In December 2017, the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as head of the African National Congress (ANC) during the 54th National Conference of the party was hailed by international analysts and financial markets as the beginning of the return of South Africa, Africa's second largest economy, to business and investor-friendly policies. At the same conference, however, the ANC also approved a document committing the government to support an amendment to the 1996 constitution to allow the state to expropriate land without having to pay compensation to owners. In the following months, Ramaphosa, who is awaiting his final, popular investiture as president from the election scheduled for May 8, confirmed his intention to go ahead with amending the constitution, while the revamping of the debate on land redistribution catalyzed the attention of the international media.
Understandably so. In fact, Section 25 of the 1996 constitution, which authorises the expropriation of property subject to a "just and equitable compensation" in favour of individuals and communities "dispossessed of property as a result of past racially discriminatory laws or practices", represents a milestone in the political order that emerged with the end of apartheid. The hegemony of the ANC, unconstrained by any power-sharing agreements, has so far been counterbalanced by its commitment to maintain “orthodox” fiscal and monetary policies and undisputed protection of property rights. This compromise has hindered the ruling party's efforts to eliminate the extreme social inequality between an increasingly deracialized wealthy minority and an overwhelmingly black poor majority, but has allowed the massive inflows of foreign direct investment that have kept the South African economy moving. Also for this reason, the land restitution process, under the guidance of the ANC ministers, has not profoundly altered the property structure of commercial agriculture, where black penetration has remained limited.
Prior to December 2017, South African public opinion had shown little interest in land reform. According to comprehensive opinion polls commissioned by the Institute of Race Relations from 2015 to 2017, only a tiny minority of black South Africans identified speeding up land redistribution as redress for apartheid injustices as a top priority for the government. The fact that land reform has turned to dominate the political agenda is mainly a consequence of the political crisis caused by economic stagnation since 2008 and the weakening of the ruling party. Although the end of Jacob Zuma’s era satisfied markets and investors, the advent of Ramaphosa did not reassure the destitute African masses who had favored Zuma against his predecessor Thabo Mbeki and have become the target of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a new left-populist party that emerged to the left of the ANC in 2013.
Imposed on Ramaphosa by the leftwing of the ANC as a poisoned legacy, the goal of speeding up agrarian reform was taken up by the EFF, whose votes combined with that of the ANC would make it possible to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to amend the constitution. After Malema's party tabled a motion to commence the process of changing Section 25, the ANC amended the motion, eliminating the most radical clauses – such as the one that would have made the state "a custodian of all South African land" – and had it passed by parliament on February 26. In the following months, Ramaphosa has remained committed to introducing expropriation without compensation, while trying to reassure foreign investors and always stressing that land reform must not compromise agricultural output or food security.
On a symbolic level, the “big land debate” has reopened the clash over South Africa's troubled and divided past. Between 1913 and 1936, the exclusion of natives from agricultural property in large portions of the country contributed decisively to pushing black African farmers towards the urban areas, transforming them into a subordinate wage proletariat. Since then, for the black masses land restitution became a symbol of full ownership of their country. The low proportion of rural land owned individually by African landlords (only 4% according to some estimates based on data from the 2017 state land audit report, with two-thirds in the hands of companies, trusts, and state institutions) appears to be an indicator of the failure of the transformation promised by the ANC. On the other hand, the fact that today less than 5% of the South African population is employed in the agricultural sector and that the hunger for land concerns more the cities (originally founded by white colonists far from the main African settlements) than the rural areas could make things easier. In practice, however, there are many obstacles to a radical solution. Recent studies have revealed that South Africa’s agriculture is mainly made up of small farmers, which largely accounts for the vocal mobilization of white farmer organizations against the reform. The lack of public funds to offer a capital base to the new landowners and pay the bond debts associated with the expropriated land and the evidence of widespread corruption of officials in the state agencies in charge of land reform are raising fears that the process could result in the multiplication of “ghost farms” and the decline of agricultural production. Moreover, the amendment of Section 25 would seem to question the very principle of property rights and pave the way for the expansion of state discretion, threatening the country's ability to retain capital and attract further investment.
Ramaphosa, a skillful negotiator and political actor, seems to have carefully calculated his moves. On the one hand, his commitment to the principle of expropriation without compensation reaffirmed the role of the ANC as guarantor of the rights of the black masses and prompted his EFF competitors to question their alliance with the DA, which cost the ANC control of three municipalities – Johannesburg, Pretoria/Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay in 2016. On the other, the ongoing debate has shown that the question could be resolved by compromise, through a reform of the ordinary legislation on expropriation or the introduction of expropriation for some types of unused or derelict property (such as land owned by municipalities or state companies, abandoned buildings in the city centres, lands hosting informal settlements or tenant workers). It is no coincidence that the motion approved last February has postponed the resumption of parliamentary debate to August 30, when the elections will be over and Cyril Ramaphosa should be firmly in power. The future of land reform will depend on the post-election balances, but it seems unlikely it will alter, for better or for worse, the structure of South Africa’s economy and society.