THE Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is probing more than R100 million worth of land reform deals in KwaZulu-Natal that allegedly benefited crooked officials. File photo: Siphiwe Sibeko

Cape Town - Two bills before Parliament mean South Africans could face Zimbabwean-style land grabs, with both agricultural and private property ownership being put at risk, says the SA Institute of Race Relations.

But the claims were poo-pooed by the government, AgriSA and the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas).

A government spokesman accused the institute of trying to “thwart the efforts of the government to correct the wrongs of the past, while AgriSA and Plaas said property rights were constitutionally protected.

Sounding the alarm bells, the institute’s Frans Cronje warned farmers in particular to “start making plans” as Parliament sets out to finalise and adopt the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill and the Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill.

Cronje said taken to their extremes, the two bills “could devastate the rural economy on a scale comparable to Britain’s scorched earth policy during the Boer War”.

If the two bills were read in conjunction, the government could expropriate commercial farming operations with zero compensation to owners.

“Together, these two pieces of legislation could spell the end of private property rights in South Africa – not just in agriculture but across the economy,” Cronje said.

Questioning how the state would find money to settle the ball-park figure of about 379 000 new claims at an estimated cost of R179 billion, Cronje said it was suspected the state would use the Promotion of Protection of Investment Bill to expropriate property.

This bill contained a “weasel clause” stating that it is not “an act of expropriation” if the state takes property, not as owners but as a “custodian for others”.

“Where the state takes as ‘custodian’ – as the Constitutional Court has already ruled in a case involving mining rights – the deprivation of property from an existing owner is not matched by the acquisition of that property by the state. This means there is no expropriation – and no right to any compensation,” Cronje said.

The institute adds “once the Restitution Bill is enacted and hundreds of thousands of new land claims are lodged, the government could argue that it is obliged to honour these claims but lacks the money to pay compensation. Under the Investment Bill, it could then take the claimed land as custodian for land claimants – and without having to pay any compensation at all.”

According to Cronje, the bill could also spell the end of commercial agriculture, bringing about the collapse of the rural economy.

But Rural Development and Land Reform spokesman Mthobeli Mxotwa rubbished the claims, saying government had “20 years to grab land, and in 20 years nobody has grabbed anything from anybody”.

“These are the very people who own 87 percent of the land and they want to maintain the status quo. They want to thwart the efforts of the government to correct the wrongs of the past.”

The DA said it had not yet taken a position on the bills, which must still to be considered by the party’s parliamentary caucus on Thursday.

AgriSA said it was opposed to the re-opening of the restitution claims process, but added it did not believe the two bills spelt the end of private property rights.

“Property rights are constitutionally protected and the courts are bound to consider international law in interpreting the Bill of Rights which contains the property clause,” AgriSA’s legal and policy adviser, Annelize Crosby, said.

“The economic consequences of the large-scale taking of property without compensation will be disastrous for South Africa, which makes it very unlikely that our government will go this route.”

Professor Ben Cousins from Plaas accused the institute of scaremongering: “There is no way that the kind of ‘expropriation by stealth’ strategy that they suggest the ANC is embarking upon will be approved by Parliament. It is clear that it would be taken to the Constitutional Court and struck down.”

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Cape Argus