A policy where all land is nationalised, may see homeowners lose their property (or at least a share of its value), including black homeowners, says the writer. Picture Cindy Waxa /AFRICAN NEWS AGENCY/ANA
Expropriation without Compensation (EWC) has gripped South Africa as the most important debate about the future of the country since the negotiations to end apartheid in the early 1990s. And it’s no exaggeration to say the stakes are every bit as high.

This is partly because of two misconceptions that have arisen in the intensifying debate. The first is that land or property will be taken from whites and given to black people. The second is that the only people who will really suffer are investors, who will up sticks with their capital rather than risk losing it in an environment where property is no longer secure.

Both of these are false. EWC, as it is currently framed, will mean every single South African will lose their right to property. Land will be nationalised and belong to the state. All property-owning South Africans, no matter their colour or class, immediately risk becoming tenants of the state, rather than people who own property and gain the dignity and opportunities property provides.

One of the biggest crimes of apartheid was that it stripped black people of their property rights. EWC, as it is currently framed, will do this once again, and all South Africans will suffer. 

According to the government’s land audit, African South Africans own a limited proportion of South Africa under individual freehold title. However, this is for a number of reasons, not necessarily because of white recalcitrance or a failure of land reform since the end of apartheid – and EWC will do nothing to change it. 

For example, when black South Africans have been given land through land reform, they have often not been given title – and certainly not individual title. This means that although land has been restored, the beneficiaries are not the owners of the land, but continue to be tenants of the state. 

This has a number of implications. A primary one is that people will be unlikely to build improvements or invest in this property if instead of their owning it, the state does. Under EWC this may well be the situation all South Africans find themselves in.

When it comes to homeownership, research from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) shows black South Africans own more homes than all other South Africans combined, another unheralded success of post-apartheid South Africa. In 2016, over seven million black households fully owned their homes (the majority were women). This meant that about 84% of all homeowners, with fully paid-off bonds, were black. 

A policy of EWC, where all land is nationalised, may see homeowners lose their property (or at least a share of its value), including black homeowners. The leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Julius Malema, has said that while his party wants all land to be nationalised, this will not include people’s homes on the land. This is a legal nonsense. Elmien du Plessis, a professor at the North-West University, says that, in South African law, anything attached to the land (such as a house) is part of the land. Thus, nationalising all land will mean the effective nationalisation of a person’s home. Title deeds will be meaningless, a disastrous outcome for individuals and people as a whole.

Although President Cyril Ramaphosa has assured South Africans that EWC will occur with as little disruption to the economy as possible, it is difficult to see how he will do this. 

As advocate Mark Oppenheimer has written elsewhere, saying this is akin to saying that a vow of celibacy will not affect your sex life. It is clear that uncertainty around, amongst other things, EWC and the Mining Charter, is affecting the economy. 

In the first quarter of this year, the economy shrank 2.2% compared to the final quarter of 2017. This was because of huge declines in mining (9.9%) and agriculture (a whopping decrease of nearly 25%). It would not be surprising if concerns around EWC were already showing themselves here – and as the threat gathers momentum, it will become more pronounced. 

One can be sure that the eye-watering decline in agricultural output can in large part be attributed to uncertainty around EWC. EWC is not only bad news for foreign investors (who for many in the chattering classes are a bane rather than a boon to this country), but also ordinary South Africans. 

This economic shrinkage will have real consequences for ordinary people; jobs will be lost and people will become poorer. The last year in which the South African economy shrank was 2009 when it declined by 1.5%, and employment declined by nearly three per cent. In an uncertain environment as is being created today, economic shrinkage will continue, along with a corresponding decline in jobs and income per capita.

There is no need to tinker with the property rights clause of the Constitution. Land reform and restitution is possible under our present legal and constitutional framework (much ink has been spent on this and there is no need to rehash these arguments here). 

Destroying property rights in the name of EWC will be a disaster. It will be an irony if South Africa survives the catastrophe of apartheid only to make the fatal mistake of EWC more than two decades after the death of that odious system.

Make your voice heard and endorse the IRR’s submission to Parliament on EWC.

* Marius Roodt is a campaign manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). 

** Join the IRR in opposing the introduction of Expropriation without Compensation by endorsing its submission to Parliament at https://irr.org.za/campaigns/defend-your-property-rights-before-d-day-15-june-2018, or sending an SMS to 32823.

*** The views expressed here are no necessarily those of Independent Media.