Plans by South Africa's government to change the law to allow land expropriation without compensation have provoked an emotional response, even reaching the ears of President Donald Trump, who signaled his disapproval last month in a controversial tweet in which he ordered U.S. officials to investigate the situation.
South Africa’s government says it may change the constitution to allow expropriation of some land without compensation, in a bid to redress historical wrongs that left land mostly in the hands of the white minority. Hearings began last month to look into the feasibility of expropriation without compensation. President Cyril Ramaphosa supports the idea and says any expropriation will only happen if land transfer does not harm the economy or the nation’s food security.
Farmers, many of whom belong to the white minority, say they live in fear of losing their land; meanwhile, pro-expropriation activists say returning land to members of the traditionally marginalized black majority is only right. And some analysts say this is nothing but a political ploy as the ruling party faces a tough election next year.
Casper Willemse grew up working a 2,000-hectare maize farm about an hour south of Johannesburg. For years, he’s toiled in the fields from sunup to sundown, as five generations of his family did before him.
He always thought he would die here, and be buried alongside them.
"I'm the sixth generation that was born on this farm,” he said. “My children is the seventh ... We are farmers, from the morning until noon to night."
The government hasn’t publicly identified which properties, if any, it will target.
Groups like AfriForum, which calls itself a civil rights watchdog with a focus on the white Afrikaans-speaking minority, have circulated what they say are government lists of potential seizures, but the government denies those.
AfriForum says their biggest fear is of the economic impact of such a policy. But even without that, they say talk about expropriation has provoked a rise in illegal land seizures. The group is among many critics of the plan who say they fear expropriation without compensation will hurt South Africa’s economy and will cause the same economic spiral as was seen in neighboring Zimbabwe, after that country began a series of seizures from white farmers nearly two decades ago.
“We are seeing an increase in land invasion throughout the country,” said Ian Cameron, the group’s head of community safety. “So there is a definite threat to property rights at the moment. And the uncertainty being created by government increases that problem.”
Willemse said the uncertainty is what fills him with anxiety - and about more than just his future. In the meantime, he said, he has to carry on: he employs 14 people, and can’t leave them hanging. Besides, he said, he has no backup plan.
He agreed that South Africa’s violent, unequal past was wrong. But why, he asked, should he pay the price?
“Taking something without compensation is nothing but stealing,” he said. “Buying the land, and giving that to somebody else, that’s a different story. But just taking it for political reasons, and giving it away - it’s not going to yield anymore, because that guy that’s going to get it, they don’t have passion about it, they don’t have knowledge, they don’t have resources. I think that’s not going to work.”
Land on demand
But the Black First Land First Movement says that’s beside the point. The relatively new political movement, which launched in 2015 and calls itself a revolutionary, pan-Africanist socialist movement, says much of South Africa’s land was stolen from its original black owners by white settlers during South Africa’s colonial and apartheid periods. Today, the majority of South African agricultural land is owned by white farmers.
The group’s deputy president, Zanele Lwana, said all of this land should be returned and no one has the right to ask what the new owners plan to do with it.
“We believe South Africa is a black country,” she told VOA. “And we believe that white people in this country are sitting on stolen property. And the call to call for land expropriation without compensation speaks to historical redress.”
Lwana also told VOA that the group considers land occupation a legitimate tactic if the government does not go through with its expropriation plans.
Analysts and critics say the government is exploiting this sensitive issue to win votes for next year’s elections, a claim Lwana and her movement echo, alleging that Ramaphosa has no actual intention of enacting meaningful land reform.
Ramaphosa’s ruling African National Congress has been steadily losing ground at the polls, and analysts say an emotive issue like land redistribution could attract voters, especially lower-income black voters who comprise much of the ANC’s base.
“It is a genuine issue, but like all genuine issues, it has been handled with the view of securing short term political gains, unfortunately,” independent political analyst Ralph Mathekga told VOA.
Mathekga, who owns a 10-acre farm in the rural Limpopo province, said he understands the emotional aspect of the debate. He got permission from local leadership to farm there about three years ago.
“I grew up farming,” he told VOA. “That’s what I did. I used to put together the mules, that’s what I did before I went off to university.”
He said he has issues with the debate’s focus on land reform, though, instead of on agricultural reform. If this is going to work, he said, the government needs to assist new farmers in getting into the economy. If not, this story will not end well, he contends.
“I’ve never made a cent out of [the farm],” he said, adding that a recent drought and difficulty in finding eager, competent young workers have made it hard to profit. “It’s a highly risky business, and I think people need to think very carefully about it."