The government seems hell-bent on implementing a policy of expropriation without compensation (EWC) in South Africa, despite the very clear evidence that such a policy will cause untold damage to our economy.

The parliamentary timetable around the issue of EWC shows that the government is planning on pushing the policy through with a minimum of interference. The Ad Hoc Committee to Initiate and Introduce Legislation Amending Section 25 of the Constitution (to give its full, rather grandiose title) has drawn up a draft bill, now published for public comment … over the December holidays.

The deadline for written comments is 31 January. Now, every South African knows that the country effectively shuts down from the middle of December until the second week of January. Giving the country this period to comment on such an important piece of legislation is the height of cynicism. Whatever one’s position on the policy of EWC, it is clear that it will have serious implications for the country if implemented, and any legislation must be carefully considered. It is no exaggeration to say that tampering with property rights is the biggest policy change since apartheid was scrapped, and it is not something to take lightly.

But we need to ask why the government is so intent of implementing a policy of EWC. Our research has shown that most South Africans do not consider land a pressing priority for the government. Rather, the majority of South Africans believe that the focus areas should be creating jobs, providing decent education, and fighting crime and corruption. And other organisations have made similar findings.

At the same time, it is clear that the government only pays lip service to land reform. Since the end of apartheid, the government has never put more than a nominal amount towards restitution or reform. Indeed, the government spends more on protecting senior government officials, for example, than it does on land restitution.

And we have also seen in a number of cases – notably the David Rakgase case – that the government has no interest in creating more property owners. The government would prefer that people should occupy land or property at its prerogative. If this were not true, then David Rakgase would not have had to take the government to court to force it to sell him the farm that he has been successfully working for a long period. Equally, if the government really was interested in creating more property owners, it would have worked to break the feudal property relations that exist in the former homelands in South Africa, where property rights do not exist and people are often at the mercy of a local strongman.

And our land reform efforts must not be concentrated only on rural South Africa. We must also focus on our cities. South Africa, like most countries, is rapidly urbanising. About two thirds of South Africans live in urban areas today (compared to about half in the early 1990s) and this trend will only intensify. Within 30 years some 80% of South Africans could be living in cities.

This can be a positive trend. People who live in cities are generally richer, more likely to be employed, and better educated than those who don’t. But this exodus from the platteland must be harnessed. Already, some people living in cities are either living in inner-city slums or on the outskirts of urban areas – far from work and other opportunities. It is here that we must focus our land reform efforts, to ensure that available government land is used optimally, before land in private lands is even considered.

The government’s headlong rush to impose a policy of EWC is not being done in the interests of poor South Africans.

If we accept EWC and by extension a government that can arbitrarily deprive you of your property, it is the poorest who will suffer.

Make no mistake, those with the means, black and white, will leave for greener pastures. The dream of a prosperous South Africa will be dead in the water without property rights. We only have to look across the Limpopo to see what happens when a government destroys property rights.

South Africans must stand together to oppose an amendment that will only make us all poorer, and destroy the dream of 1994.

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Marius Roodt
Marius Roodt is currently Head of Campaigns at the IRR. This is his second stint at the Institute, having returned after spells working at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and a Johannesburg-based management consultancy. He has also previously worked as a journalist, an analyst for a number of foreign governments, and spent most of 2005 and 2006 driving a scooter around London. Roodt holds an honours degree from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.

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