Civil war the worst-case scenario for land reform, says Clem Sunter

Cape Town – If land reform is not managed well it could ignite a civil war in South Africa, according to scenario planner and strategist Clem Sunter.

Sunter was speaking at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on Friday at breakfast discussion of President Cyril Ramaphosa's State of the Nation Address.

Other speakers included political commentators and journalists Stephen Grootes and Justice Malala.

Sunter unpacked what he called the “red flags” to watch out for in South Africa’s future. He singled out land expropriation without compensation as something to “watch closely”.

“In the worst-case scenario, it would ignite civil war in South Africa,” he said during a talk that lasted roughly an hour. 

“It won’t be like [what happened in] Zimbabwe because people will fight back. Cyril Ramaphosa will have to handle it with extreme care.”

Earlier this week Ramaphosa told Parliament that land reform would not come at the expense of damaging the economy or threatening food security.

In February the National Assembly passed a motion proposed by the EFF, with amendments by the ANC, that Parliament's Constitutional Review Committee should consider mechanisms through which land could be expropriated without compensation.

The adoption of the motion follows a resolution taken by the ANC at its 54th elective conference in December on land reform. In its post-conference declaration, the ANC said the party would "as a matter of policy, pursue expropriation of land without compensation".

Current ownership patterns 'absurd' 

Sunter said current land ownership patterns are "absurd" and this must be corrected. He said, however, that this it must be done in a way that does not lead to conflict. 

In his address, which lasted about 30 minutes, Malala said the debate around expropriation without compensation had just begun, and South Africa would still be talking about it for the next 10 years.

He said it was important to firstly consider the political management of the issue. If it is not managed well, it could lead to an opportunity cost for South Africa if investors withhold capital as they wait for certainty.

“Ramaphosa should be seen to be managing the process instead of being dictated to by the EFF and others,” he said.

The debate around exactly how expropriation would be implemented is the second issue. While land redistribution has been in the Constitution since 1996, the issue is how it has been implemented.

One of the greatest failures of government is the manner in which it implemented land restitution, Malala said.

He said that when beneficiaries decided to take monetary compensation instead of land, it should have signalled a problem to the state.

Malala said in his view section 25 of the Constitution was not to blame for failuires around land reform.  

The move to amend the Constitution was a “political play” by the EFF to embarrass the ANC, he said. “The ANC is easy to embarrass because it has failed to transform the landscape.”

There is still a lot of uncertainty around the issue, he said. The ANC itself, he argued, does not have a fleshed-out policy around land expropriation without compensation.“Till December 20 this was not something contemplated by a huge chunk of the ANC,” he said.

“In six months, I don’t think Parliament or the (constitutional) review committee will have an answer.”

During the question and answer session, Malala said that he does not think land expropriation is about agricultural land. “There is a generalised anger about poverty and transformation … If there is land hunger, it is in cities.”

“You don’t hear about land invasions in the Karoo or anywhere else. It happens in cities or around urban areas.”

Sunter said the real issue was how residential areas within urban centres will be restructured in the next 50 years to make it accessible for people to get work.

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