South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has dismissed allegations that his proposed land reform programme in South Africa will amount to a ‘land grab’, just as US President Donald Trump entered the debate with an inflammatory tweet calling for a report into alleged land expropriation and the ‘large scale killings’ of white farmers in the country.
Land remains an explosive and emotive issue in South Africa over two decades after the end of the apartheid, which placed the majority of the country’s farmland in the hands of the white minority while dispossessing millions of black citizens. A government audit, cited by Ramaphosa, calculated that some 72% of the country’s arable land remains in the hands of white people, with just 4% owned by black Africans.
In an article for the Financial Times, Ramaphosa argues that radical land reform is an urgent social and economic imperative that will reverse decades of inequality, while dismissing critics who claim that the reform programme will be conducted in the chaotic, violent and economically ruinous fashion of Zimbabwe. Ramaphosa’s ANC has long been accused by critics on the left, including the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, of making little progress on reform and delaying the pace of redistribution.
“This is no land grab. Nor is it an assault on the private ownership of property. The ANC has been clear that its land reform programme should not undermine future investment in the economy or damage agricultural production and food security,” argued Ramaphosa.
“The proposals will not erode property rights, but will instead ensure that the rights of all South Africans, and not just those who currently own land, are strengthened. South Africa has learnt from the experiences of other countries, both from what has worked and what has not, and will not make the same mistakes that others have made.”
Ramaphosa argued that far from stripping estates wholesale from white owners, the reform programme will look at ways of distributing unused land, dilapidated urban sites, and tracts gathered for purely speculative purposes.
“There have been several suggestions on when expropriation without compensation may be justified. These include, for instance, unused land, derelict buildings, purely speculative land holdings, or circumstances where occupiers have strong historical rights and title holders do not occupy or use their land, such as labour tenancy, informal settlements and abandoned inner-city buildings.”
Yet Ramaphosa’s explanation of his plans is likely to be overshadowed by the indelicate intervention of embattled US President Donald Trump, who said that he had ordered his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to investigate the issue of land expropriation in South Africa and the alleged ‘large scale’ killings of white farmers.
“I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers. “South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers,” he tweeted, including the Twitter handles of right-wing talk show host Tucker Carlson and broadcaster Fox News, whose programme earlier aired a report on the issue.
False claims of a ‘white genocide’ in South Africa, largely focused on the killings of white farmers, have long been a preoccupation of the extreme right in the US and elsewhere. The statistics paint a different picture. Farmers’ rights organisation AgriSA says that there were 47 farm murders in 2017/18, a twenty-year low, compared to 66 in 2015/2016. Killings reached a peak in 1998 when 153 farmers died, according to the organisation.
In response, the South African government criticised Trump, tweeting: “South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past….South Africa will speed up the pace of land reform in a careful and inclusive manner that does not divide our nation.”