Expropriation: much at risk - The Witness

5 February 2021 - There are only days left for South Africans to comment on the Expropriation Bill, which – it is no exaggeration to say – may be the most important piece of legislation to be considered in post-apartheid South Africa.

Marius Roodt

There are only days left for South Africans to comment on the Expropriation Bill, which – it is no exaggeration to say – may be the most important piece of legislation to be considered in post-apartheid South Africa.

If passed in its current form, it will allow the government to expropriate property – widely defined – without paying compensation.

Although a number of commenters have assured South Africans that there is nothing to fear in the Bill and that, should it become law, the government will use the power it is granted wisely, this is far from clear.

As my colleague, head of policy research at the Institute of Race Relations, Anthea Jeffery, has pointed out, the Bill lists five instances where property can be expropriated without compensation. However, and this is a point which seems to be overlooked intentionally by supporters of the draft law, it explicitly says that instances of expropriation where nil compensation will be paid are not limited to the five listed examples listed. In addition, the Bill states that property is not limited to land, meaning that there is much more at risk than simply one’s property.

Furthermore, the Bill allows for property to be seized before those affected can go to court. Someone who has lost their property (which could also be their source of income) can thus only approach the courts after having suffered this loss. The vast majority of people affected by the government taking their property will simply not have the financial resources to mount such a legal challenge.

Making it legal for the government to seize the property of citizens without paying fair (or any compensation) is a dangerous path for South Africa to embark on and will likely condemn South Africans to decades of poverty and economic catastrophe.

There is no denying that this country has a traumatic history of people being deprived of their property, and of land on which, often, their families had lived for hundreds of years. However, empowering the government to take the property of people without paying for it will be catastrophic for the South Africa’s future prospects as it undermines the economic fundamentals on which stability, growth and prosperity hinge.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that the Bill will only be one tool in assuring the redistribution of land. Yet his and previous African National Congress (ANC) administrations have only ever paid lip service to land redistribution. The amounts allocated to land reform and redistribution are miniscule in comparison with many other government programmes. The amount allocated to the Department of Land Reform and Rural Development in 2020 was only slightly more than the latest R10 billion bailout that the government is planning on giving the money drain we call South African Airways.

Furthermore, the government has no interest in allowing people to become property owners – it would rather have people who have been given farms remain as wards of the state, never being given title to their land, with all the uncertainty and precariousness which that brings. It is likely that should the Bill pass into law, this will remain the status quo – expropriated properties will remain in the hands of the state with those allowed to live on the properties unlikely to be given title.

One need only look at the case of David Rakgase, who had to take the government to court to force it to sell him the farm he was working. It is likely that this will be the case with all expropriated and subsequently redistributed land. Title deeds will not be issued and people will not be able to develop the asset of land fully. They will often be held hostage by political whims, as often happens to people living, for example, on Igonyama Trust land in KwaZulu-Natal.

The uncertainty that this will being will kill any chance South Africa has of becoming a prosperous country where poverty and unemployment can be sustainably reduced. We need only look north across the Limpopo to see what happens when property rights are destroyed. While the homes and property of town- and city-dwellers was not seized, the broader attack on property rights and the uncertainty it brought led to economic collapse (and the government having to resort to printing money to pay its bills).

Zimbabwe has now been in economic crisis for over two decades; those with the means or the skills have fled to other countries, but those who remain, unemployment is over 90%. The people who have suffered the most are poorer Zimbabweans, the very people the country’s “land reform” programme was ostensibly meant to help. The consequences will be arguably worse, here. A South African economic collapse – given South Africa’s large population and the scale and sophistication of its economy (especially compared with our neighbours) – will have dire consequences not only for South Africans but for the broader region too.

If the government is serious about land reform it must ensure that there is a sufficient budget for land purchases (at reasonable and market-related prices) and farming support, and that the bureaucrats dealing with the issue are well-trained and dedicated. In addition, the government must ensure that a full audit is done of all the land it owns and, where possible, release it to people who would like to work it.

The current Bill (which South Africans have until 10 February to comment on) is not the silver bullet that some perceive it as being. It will deal a deathblow to the economy, ensure the investment that we need is chased away for years to come, and result in vast numbers of South Africans being sentenced to a lifetime of penury.

South Africa needs a better way – allowing expropriation without compensation is not it.

Marius Roodt is a writer and senior policy researcher at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes social and economic liberty. Go to https://irr.org.za/

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