Why South Africans Are Talking About Land Expropriation

Why South Africans Are Talking About Land Expropriation

Why South Africans Are Talking About Land Expropriation

A quarter-century after apartheid’s end, cities are overcrowded, and black citizens own a tiny fraction of their country’s farmland.


Chiti Makwetu’s farm is a long way away from the main road. That, he believes, is why his government has been ignoring him. One day last September, he complained that efforts to install electricity have been limited to properties near the road—a ploy, he suggested, to convince passersby of the government’s commitment to the area. Meanwhile, land farther from view, like his, has been neglected. “We are literally off the grid,” he said.

Makwetu’s father leased this land from the South African state as apartheid was ending in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, he bought it. “When we got here, there was literally nothing,” Makwetu said. The land was once occupied by white commercial farmers, but they moved away under an apartheid-era policy that turned the wider area into a segregated, black homeland. These days, it’s a farm again. Makwetu works with beef cattle and grows some crops on the side.

When I visited, he was dressed in baggy, blue-and-gray work clothes, shades, and a cream baseball cap. He drove me around the farm, which sits atop 800 gently rolling hectares of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. He stopped his truck on the crest of a hill, the blue sky mellowing into a distant haze. To our right, silhouetted mountains staggered into the distance; to our left, a herd of handsome brown cows trampled toward us over tufts of yellowed grass.

Living off the electric grid isn’t the only challenge Makwetu faces. He spoke of how, as a cattle farmer, he often faces gaps between market days and strives to keep production costs low in the meantime. In a dry part of a dry country, drought is a frequent worry.

There’s nothing exceptional about any of this. Farming can be a tough business anywhere. But Makwetu has faced one exceptional challenge. “There’s a lot of racism I have to deal with,” he said. The discrimination can range from subtle to more overt. “I had an experience when a farmer didn’t want to speak to me over the phone because I did not speak Afrikaans,” he said.

Twenty-five years after the end of apartheid, racial inequality remains baked into South Africa’s economic and social fabric, and recently, the farming industry has come under a particularly harsh spotlight. Though the geography of South Africa is dominated by agricultural land, black Africans own just 4 percent of individual farms; by contrast, 72 percent are owned by white people, even though whites make up less than 10 percent of the population.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress led the country into black-majority rule with the promise of a more equitable future. South Africa’s democracy has held up since then, but successive ANC administrations have not meaningfully altered the country’s skewed, segregated distribution of land. Mandela’s administration aimed to pass 30 percent of white commercial farmland into black ownership by 1999; it wound up redistributing less than 1 percent.

Ahead of national elections this May, with electoral pressure on the ANC and friction within the party, the land question is back on the table. A frenzied debate has crystallized around the slogan “Expropriation without compensation,” which—depending on whom you ask—means taking “stolen” land “back”; an invitation to lawlessness, theft, and murder; or a sensible means of accelerating land transfer from white to black people by ending the state’s policy of paying landowners at market rates.

In practice, the ANC is offering modest reforms on a slow timetable. Cyril Ramaphosa, its leader and South Africa’s president, insists that there will be no “land grabs.” Fearful of undermining food security and the confidence of investors, his government plans to take and transfer land only under limited, legally codified conditions. To his left, the Economic Freedom Fighters—an upstart political party founded by divisive firebrand Julius Malema—and elements within the ANC think these plans are a cop-out. Malema, for instance, advocates wholesale nationalization. As the EFF has grown in prominence, it has driven the land question, if not its radical preferred solution, onto the ANC’s agenda.

These political dynamics frighten opponents of expropriation without compensation. Skeptics run the gamut from moderate business interests to farming unions to lobbying organizations like AfriForum—a self-styled “civil rights” group that mostly represents Afrikaners—to a white-survivalist movement known as the Suidlanders. Far-right elements have painted attacks on white farmers as a front in a racially motivated land war being marshaled by the likes of Malema.

The supposed plight of South Africa’s white farmers has become a right-wing cause célèbre as far afield as Russia, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In May 2018, a representative from AfriForum discussed the issue on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. When Carlson returned to the issue three months later, it caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who tweeted about “farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers” and asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to look into it. (Makwetu called the tweet “very much misinformed.” Fact-checkers agreed.) Visiting South Africa in March, Pompeo’s deputy, John Sullivan, said, “There is some misinformation in the US. The issue is complex, and I don’t think it translated well across the ocean.”

