File picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)

PARLIAMENT - The slow pace of land redistribution in South Africa was not due to deficiencies in the property clause of the Constitution but a lack of political will to implement this clause to bring about land reform, members of Parliament (MPs) heard on Tuesday.

Following extensive public hearings across the country, Parliament's constitutional review committee was holding a last round of hearings from Tuesday to Friday in the legislature before it started deliberations and makes a recommendation to the National Assembly on whether section 25 (property clause) needs amending to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation.

"We do need to rethink the whole process and that simply changing the Constitution by itself is not going to be an answer because government could be expropriating land for past 20 years but chose not to do so," Professor Ruth Hall, of the University of the Western Cape's Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas), told MPs on Tuesday.

Plaas proposed a seven-step process to get land reform off the ground.

According to its submission, Plaas proposes a new compensation regime which would spell out the criteria for compensation or when the State can expropriate land with zero compensation, partial compensation or market-related compensation.

Hall said their should not be a one-size fits all approach, and that compensation should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

"Our Constitution explicitly says we should not treat all the same."

This was in line with the presentation by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which said in cases where people received land at below market value after apartheid era expropriations, should not expect a market-related return when their land is expropriated by the current government.

Plaas is also proposing the Expropriation Bill, which was recently withdrawn in Parliament so the current issue of a Constitutional amendment can first be dealt with, should be passed as it would replace the current Act (of 1975) which was inconsistent with the Constitution and the need for land reform.

Hall also proposed the State test its expropriation powers by bringing test cases in court. She told MPs while bringing test cases might initially slow down the land reform process, it would in the long term provide legal clarity which would reignite land redistribution. 

A redistribution bill, Plaas argues should also be drafted to "strengthen the hands of citizens to ensure that the state uses its power in the interests of all, and with a bias towards those citizens who are in greatest need".

Addressing institutional challenges at the State should also become a priority as the State has lacked capacity to implement land reform.

Grain South Africa, representing the interests of tens of thousands of grain farmers, told MPs it was also of the view a Constitutional amendment was not necessary as it already empowered government to do what's necessary to effect land reform.

"Let's fix the implementation rather than not have food in the country...I don't think we need to change the Constitution to get that done," Grain SA CEO, Jannie de Villiers, said.

He said people should not just be given land, but needed to be empowered to put that land to productive use or food security could be under threat. 

The Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) spoke on behalf of the agricultural value chain, warning that if expropriation was done recklessly it could have unintended economic consequences.

Agbiz legal adviser Theo Boshoff said agriculture needed financial institutions to fund inputs, but that financing was dependent on farmers providing collateral.

According to Agbiz total farm debt stood at R197 billion, with 75% of this collateralised through the value of land.

Boshoff said if land is expropriated and commercial farmers fail finance their operations, it could lead to production losses.

"Now, if they struggle to get finance and production goes down to the extent that we don't produce enough to meet our own demands and we need to import food then the cost of imported food is of course significantly more than what we can produce locally, so in other words if the production goes down to that extent food prices will rise," he said.

He added that in a worst case scenario food prices could soar by 100%.

Agbiz, said Boshoff, supported land reform but said section 25 of the Constitution did not need changing as it already gave government powers to expropriate. 

He said what has been lacking has been the political will to implement the provisions of section 25 "within the context of land reform".

The lack of legal precedent with regard to expropriating land was also problematic. 

"Only after the just and equitable compensation principle has been tested by the State and adjudicated upon in court can a meaningful assessment be made."

African News Agency (ANA)