By Hassan Isilow
South Africa could face an uprising if it does not speed up the process of addressing inequality in land ownership caused by apartheid, experts have told Anadolu Agency.
Land is a highly contentious subject in South Africa, a country where much of the best farm land is still owned by minority whites 22 years after the end of the racial segregation system known as apartheid.
“The land issue is a hot potato in this country because the majority of blacks are landless due to the past exclusion system of apartheid,” political analyst Sadrack Gutto told Anadolu Agency in an interview.
He claimed the government has not properly addressed the land question and fears people could revolt by starting to occupy land belonging to private individuals who will in turn try to defend it, leading to conflict.
“We can’t claim freedom without land,” S'bu Zikode, president of South Africa's shack-dwellers association – known locally as Abahlali baseMjondolo – told Anadolu Agency this week.
He said he believed landlessness might lead to political instability in a country where millions of black people still live in shacks in shanty towns.
“Lack of land means that Africans can’t guarantee their own food security, and participate in the economy,” he said.
“There is a lot of unused land in the country, but if you ask where the owners are, they tell you they are in London or Australia. This is unfair,” he added.
However, despite criticism against the government, earlier this year parliament approved a bill allowing state expropriations of land.
The bill will allow the government to pay for land at a value determined by a state adjudicator and afterwards expropriate the property for public benefit.
Government statistics show around eight million hectares of land have already been transferred to black owners since the end of white minority rule.
South Africa’s 55-million-strong population depends on food produced by commercial farmers who are mainly white.
The African National Congress (ANC)-led government says it is working hard to address injustices caused by apartheid and denies ignoring the land question.
Last week, South Africa’s former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke told an audience in Johannesburg land disparity and injustice in the country were a cause for concern.
“The fact is that we have land inequity, land injustice in this country, and we have to look it in the face and find practical steps to make sure that there is a greater spread, access and use of land in a sensible and smart way,” he said.
However, he advised that the land issue should only be resolved within the confines of the constitution.
Public threats against white-owned land have increased in South Africa in recent weeks, with the leader of a far-left opposition party threatening to seize properties.
“White minorities be warned! We shall take our land. It doesn’t matter how,” Julius Malema, head of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), told supporters last week after appearing in court in the northeastern city of Newcastle.
Malema was appearing in court to answer charges of inciting his supporters to take over white-owned land. He then surprisingly made similar utterances outside the court.
Earlier this year, he told supporters whites could not claim ownership of land in South Africa because it belonged to native blacks.
Malema also claimed that white South African settlers had killed hundreds of blacks who had refused to be removed from their land.
“We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now,” he said amid cheers from his supporters.
Malema who appeared in two separate magistrates courts this month accused of hate speech, will know his fate next year. If found guilty, he could pay a hefty fine or face a jail term.
There have been increases in illegal land occupation since 2014 when Malema started inciting supporters.
However, the police often respond by evicting occupiers who sometimes build shacks on the land.
Those who resist eviction are often arrested, but this has not deterred them from continuing with the practice.
Several political parties, including the ANC and main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), have condemned Malema’s comments, describing them as hate speech.
The DA said in a statement last week, Malema’s utterances had no place in a democratic South Africa whose constitution is founded on the principles of human dignity‚ equality and freedom.
The ANC said South Africa belongs to all those who live in it.
Fears and worries
Chris Van Zyl, assistant general manager of the Transvaal Agricultural Union of South Africa, which represents several white commercial farmers, said they were concerned about the illegal occupation of privately owned land.
“We have advised all our members to patrol their land and evict any illegal occupiers within 48 hours,” he told Anadolu Agency this week.
Van Zyl said South African law required a landowner to ensure occupiers are evicted with 48 hours or else the owners have to seek a court order to remove them, which is costly.
He said he was worried that a confrontation might occur between some white landowners and the occupiers. Most farmers living in rural areas are armed and are expected to retaliate when invaders storm their land.
Van Zyl fears that if such a confrontation occurs, white farmers could be accused of racism for deciding to protect their lands.
When asked if he thinks South Africa could turn into a food-insecure country like Zimbabwe, which took away land from white farmers, he said: “The process in South Africa is not a carbon copy of what happened in Zimbabwe.”
South Africa’s constitution says land owners should be compensated once the state takes it over, unlike in Zimbabwe were thousands of white farmers were driven off their farms overnight.
In South Africa, the constitution prohibits arbitrary deprivation of property, but permits expropriation only when it is done “for public interest” and subject to fair compensation to the land owners.
Parliament will not debate the land issue again since approving the land expropriation bill.
However, the scene has been set for further confrontation between white farmers and black society, convinced it is entitled to ownership of African land.