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The land shall be shared among those who work it!

The South African Congress of Trade Unions welcomes Parliament’s vote to set in motion a process to amend the Constitution so as to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation.

The ownership of land in South Africa has been a source of conflict since the European colonialists first landed at the Cape, took over the indigenous people’s land and brutally suppressed any who stood in their way.

The process continued throughout the following centuries with increasing brutality and a succession of laws, notably the 1913 Natives Lands Act, which legalised the theft of land by prohibiting Africans from owning, buying or hiring land in 93% of South Africa. Africans despite being the majority were confined to ownership of just 7% the land.

Finally the imposition of apartheid in 1948 and its 1950 Group Areas Act formalized the exclusion of the majority population from owning, or even permanently residing in, the 84% of the land granted to white people, who made up only 15% of the total population. Black people who constituted 80% of the population were restricted to 16% of the land in poorest areas which were declared as ‘homelands’.

Given this history of the plundering African people’s land it is easy to understand why reclaiming land stolen from its rightful owners in the African community would be such a central part of the 1955 Freedom Charter, why it became a main demands of the liberation struggle and why it is it still such a burning issue today.

It is therefore a scandal that 24 years after the ANC came to power in 1994, its leaders have until now done virtually nothing to implement reclaiming stolen land. In 1994, 87% of the land was owned by whites and only 13% by blacks yet by 2012 land reform had transferred only 7.95 million hectares into black ownership, equivalent to just 7.5% of formerly white-owned land.

In 2012 Minister for Agriculture, Gugile Nkwinti, told Parliament that only around 10% of commercial farmland has been redistributed or restored to black South Africans since formal apartheid ended. So whites still own most of the country’s land.

The ANC’s sudden interest in this question has only arisen because of the pressure from voters, particularly in rural areas, who are so angry at having to continue living in poverty while land stolen from their ancestors remains in the hands of white farmers or tribal authorities.

The proposals agreed by the ANC National Conference was also full of preconditions which open up many excuses for continuing to do nothing; its resolution assured white land-owners that that “we will do it (expropriation without compensation) in a manner that meets the constitutional requirement of redress and does not undermine the economy, agricultural production and food security”.

A convenient excuse for the slow progress on land redistribution was that it was prevented by Section 25 of the constitution. But there is nothing in that section which forbids expropriation, with or without compensation. It says the amount of compensation and the time and manner of payment must be “just and equitable”, and reflect an equitable balance between the public interest and the interests of those affected.

There is no reference to the ‘willing-seller/willing buyer’ principle and nothing to stop a court ruling that “just and equitable” compensation would mean no compensation. Parliament was right however to amend the constitution to spell this out specfically.

The government has not however even complied a land register to ascertain who actually currently owns land, and their racial category.

As well as the snail’s pace of land redistribution, the government has failed equally badly on the Freedom Charter’s call for the state to “help the peasants with implements, seed, tractors and dams to save the soil and assist the tillers”.

Many land expropriations over the past 24 years have benefitted no-one because there is no policy to ensure that when people are given land they will be supported with skills development and funding, so that they can use the land productively.

As a consequence of this, as Minister for Agriculture, Gugile Nkwinti, told Parliament in 2012, 90% of the redistributed land was lying fallow. “Not nearly enough reform has occurred since 1994” he admitted, and the government’s land audits have not even been able to reveal fully who owns and uses the country’s agricultural land.

Already a lot of people awarded land have opted not to take it but gone instead for monetary compensation. Former President Zuma conceded in his 2017 State of the Nation address that “over 90% of claims are currently settled through financial compensation which does not help the process at all. It perpetuates dispossession. It also undermines economic empowerment”.

In order to implement genuine land reform, SAFTU welcomes Parliament’s decision but insists that the redistribution of land without compensation must be linked to a programme to train, equip and fund new black farmers, either individually or as community co-operatives.

Agriculture in South Africa is a perfect example of the classic contradiction of capitalism identified by Karl Marx years ago, of workers who can’t afford to buy the commodities they produce. Farm workers, who spend all day producing food then have no food to put on the table when they get home because they own no land and are paid so little.

All these problems require the intervention of strong trade unions, which can ensure that the workers voice is heard. Our future depends on a fundamental transformation of the economy, as envisaged by the Freedom Charter, which demanded that “Restrictions of land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land re-divided amongst those who work it to banish famine and land hunger.”