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The gaping pitfalls of SA’s land expropriation policy

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“If we implement the expropriation without compensation [draft] law, it will destroy the economy, imperil jobs, and lead us to rack and ruin,” says Johannesburg advocate Mark Oppenheimer.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Feb 07, 2019

Oppenheimer clarified the mysteries surrounding expropriation without compensation and outlined the dire consequences for our country, at the Free Market Foundation in Bryanston last Wednesday.

“The people of South Africa need to know about the impact this would have on their lives,” he said, insisting that this issue is the greatest threat we face as a nation.

Given the misconceptions which surround the issue of land reform, Oppenheimer listed and dispelled various myths being peddled for some time.

Myth one: the land has not been given back to its rightful owners

Oppenheimer stressed that if your land was taken from you unjustly, you are deserving of compensation. “If it was taken by the apartheid state, or you were in some way unjustly deprived of it, you have every right to be compensated,” he said. Compensation can be effected in one of two ways: either the original land is returned to you, or you received financial compensation.

He emphasised that this process has been taking place. “Between 1995 and 2014, 1.8 million people who applied for compensation received money. People presented their cases, and 77 000 of some 80 000 cases were resolved.” Although the time allocated to this process has ended and moves have been made to extend it, only a few cases remain unaddressed, he said.

Myth two: people are hungry for land

It is often repeated in the media that most of the population is desperate for land. The truth is, however, that possession of land itself matters little to most people, Oppenheimer said.

“During the compensation process, most people didn’t ask for their land back,” he said. “In some cases, the land was sacred or had symbolic significance, but this accounted for only 8% of cases. Ninety two percent of people preferred to receive money.” Money represents freedom. With it, one can buy land that one really wants. If you’re a modern person, a stretch of land in the Northern Cape is of little use to you.

According to the 2016 Survey of the South African Institute of Race Relations, the most pressing issue among South Africans is unemployment, followed by service delivery, and lack of housing. At the very bottom of the list, coming after poverty and corruption, is the matter of land redistribution at only 0.6%. Said Oppenheimer: “Almost no one sees this as an issue. We have a small minority that is incredibly vocal, and politicians have turned a non-issue into something which energises people. The average South African, however, is not interested.”

Myth three: anyone can be a farmer

The common belief is that managing a farm is not unlike managing a vegetable garden. Not so, says Oppenheimer. “It’s more than taking ownership of the farm,” he said. “It’s about the skills, the expertise, and experience gained through years of work. It’s highly technical, and people can’t simply step into it. Among farmers, hundreds of years of knowledge are passed down, and they make use of incredibly technical equipment which requires skills and training.”

Citing a case study, Oppenheimer explained that in recent years, the government had spent R1.4 billion buying 264 farms in the Eastern Cape with the aim of redistributing them. What followed, he said, was a 90% failure rate. “Only 26 of them still function. The rest of failed completely. A farm is a very technical endeavour that needs the expertise of someone who knows what it involves.”

Myth four: this law won’t affect the economy

As much as President Cyril Ramaphosa may say otherwise, the fact remains that land reform would have a direct impact on our economy, according to Oppenheimer.

“If you remove property rights, you are sentencing the nation to failure. As exceptional as our story as a nation may be, we believe we can do things that other countries did and succeed where they failed.

“Dispossession without compensation has been tried in Zimbabwe and Venezuela. In Zimbabwe, not only farmers were affected. [The country] suffers from a 90% unemployment rate. Zimbabweans have found themselves driven to South Africa because of how that decision destroyed their economy. In Venezuela, the inflation rate is at 1.3 million percent. The country suffers from mass starvation. This was the richest country in South America, with the biggest supply of oil in the world. A terrible economic policy ruined this. Within 20 years, they’ve managed to destroy a nation.

“We believe that we’re different here. When we do it, we won’t [have an] impact [on] the economy. If we implement this policy, we can look forward to seeing the banknotes Zimbabwe rolled out here.”

Myth five: paying compensation is unaffordable

The argument that the state cannot afford to pay compensation is an outright lie, Oppenheimer said. “[A total of] 0.3% of government expenditure is currently being spent on land reform,” he said. “For an issue that has been consuming our press for more than a year, the government has allocated less than a percent of its budget. If it really was an issue, more money could be allocated from government funds.”

He said this funding would have to come from taxes, which would mean less money would be available for all the other government initiatives and schemes. “This is one among many government initiatives, none of which will be able to be funded if we dedicate funds to this policy. And if this policy drives away tax payers and foreign investment, where will the funding come from?”

“Forced to abandon their property once it is seized by the state, taxpayers will leave in droves. Only 1% of our population earns more than R48 000 per month. If that 1% opts to leave the country because of land reform, the tax base will disappear. These people pay for roads, education, hospitals. You don’t want to see them leave.”

Myth six: the Constitution impedes land reform

Contrary to popular belief, our Constitution does not need to be reformed for justice to be dispensed, said Oppenheimer.

“People have called it a traitorous document, one which sold out the South African people to the National Party, and that true justice is possible only if we alter the Constitution to allow for land reform without compensation.

“Land reform is important. You are deserving of compensation if you are entitled to it. The Constitution is a roadmap for dealing with such issues, and contains relevant clauses to help resolve these issues.” Oppenheimer explained that the Constitution’s property clause section dealt with compensation, providing for expropriation.

“All states expropriate,” he said. “They have to. The Constitution is equipped to handle redistribution of land that has been illegally taken, bought on loan, or acquired in almost any other way. Although in most circumstances it is just and equitable to pay compensation, there will be cases in which no compensation is paid, and this is provided for by the Constitution.”

Oppenheimer said that it was imperative for us to make use of the avenues available to prevent the worst from happening.

“We have an ill-informed press that has supported expropriation without compensation in the name of justice,” he said. “Few voices have pointed out how this policy will affect not only the wealthy but more importantly, the poorest members of our population. People need to express [their] views and share the real impact this policy would have. If you don’t have a platform to share, support those who do, and share what they publish.”

Additionally, he encouraged people to take the fight to the polls. “The Democratic Alliance, African Christian Democratic Party, Inkatha Freedom Party, Congress of the People, and Vryheidsfront Plus oppose the policy,” he said. “They could be louder, but when Parliament took the vote to amend the Constitution, they opposed it. They’re playing an important role. Though we may have to hold our noses to vote for them, they’re the ones fighting for us.”

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