A question that continues to beg for answers is whether the land expropriation without compensation is feasible for South Africa or it could lead the Rainbow nation down the Zimbabwean road?
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa maintains that the exercise will be undertaken in a way that does not threaten food security or economic stability, while the ruling African National Congress’s David Masondo says unused land will be the main target.
Mr Masondo, a member of the ANC’s Economic Transformation Committee, is on record as saying the ruling party was likely to face resistance from traditional leaders, a key political base cultivated by former President Jacob Zuma.
Still, the risks were substantial. South Africa feeds itself and is the continent’s largest maize producer and the world’s second-biggest exporter of citrus fruits.
Agriculture accounts for less than three percent of national output, but employs around 850,000 people, accounting for five percent of the workforce. Threats to production would also fan food inflation, hurting lower-income households.
In line with the government’s massive programme to redistribute land, President Ramaphosa recently handed more than 4,000 hectares of land to the community of KwaMkhwanazi in KwaZulu-Natal Province.
The facilitated handover of 4‚586ha of land was the culmination of a successful claim by the community near Empangeni, which had been dispossessed of their heritage in several phases —the first after the conclusion of World War One, and the second in the 1940s when white farmers expanded their commercial cane and timber operations.
ANC now aims to change the constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation to address racial disparities in ownership that has persisted more than two decades after apartheid’s demise in 1994. President Ramaphosa was quick to point out that their "undertaking is premised in the principle of restitution rather than retribution”.
With the moves to fast-track the expropriation of land without compensation dominating the national narrative, what is the feasibility of the programme, especially with the juxtaposition of the Zimbabwe scenario?
Since the end of white minority rule in 1994, ANC has followed a “willing-seller, willing-buyer” model whereby the government buys white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks. However, the progress has been slow.
Based on a survey of title deeds, the government says blacks own 4 percent of private land, and only 8 percent of farmland has been transferred to them, well short of a target of 30 percent that was meant to have been reached in 2014.
Prof Ben Cousins of Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape has noted there were no estimates on private transactions involving black farmers who purchased land themselves, so the data was incomplete.
There has been a parallel process of “land claims” by individuals or communities dispossessed under white rule, but most of the settlements have involved cash paid by the state instead of people reoccupying their land, and 87 percent of the claims have been urban.
Former President Thabo Mbeki, in his document, What then about land Expropriation without Compensation, condemns the whole exercise, terming it a deviation from the non-racial principle which happens to be the founding principle of the ANC.
One is quickly reminded of how the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) came into existence. PAC was formed by a group of renegade ANC members in Orlando, Soweto, on April 5-6, 1959. Among other issues, they rejected the Freedom Charter, mainly because of the guarantees it contained for minority rights. These guarantees, they felt, would entrench minority domination. The Africanists believed that the land which the white settlers had "stolen" from the indigenous people should be returned to the latter.
They simply wanted to take the land back, but ANC did not agree on the approach.
Mr Mbeki also highlights that the position taken by the KwaZulu-Natal’s King Goodwill Zwelithini has not helped the cause of the ANC. King Zwelithini happens to manage the biggest land-Ingonyama Trust, which controls the former Zulu homeland and his refusal to dissolve the Trust has presented the government with challenges in expropriating land from institutions.
Mr Mbeki’s sentiments are echoed by the University of South Africa's Prof Cyril Mbatha, who believes that the government will find it more challenging expropriating land from institutions, including Ingonyama Trust. Not because it is wrong or impossible, but because it may result in a political mess for ANC.
“Even when there are huge moral reasons why traditional leaders should step away from managing ancestral land- the management systems have proved to replicate rural inequalities. They discriminate against female and child headed households, which are the most vulnerable groups in those settings. Morally, this should change,” says Prof Mbatha.
"Technically, traditional leaders with their networks of patronage sabotage many rural empowerment programmes. It makes sense for this land to be managed by the State."
A proposal by a panel headed former President Kgalema Mothlanthe to dissolve the Ingonyama Trust has already been condemned by King Zwelithini, the custodian of the Trust with wide powers to determine land use.
How the government is going to resolve this impasse, everyone waits with bated breath.
Is President Ramaphosa the right man to lead this exercise?
President Ramaphosa belongs to ANC, hence the question; is ANC the right organisation to spearhead the land reform?
In terms of their policies, general character and ideals of an inclusive society, ANC is the right organisation to expropriate. However, with compensation as its ideals, does not allow land grab. Thus Mr Mbeki believes that when ANC agreed to expropriation of land without compensation, it allowed itself to be led by Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a complete shift from the original values of the ruling party.
Analysts are convinced that this deviation from the founding values was influenced by ANC’s need to appeal to poorer black voters, the core of its support, ahead of the impending elections.
However, President Ramaphosa has been adamant that the exercise aims to resolve the issue of racial disparities in property ownership “once and for all”.
EFF has made expropriation of land without compensations its clarion call.
South Africa’s proportional representation system can make small parties - the EFF only has six percent of parliamentary seats - kingmakers in tight polls. That was the case in 2016 when the EFF backed the Democratic Alliance (DA) officials to run key metropolitan areas, including the capital Pretoria, hence President Ramaphosa was trying to prevent ANC going down that road once again.
Analysts say South Africa was unlikely to follow the route of Zimbabwe, where the seizure of white-owned farms under former President Robert Mugabe triggered economic collapse, in large parts because most of the new farmers lacked capital for investment or experience with large-scale commercial agriculture.
Agriculture was the backbone of the economy and so there were ripple effects, with the undermining of property rights also shattering investor confidence.