In late February, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema of South Africa proposed a motion in the country’s parliament to amend a section of the national constitution to allow for expropriation of land without compensation. With amendments by the ruling African National Congress party, the measure to change the constitution was approved by an overwhelming majority. Congress must vote on the change later this year. Current law allows for expropriation but with “just and equitable” compensation. Recently, however, Malema told followers that "White must be happy we are not calling for genocide.

When the measure passed on February 27, Malema said, “The time for reconciliation is over. Now is the time for justice.” Stating his position on the motion, Malema said, “We must ensure that we restore the dignity of our people without compensating the criminals who stole our land.”

According to the ANC and EFF, South Africa's current land reform has been slow: only 8 percent of land transferred back to black people since 1994. Blacks own less than 2 percent of rural land and less than 7 percent of urban land, according to a recent land audit report.

According to a study by South African farm lobbying group Agri SA, about 73.3 percent of farm land is owned by whites, which represents a drop from 85.1 percent in 1994, the year South Africa first held democratic elections. By contrast, black ownership has increased markedly in some of the country’s most fertile areas. Black farmers own 74 percent of the land in KwaZulu-Natal and 52 percent in Limpopo, according to the report.

In a Feb. 28 party rally, Malema said to an appreciative crowd: “We don't back whites, we don't care about their feelings. They've made us suffer for a very long time. It's our turn now. They must be happy we are not beating them up. They must be happy we are not calling for genocide. We are exercising our political freedom and we are hurting them the most. If you go to Twitter now, white people have caught feelings after expropriation of land without compensation.”

'We hurt you without a drop of blood'

“We are exercising political power. It is more hurtful, more painful than a gun, more painful than a spear. We hurt you and take from you without a drop of blood. That's the power of democracy. That's who we are. We don't subscribe to violence. We don't subscribe to brutality. We subscribe to the exercising of our political freedom and we stretch it to the limit" 

"We are now getting land in our lifetime. Our children are going to worship us forever. This was a powerful generation that brought the land back to the people, back to the rightful owners, without genocide without a drop of blood."

In recent days, Malema told a news conference that all land, including land held in trust for the Zulu nation, should be held by the South African government. He said that businesses wishing to locate in the republic would be able to lease the land they need. At the same time, Malema denounced white-owned shops and businesses that have located in black townships and displaced black-owned businesses. 

Malema was once a member of the ANC, but was ejected from the party in 2011 for sowing divisions. He was also convicted of a hate crime after singing “Shoot the Boer” -- a reference to the white Afrikaans-speakers of South Africa. He has been active in the EFF since 2013, having had as a main plank in his platform the expropriation of the largely white-owned agricultural land in the country. Following his activism on expropriation, the ruling ANC has since adopted a policy that favors expropriation without compensation.

During the February debate to have the national constitution amended to allow the seizure, the motion referred to the removal of black South Africans from their lands during the years of racist apartheid laws and entrenched by the Native Land Act of 1913. In February, the ANC stated, "This should be pursued without destabilising the agricultural sector, without endangering food security in our country and without undermining economic growth and job creation." Also, newly installed President Cyril  Ramaphosa said his government will move forward with a policy of land expropriation without compensation.

Voting against the motion in February was the multi-ethnic Democratic Alliance party. DA party leader Mmusi Maimane criticized the motion, saying that property rights are the "bedrock of development and economic growth." Other parties voting against the motion were Congress of the People, African Christian Democratic Party, and the Freedom Front Plus.

The motion to amend the constitution is now before the Joint Constitutional Review Committee of the South African parliament and includes members of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces. The two co-chairs are members of the ruling African National Congress. The Constitutional Review Committee is expected to report to the National Assembly by August 30. It will be considering Section 25 of the Constitution, which Section 25 of the Constitution deals not only land, but also property and property rights. Currently, Section 25 provides for just and equitable compensation for property expropriated for a public purpose or benefit. Also at issue is “public interest,” which includes land reform and equitable access to natural resources, according to local legal experts.

As it stands now, each case of expropriation is dealt with individually, rather than in an unlimited and unfettered manner without compensation as is advocated by the ANC and EFF. The motion to amend the constitution would change this. 

A tanking economy

Jacob Zuma of the ANC was ousted last year from the presidency, followed persistent cases of personal enrichment, along with government graft and corruption. By aligning itself with the radical EFF, the ANC is believed by some observers to be shoring up flagging popular support in order to stay in power. Hence, the party’s turn toward the popular cause of land expropriation. The unemployment rate in the country stands at 26.7 percent and the labor force participation rate is 58.8 percent. The personal taxation rate is 45 percent and corporate tax rate is 28 percent. According to the Industrial Development Think Tank, South Africa’s economy has declined since 1994 and the advent of democracy, having failed to use its resources to produce new products. The economy continues to be driven by minerals and resource based industries. The country also has a negative balance of trade.

With lackluster economic growth, credit rating downgrades, and persistent unemployment, which have been coupled by corruption and graft, the country’s economy and polity appear uncertain. 

