into possession of the state. While the final motion was ambivalent about this, it is a view that has been expressed for years within the ANC and EFF. No one – and no entity other than the state – will own any land at all. The state would own land, urban and rural, and then lease it to occupiers.

This throws an important nuance over the expectation, widely repeated on radio talk shows and on social media, that this would set the scene for black people to reclaim landholdings. The reality is that this is not a measure that will necessarily make any tract of land available to any person or any group of people. It will be for the state to decide whom to confer leases on, and for what purposes.

True ownership of land – already ruled out for many beneficiaries in terms of current land reform policy – would become impossible. 

Beyond that, the actual process of allocation would depend on the questionable capacities of the state to carry it out. The weaknesses in the land reform bureaucracy are no secret. The 2011 Green Paper on Land Reform was admirably blunt in assessing what had gone wrong: "The main constraint is the poor capacity of organs of state to implement."

There is little to suggest that things have improved much in this respect.

Indeed, a detailed 2016 report on the land reform process by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape commented on much the same thing – among many other issues. It said: "Lack of capacity in government departments such as land reform and agriculture (at both provincial and national level) has hampered the implementation of land reform. Many officials have little first-hand experience of the realities they are attempting to change or support, and often have prior professional training that is not relevant to the work they do. Extension services in rural South Africa have long been in disarray."

With this background, it came as little surprise last year when the non-governmental organisation, In Transformation Initiative, reported that government was in possession of more than 4 000 farms that it had failed to pass on to beneficiaries. 

With the state's landholding expanded to cover the totality of the country's surface, there are few grounds to imagine that this administrative sclerosis would not be replicated on a catastrophic scale.

Malema's comments were contentious because they implied that the proposed expropriation regime would confine itself to land. This may have been the idiom in which the resolution was framed, but its consequences are likely to resonate far more widely.

Section 25 of the Constitution deals with the protection of all property, and not just land. The outcome of the proposed amendment is likely to be similarly extensive in scope. After all, over the past decade, there have been some 20 attempts to pass legislation or introduce policy that would abridge property rights and grant the state great discretion to seize assets. These were by no means limited to land reform.

Once constitutional protections on property are degraded, and legislation passed empowering compensation-free takings, it is hard to imagine that other sectors of the economy would not be targeted.

The possibilities for this abound. Shares or equity in businesses might, for example, be expropriated to fulfil empowerment goals; demands made on pension funds to back government's development initiatives or even to make up shortfalls in revenue, or claims made on significant artworks in private hands. 

The policy position of Malema's own party is to force through the nationalisation of large parts of the economy – why limit the state's right to compensation-free takings to land, when state ownership of mines and banks is also envisaged?

Malema may be (and probably is) sincere in saying that people's homes are not under threat. But international experience shows that the absence of property rights opens the door for just this sort of abuse. And nowhere does it fall more heavily than on society's poorest people.

Large, high-profile sporting events, such as the Olympic Games or Football World Cup, are a good example. Erecting a stadium, building the attendant infrastructure, or 'beautifying' the environment often rides roughshod over the rights of the poor. This is not only the province of authoritarian societies. According to one estimate, as many as a quarter of a million people were evicted from their homes and businesses in Brazil – a democracy, and a trailblazer in 'participatory' politics – in the run up to the 2014 World Cup. 

A Washington Post report summed it up: "Many of the people evicted are poor and politically weak. Although many have lived in these neighbourhoods for years, their property rights are not recognised by the official legal system, which makes it easy to evict them with little or no compensation."

If South African policy is to move in this direction, the consequences stand to be brutally severe. It's good to have politicians like Malema put their perspectives on the table. It's even more important to understand what they mean. Soothing words, after all, often mask barbed realities.

- Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    eff  |  julius malema  |  land  |  land expropriation  |  property


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