Right-wing scaremongering has dominated international discussion of South Africa’s land debate. Domestically, though, political pressure coming from the left looks to pose a bigger challenge to the ANC. The party’s reputation has been tarnished by years of overpromising and underdelivering on public-policy issues—not to mention the recent rampant corruption of senior figures. As one financial analyst put it before the elections, the ANC “might talk left, but they do not necessarily walk left.”

The party will, in all likelihood, win May’s elections and stay in power. A recent survey found national support for the ANC at just under 50 percent—well ahead of its nearest rivals, despite a recent drop-off. But if the country’s entrenched, intersecting wounds of racial and economic inequality continue to fester, radical correctives like the large-scale state expropriation of land will only grow more appealing, and failure to deliver them, more politically costly. According to one recent study, a third of South Africans support some form of expropriation without compensation; if the next government does not make clear progress on the land issue, that figure could grow.

Though he thinks land distribution must change, Makwetu does not support expropriation without compensation. In private, he doubts ANC leaders do, either. Why? “The ANC are pure capitalists,” he said.

The Eastern Cape, where Makwetu farms, has long been a crucible of land politics in South Africa. “The very idea of South Africa is an Eastern Cape idea,” Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, a prominent lawyer and writer, told me.

In the 1800s, as British colonizers pushed east from the original Cape Colony, they got bogged down in a series of skirmishes and wars with indigenous groups—part of a broader, messy process of white settlement that involved violence and negotiation, advance and retreat. In his acclaimed 2018 book, The Land Is Ours, Ngcukaitobi argues that only when the British cracked the eastern frontier were they able to expand their programs of administrative control and land dispossession deeper into the southern African interior.

As well as fighting each other, British and Dutch-descended settlers stripped native black communities of their property across what would become South Africa. Colonial administrators drew arbitrary areas to make room for their own plots, paying scant attention to existing tribal dynamics. After South Africa was unified in 1910, the 1913 Natives Land Act formally balkanized the country into separate European and native areas; the latter, initially, would account for just 8 percent of the total. The act deprived many black farmers of their land. It stripped them, too, of cattle and equipment and added labor conditions to their right to stay put under white owners, effectively creating a pool of workers for the white economy. “The 1910 Constitution left a number of topics unresolved,” Ngcukaitobi explained. “1913 explains what the status of natives is. They are not citizens—and because they are not citizens, they will not be allowed to own land.”

Subsequent laws—for example, regulating the influx of black people into white areas—turned the screw on this racist policy. Under apartheid, which officially began in 1948, the regime sought, with mixed success, to turn native areas into independent homelands.

The ANC was formed (under a slightly different name) in 1912. Rights to the land became a central tenet of its platform, but as the repression of the state became total—and the ANC was outlawed—land became a lesser priority. “Land is not as crucial as getting out of prison if you are arrested,” Ngcukaitobi said.

In the early 1990s, the white government lifted the ban on the ANC and entered formal negotiations with it, seeking an end to apartheid and a transition to a fully participatory democracy. The process was a delicate balancing act. The ANC knew it would command a majority of the vote in free and fair elections, and yet until the transition took place, members of South Africa’s white minority would control the apparatus of the state (not to mention well-armed private militias). Today, many South Africans say the ANC sold itself out to white economic interests in the ’90s—failing, among other things, to dent disproportionate white control of the land. Radical political reform, they say, lacked an economic counterpart.

This kind of revisionism isn’t entirely wrong, but there’s more to the story. Meaningful land reform might not have been politically feasible in the ’90s, but the Constitution the ANC negotiated left the door wide open to radical change. In the quarter-century since it was ratified, successive governments have mostly failed to exploit that opening. It’s a story familiar to many young democracies: of lack of capacity but also of failures of will and execution and of bureaucratic incompetence and corruption.

ANC governments have redistributed some white-owned land for black communities to farm on. These projects, however, have been relatively few and have often foundered. New farmers often have not had access to the equipment and skills training they need to succeed. A separate process ruling on restitution claims—which arise when a given group claims historic rights in a piece of land that members say was taken from their forebears—has been inefficient and hotly contested. Progress, consequently, has been glacial. In 2017, an official report estimated it could take more than 700 years to conclude.