Adding to concerns among South Africans is the fear that in a unilateral claim to land by the government, land and general property could be conflated. Additionally, banks are worried if their clients default on mortgage payments. With the example before them of land grabs in neighboring Zimbabwe, which were uncompensated and accompanied by bloodshed, South Africans and foreign investors are carefully watching the debate over expropriation.

Among those voicing objections to uncompensated land expropriation is King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulu nation. He has called upon his people to donate money to an effort to resist the proposed dissolution of the Ingonyama Trust. The Ingonyama Trust administers land traditionally owned by the Zulu people just before the coming of democracy in 1994. As of that time, the trust owned 7.4 million acres (3-million hectares) of land given by the outgoing apartheid government to  "benefit the material welfare and social well-being of the members of the tribes and communities" of the Zulu people who live on this land.

King Zwelithini has vowed that his people will never allow that their land be taken away from them and they will be prepared to die over this issue. "Land cannot be removed from the traditional leadership. In fact‚ the land is like the soul of the body of traditional leadership. We will never allow‚ not for one day‚ that we be killed by taking our soul.” The land issue must be resolved this year, he said. If not, Zwelithini said Zulus from Germany and the U.S. will return to South Africa to fight for their land. "For now‚ I am taking the legal route on this issue with the hope that those who want our land to be taken away follow the law. But following the law is not a sign of cowardice." He announced that a mass meeting of all Zulu chieftain will convene in April to discuss the issue. 

For his part, EFF leader Malema was unassuaged. On March 7, he told a conference that Zwelithini is “intimidating” people over the expropriation. “Let us not talk war‚ let us not beat war drums here. Let us come up with superior argument on why it should not be done like that‚” said Malema. He added, “There are no holy cows in this country. We must debate issues openly‚ including disagreeing with the Zulu king. The Zulu king must call for engagement with regards to the land. He must be respected‚ he must not be feared. I don’t fear anyone‚ no one. I only fear God.”

Malema has also tangled with the Democratic Alliance and has called for the removal of the Mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay, Athol Trollip. On his plans to remove the white Trollip, Malema said recently, “We are cutting the throat of whiteness.” In response, Trollip wrote “Dear Julius, nobody here wants to 'cut the throat of my whiteness.” Saying that his “threats” to the DA are mistaken, Trollip wrote, "I think that you might have made a mistake with your latest threat and that you might have misread the national mood. If the DA had changed its position or my skin colour had changed, you might have had reason for your change of heart, this has however not happened."

Trollip said he trust that South Africans who seek national unity will reject Malema’s appeals to racial identity, saying that South Africans want a work, a better economy, and an end to corruption. Trollip added that he is welcome in neighboring communities because "people's priorities are clearly not racial division and hatred.” 

The Democratic Alliance is a centrist and multi-racial party that traces its roots to the defunct anti-apartheid Progressive Party. 

American support for expropriation

Writing for The Root -- a website dedicated to news of interest to black Americans -- reporter Anne Branigin wrote of the debate over the land seizures:

  • “Pieter Groenewald, leader of the Freedom Front Plus party, warned that seizing land from white landowners would lead to “unforeseen consequences that is not in the interest of South Africa.”
  • “The sentiment was put more forcefully by Ernst Roets, deputy chief executive of Afriforum, a minority-rights (read: white South African rights) organization.
  • “Roets said that the motion violated a 1994 agreement in which the ANC promised that the interests of minorities would be protected postapartheid. 
  • “In a statement, Roets said that the motion was ‘based on a distorted image of the past’ and was ‘nothing more than racist theft’—kind of like colonization, one supposes.
  • He went on to say that it wasn’t true that ‘white people who own land necessarily obtained it by means of oppression, violence or forced removals.’ Apparently there was a huge “buy one, get 71 percent more of South Africa’s total farmland” sale that we missed in the history books.”
     

South Africa's history of displacement

According to archaeological records, the original inhabitants of South Africa and neighboring Botswana are the Saan people, the so-called Bushmen, who have lived in the region for the last 70,000 years. Distinct in their lifeways, language, and physiognomy, the Saan people are persecuted in their native land by black Africans who came from the north, including the Zulu and Bantu peoples who arrived about 500 AD. Portuguese explorers arrived in the late 1400s and were displaced by the Dutch in the 1600s. The Dutch are the ancestors of the Afrikaans-speakers of today.

In 2012, Nando's -- a fast-food restaurant chain -- ran a controversial commercial that touched on racial and ethnic squabbles in South Africa. In the ad, the narrator begins by saying, "You know what's wrong with South Africa? All you foreigners," as blacks from a neighboring country are seen sneaking across a South African border. When the narrator says, "Go back to where you came from," a foreigner disappears in a puff of smoke. Likewise, members of the various groups comprising South Africa's multi-racial multi-ethnic population also disappear in puffs of smoke. The final South African to appear is a member of the Saan people, who says, "I'm not going anywhere. You **** found us here."

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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