by Nicholas Woode-Smith


Approaching land expropriation without compensation


In late February, Parliament overwhelmingly voted for a motion to investigate if the Constitution should be amended to allow for expropriation of private property without compensation.

The move has been lauded by factions in the ANC and especially by the radical socialist party, the EFF. The policy itself follows a two-decade-long project to redistribute land to previously-disadvantaged people—a project which has been deemed unsatisfactory by many.

The policy has not been substantially developed. All that is known is that it is aimed at potentially removing the provisions in the Constitution that require compensation upon expropriation of private property rights.

Filling in the gaps of the insubstantial policy, the EFF has made it clear that they support a policy of full state control of all property. Taking a cue from the Soviet Union, the EFF supports the government expropriating all private property and then leasing it to the citizenry for periods up to 25 years. This policy is in line with their Marxist-Leninist ideology, something explicitly embraced in EFF policy documentation.

But what will truly become of land expropriation in SA? What will it mean for the country and the economy? Moreover, is it the right way forward?

Land is a tense issue in SA. Because of this, and spurred by radical political elements, there is a mass movement to partake in land grabs as the government fails to redistribute land at the speed that some wish.

This has resulted in mass protests in Hermanus, Western Cape, where protests over vacant land escalated into violent riots, with looting and the burning of public and private property. This often took the form of xenophobic attacks.

Hermanus ties into a larger context. While expropriation is not yet a concrete policy, there is overwhelming rhetoric around it. The idea, supported by radicals in Black First Land First and the EFF, is that government programmes that seek restitution through negotiation have failed and that there must be a more aggressive policy where the government needs to take what it deems appropriate, toward achieving social justice. Failing this, ordinary citizens are incited to take “unused” property themselves.

Ironically, the EFF’s support of land grabs, whereby claimants take what they want, runs counter to the EFF’s land policy. The EFF seeks the establishment of a Marxist state, where the government owns all the means of production, land included. The EFF’s policy to support land grabs is, as such, likely, two-fold: an ill-thought-out political play and an effort to destabilise their political rivals.

The EFF appears to be leading the popular discussion on expropriation, despite their modest number of Parliament seats.

Currently, the land debate regarding expropriation without compensation is leading to two possible policies:

- A moderate approach: the government will follow Zimbabwe’s framework and expropriate farmland to then be distributed as they see fit.

- A radical approach: the government will claim all the land and act as a “custodian” over all landed property.

The radical approach may be considered as enabling a transformative and effective government to work towards social justice, but history and economics run counter to this. Many countries have tried this policy already. It has failed every time, causing the deaths of millions through the famines in China (1958-1961) and the famines in Soviet-controlled Ukraine (1932), among other catastrophes wrought by radical expropriation. Private property and a free market, despite many protestations against them, are essential for the functioning of a prosperous society.

Therefore, this article will be mainly reviewing the moderate approach. But don’t be confused. Despite this being “moderate”, it is very radical indeed. For many frustrated citizens, that may be a good thing. Change is alluring. But just any change isn’t necessarily a good change.


The aim of land reform isn’t economic growth or poverty alleviation. If it is, then it is the wrong policy. Land doesn’t make people rich. Land, especially in a place as arid as South Africa, is more symbolic than it is suited for use as an asset, a fact readily admitted by speakers at the recent National Land Forum that took place in Johannesburg.

Land redistribution cannot lead to wealth. Rather, it can lead to the redistribution of who has the wealth. If the economy is a pie, it is taking the slices from one person to give to another. It doesn’t mean a new pie or a larger one. As such, expropriation cannot be thought of as a policy of economic growth, but rather one of ideology, or justice, as its proponents would argue.

This ideology shifts between restitution and retribution.

Restitution is about placing the victims of injustice in the position they would have been in, had the injustice not occurred. It gives back property that has been taken. A policy of restitution is aimed at righting the wrongs of the past.

Retribution is the act of punishing the apparent perpetrator for the crimes that they or their ancestors have committed. A policy of retribution is aimed at punishing the wrongdoer or their descendants, regardless of the consequences.

The pros of moderate land expropriation can be seen in both goals.

For restitution, some land claimants may receive land that was unjustly taken from them and be able to right the wrongs of the past.

For retribution, the descendants of the perpetrators will lose their property. But is that really a pro? If the property they lose happens to legitimately belong to the beneficiary, perhaps. But is revenge for the sake of revenge really what we want for a country built on the values of freedom, equality, and dignity?


Unfortunately, land expropriation is filled with more cons than pros. Historically, countries which pursue nationalisation and expropriation without compensation fail. They damage the market and the trust of society to such a degree that the economy fails and poverty prevails.

In Eastern Europe, China and Zimbabwe, even moderate land expropriation resulted in famines and mass economic disasters.

This is because private property is sacrosanct. The very foundation of civilisation is people being able to own their property without fear that it will be taken away. If it is uncertain or, at worst, a foregone conclusion, that one’s property will be snatched away, the incentive to put that property to productive use is absent.

Apartheid was evil because, amongst others, it violated the private property rights of the vast majority in order to implement an ideology of social engineering. Communism was evil because it took away people’s property, leading to starvation. Nazism was evil because it took away people’s property, leading to extermination.

Land expropriation without compensation risks becoming evil because it seeks to take away property without due consideration of all stakeholders and the socio-economic necessities of the country.

Land expropriation without compensation as purported in the radical and moderate view will not fix the country’s ailments. It will take away land from people who are using it to feed, employ and help their fellow South Africans.

The new farmers who receive the expropriated farms, no matter their virtues or sincerity, may not be up to the job. This is no fault of their own. They won’t because expropriation will lead to a breakdown of social trust that will result in the economy and political system becoming chaotic.

Investors will not invest their capital in SA. That means no tools, machines or seeds for SA farmers.

Older farmers, a crucial source of knowledge and skills, will leave. They will take with them generations of experience that could be used to help train a new generation of farmers.

Why risk famine and economic collapse for retribution? Revenge isn’t sweet if you’re dead.

The solution

I suggest a third approach. The problem with the above approaches is that they are inhumane. They focus on the collectives of tribe versus tribe and race versus race.

Land is owned by people or small groups. Not races. After 1910, land was taken away from these people and groups. The records are there for many of these cases.

So why muddy the affair with grandiose projects? Why change the Constitution that was fought for with the blood and sweat of so many?

The real solution is a system where individual or group land claimants go to a special land court to claim a specific piece of land to which they can show they have a rightful claim. If it can be proven, with the help of investigators and researchers, they can get the land back. This system is already in use after the establishment of the Restitution of Land Rights Act. It just needs to be supported.

This system maintains truth and doesn’t risk collapsing SA into a quagmire of conflict. It focuses on the real victims and real solutions.

South Africa is a democracy. That means we’re all in this together. We cannot exclude a wide swathe of the population just because their ancestors may have hurt someone else’s. For SA to have a future, we all need to work together and be reasonable and diplomatic. Peace must prevail. 

Nicholas Woode-Smith

comments powered by Disqus


This edition

Issue 68