The report also said that laws designed to protect long-term occupiers who lack formal ownership papers—farmworkers, for example, and rural families living on communal tribal land—have not been implemented. Powerful tribal authorities that control more than 10 percent of South Africa (but expect to be left alone if the government starts expropriating land) have even been known to evict people in their areas to accommodate mining companies, commercial developers, and foreign capital.

The simmering discontent caused by these failures—and others like them right across the purview of the South African state—has caused issues like land reform to come back with a vengeance.

“The project that we negotiated has failed. Not because the structure that was agreed is a problematic structure but because [of] the trappings and the temptations of power and money,” Ngcukaitobi said. “We are not exceptional. This idea that we are a rainbow nation, we are a miracle nation, we are an exceptional people is utterly false.”

South Africa’s land problems are not limited to the countryside. Across South Africa, people in urban and rural areas—and with greatly different political views—repeatedly told me that South Africa’s most urgent land shortage is in its cities.

Cities were highly segregated under colonialism and then apartheid, with black laborers kept apart from city centers. That basic spatial architecture has persisted since 1994. Urban population growth has only exacerbated its malign effects, trapping people in poverty. Housing and other basic services—already inadequate—have not kept pace with the sprawl, despite government investment. More and more people live in informal dwellings on the urban periphery. Many of them lack secure ownership rights.

Khayelitsha in Cape Town is a vast web of settlements that sprawls away from Table Mountain and out over flatland toward the sea. Some Khayelitsha residents live in formal housing; others, in shacks. Some shacks are in the backyards of houses. Other shacks are in the backyards of other shacks. Over time, Khayelitsha has repeatedly crept out beyond its existing boundaries. In late September, I visited a group of residents who had recently erected a settlement on bumpy, scrubby dunes that separate Khayelitsha from the ocean—land, they said, that had long been vacant.

I spoke to one resident, Pretty Mayeki, as she sat outside her shack in a turquoise dressing gown and rinsed clothes and sneakers in a green plastic tub. A child sat opposite her. She said the group had grown tired of rent exploitation in a different section of Khayelitsha and so went to the dunes and cleared away the scrub. “Law enforcement came. They said it was municipal land for libraries and parks,” she told me through an interpreter. “But we stayed.”

The issue of “land grabs” is freshly controversial in South Africa. Recently, left-wing politicians, particularly from the EFF, have encouraged their supporters to occupy land owned by white people or the government. “The EFF said to our people—the most practical way to get the land is to occupy the unoccupied land to put pressure on the state,” Malema, the EFF’s leader, told Agence France-Presse last year, “and it has worked.” Impromptu settlement construction, however, is nothing new. Nor is it inherently political. People need space to live.

Malusi Booi, a city councilor responsible for human settlement issues in Cape Town, called the settlement I visited an “illegal land invasion” and said court action against it was ongoing. “City-owned land which has been earmarked for various projects is especially susceptible to invasions,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We remain committed to improving the lives of our residents in informal settlements but this can only be done in a planned manner and we cannot allow queue-jumping.”

Across the road from Mayeki’s place, I spoke to Lindekile Goni as he tinkered with his truck. The collar of a brightly striped polo shirt poked out from his dirty blue overalls. He said he had lifted his shack—an L-shaped composite of dented corrugated panels—from its old location, put it on his truck, and driven it to where we were standing.

“This land before was like a cave,” he said. “People were dumping bodies here. We cleaned it. We made it safe.”

Goni went inside and reemerged with a letter from Legal Aid South Africa. Its local representatives, he said, were working to keep the community on the land, at least while the court process plays out. The last time the authorities turned up, he said, he showed them the letter, and they backed off. (A Legal Aid representative did not provide comment.)

I asked if he was worried about having to vacate. “Where are the government going to take us?” he responded. “There’s no land.”

The ANC was not the only liberation movement active during apartheid. In 1959, Robert Sobukwe, a former ANC youth cadre member, founded the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), a breakaway group that opposed what it saw as the conciliatory multiracialism of the ANC’s platform and advocated what it saw as a more radical understanding of land dispossession and other spheres of oppression. The PAC sought to foster black Africans’ sense of identity. Its influences included the American thinker W.E.B. Du Bois.

Chiti Makwetu’s father, Clarence Makwetu, was a key member of the PAC. Born near the farmland he later purchased, he spent time in prison during apartheid—including on Robben Island, where he was held in the same section as Mandela. Clarence Makwetu served as the PAC’s president through the end of apartheid, then, briefly, as its leader in Parliament. He died in 2016.

As apartheid ended, the PAC, which was unbanned alongside the ANC, in 1990, wanted the land question to be tackled head-on. The absence of such an effort was one reason the PAC was divided on whether to participate in the first democratic elections, which took place in 1994. “We can’t just come into a democracy and say, ‘Let’s hold hands, let’s be one family’…. Equalize the playing fields first,” Chiti Makwetu said, summarizing the view of many PAC members at the end of apartheid. “Some wanted to continue with the armed struggle.”

“My dad, I think he saw that the only way change could actually happen was through the ballot box—hopefully, the change that they actually wanted,” Makwetu said.

The party, though, won only five seats in the first Parliament; as time passed, it dwindled into irrelevance. “I think my dad and the PAC were, like, 20 years ahead of their time,” Makwetu said. “One of the demises of the PAC was that they wanted land right from the beginning.” (The PAC still exists; its 2019 election manifesto opens with a promise to return the land “to its rightful owners, which are African people.”)

In a village near Makwetu’s farm, I visited Sisa Ncapai. Now in his 80s, he, like Clarence Makwetu, was an early PAC activist and did time on Robben Island. (“I’m not going to tell you about my activities,” he said with a laugh.) Ncapai sat back in a leather chair in his stuffy, wood-trimmed front room. Close-cropped white hair framed his high forehead. In a display case to his left, a PAC mug sat on a middle shelf, standing out from the glassware around it.

Ncapai said he was attracted to the PAC by its radical land policy. As apartheid took hold, the ANC, he argued, switched its focus to human rights. But “human rights is based on the question of land,” he said. “You can’t have rights when you have no land.” During the transition to democracy, the ANC was wrong not to secure more concessions on the land, he said. “They should have tabled it and then discussed the national democratic system that is the political side of it and then said, ‘What about this land? Whose land is it?’”

The land issue’s recent return to frontline political prominence has been driven in no small part by the EFF. Malema founded the EFF in 2013 after he was kicked out of the ANC over his conduct as leader of its Youth League. Just one year later, the new party defied expectations and won 6 percent of the vote in national elections, becoming the third-largest party in Parliament. As the EFF has become more of a nuisance to the ANC, so, too, has its radical pledge to nationalize all the land in South Africa.

Malema and his followers have a history of singing “Shoot the Boer,” an apartheid-era song aimed at white, Afrikaans-speaking farmers; in 2011, South Africa’s high court classified the song as hate speech. Since the EFF was born, it, too, has been accused of anti-white politics and its senior figures of grandstanding, thuggery, and corruption. In February an EFF lawmaker reportedly slapped a law enforcement officer in Parliament. The EFF claimed afterward, without providing evidence, that the lawmaker was protecting Malema from a right-wing plot to assassinate him over his pledge to nationalize land. In March, EFF supporters threatened a female journalist with rape and violence. Malema had tweeted her phone number. The same month, South Africa’s Human Rights Commission cleared him of a fresh charge of hate speech; he said in 2016, “We are not calling for the slaughter of white people, at least for now.”

Culturally, the PAC was a very different organization, active in a very different political climate. Chiti Makwetu and Ncapai said its vision of Africanism was an inclusive one. When it comes to the land, however, both see clear echoes of the PAC in the EFF’s platform.

“They took the PAC policy,” Ncapai said. “We don’t blame them for that, our generation.” He laughed. “They are our grandchildren,” he said.

If the EFF has forced radical land reform back up on South Africa’s order of business, it has not done so in a vacuum. Until last year, the EFF’s number-one target (and a key source of the party’s appeal) was not the land but the ANC’s Jacob Zuma, the country’s president from 2009 to 2018, who became known less for his leadership than his shameless corruption.

As the weight of scandal finally started to sink Zuma, his allies doubled down on his populist promises of “radical economic transformation”—including expropriation without compensation—and demonized opponents as “white monopoly capital.” It didn’t save Zuma: At a party conference in December 2017, the ANC deposed him as leader, picking Ramaphosa to replace him. At the same conference, expropriation without compensation became ANC policy. Conventional wisdom holds that the policy was foisted on Ramaphosa and has since undercut his main agenda—a moderate, investor-facing program. (Representatives of the ANC, EFF, and PAC did not return multiple requests for comment on this article.)

Offstage, Zuma has continued to make mischief. In January he tweeted a video message suggesting land should be nationalized as quickly as possible. He failed to advance that policy during his years in office.

Ramaphosa has a reputation for pragmatism. He was active during apartheid as a senior trade unionist, then quickly scaled the ranks of the ANC, eventually serving as its key negotiator at the end of apartheid. After ’94, he jumped into the private sector, where he became wildly rich. His business interests have included farming. He keeps longhorn Ankole cattle, a rare breed he sourced from the president of Uganda. In 2017 he published Cattle of the Ages, a paean to the “magnificent” cows that kindled an “unexpected fire in my heart,” he wrote.

Pragmatist, businessman, farmer—he doesn’t fit many people’s profile of a land radical. But he’s long been a leading advocate of diversifying the economy to empower black South Africans. And his biographer, Anthony Butler, told me that Ramaphosa has a genuine interest in rectifying historic land dispossession, which he has repeatedly referred to as South Africa’s original sin. “Clearly [land] wasn’t where Ramaphosa would have liked to start out his presidency,” Butler said. But “it wouldn’t have been forever before it came onto his agenda.”

Ramaphosa’s government has so far trodden carefully—and slowly—on the land issue. A constitutional amendment, based on a bill outlining five (relatively tame) scenarios in which the state would have the right to expropriate land without compensation, is in the works but probably won’t be finalized until the end of the year, at the earliest.

Critics, like Malema, have accused the ANC of stalling; the longer it keeps its plans in gestation, the thinking goes, the more likely people are to forget about them. The present land debate has quieted since it reached fever pitch last year and could die down entirely when election season is over. Advocates of aggressive land reform fear the stage is set for the policy to be buried once again.

Many South Africans, however, are fed up of the government kicking the can down the road. Before the elections, protests have flared, reflecting a deeper-seated anger at persistent poverty and inequality, not to mention the government’s failure to deliver basic services. This anger has deep roots in the land question. It may not be concerned with the abstractions of redistribution and restitution policy, but it is very much concerned with land-adjacent questions, such as the acute housing needs of sprawling, segregated urban areas. If the ANC continues to overpromise and underdeliver, it will surely lose its power. The land issue both is a specific example of that risk and is more broadly emblematic of it.

There are already signs that the ANC’s broad coalition—which has long managed to straddle class and generational divides—is starting to fracture. “Today, the ANC is not the party of the propertyless. It’s the party of the propertied and the propertyless”—a contradiction, Ngcukaitobi said. Older voters, who remember the ANC’s heroic resistance to apartheid, are more likely to remain loyal. But “people that are turning 18 this year, all they have known since they were 10 is Jacob Zuma.”

“It is folly to put all our trust in politicians,” Ngcukaitobi added. “This has been probably the greatest achievement of the EFF. It’s been to break the myth of liberation as a monopoly of the ANC and to show us that there are different methods of liberation and different methods of thinking about the past.”

In September, on the hill at the top of his farm, Chiti Makwetu was talking about the land question with Wara Fana and Gcina Ntsaluba, local journalists who showed me around the Eastern Cape. As with so many debates I heard about land, the conversation raised more questions than answers. Why was the ANC focusing on this only now, after 25 years in power? If land is taken from white farmers, why shouldn’t it also be taken from traditional tribal leaders? Can the market be opened up without expropriation?

At a lull in the conversation, I asked Makwetu whether he thought Ramaphosa’s ANC would go through with expropriation without compensation. “I’m skeptical. I don’t know,” Makwetu said. “To me, it just popped up too quickly, out of the blue.”

Fana and Ntsaluba vigorously agreed. The ANC should explain how and when it plans to expropriate land, they said, almost in unison.

“But the problem is they’re not going to explain till after the election,” Makwetu said. “The ANC is not going to sit down and explain to people how they’re actually going to…no, they’re just telling people that we’re expropriating, expropriating, expropriating, expropriating.”

The three men continued to talk to (and over) one another, until a moment of silence. “As I said, I’m against expropriation without compensation,” Makwetu said. “But something has to change. The status quo has to change.”

He leaned on the back of his truck. “The status quo can’t continue. The saddest thing is that if it continues, there’s going to be a civil war in this country. Land is a very emotive issue.”

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