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Africa

ANC shifts land seizure line ahead of SA elections

media Julius Malema speaking to EFF supporters in Alexandra township, Johannesburg REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibek

The African National Congress (ANC) has backed the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) on the thorny issue of land reform - transfering white-owned land to blacks.

In this unusual partnership with the ANC, it is self-styled revolutionaries, the Economic Freedom Fighters who are leading the dance.

Julius Malema, their charismatic leader, gave an impassioned speech in parliament yesterday saying South Africans must "restore our dignity without compensating the criminals who stole our land".

Malema struck a more conciliatory tone speaking to reporters after the debate.

“The state should be the custodian of the [expropriated] land," he said. "No one is going to lose their house. No one is going to lose their factory or industry."

What Malema's EFF supports is effectively a nationalisation of land - with the government redistributing land to tenants, not giving them ownership.

ANC changes line on compensation

What is new here is that the ANC, under new President Cyril Ramaphosa, has backed the call for expropriation without compensation.

This, however, requires a constitutional change, which needs a two-thirds majority in parliament.

A recent study suggests that 73 percent of arable land in South Africa is owned by whites, compared to 83 percent when apartheid ended in 1994.

Some of that 10 percent drop can be attributed to land reform efforts over the past 24 years, but it hides the reality that thousands of hectares of land that used to be white-owned are now government-owned.

So how much land is owned by whites and how much by blacks?

“That is the most difficult question to answer. Nobody knows,” says Mari Harris, Director of Public Affairs at the polling institute Ipsos South Africa.

“So much land has already been bought from white farmers but that land is now in the hands of the government. It was never redistributed.”

ANC under EFF pressure

Since it came to power the ANC has sought to portray itself as the sole custodian of rights for blacks.

There is a fear in parts of the ANC that on subjects such as land reform they risk being outflanked by Malema's EFF.

By supporting calls for land expropriation, they are making sure that for core voters they remain on the right side of the debate.

“We have a year to go until the next national elections and clearly the ANC want to look as though they are leading on this issue,” says Daniel Silke, an independent political analyst.

“Investors have been in a phase of past-Ramaphosa euphoria, we’ve seen the rand off its recent highs in the 24 hours since the debate in parliament.

“Clearly anything that relates to the property clause in the constitution could undermine investor confidence.”

Ramaphosa backs expropriation without compensation so long as, and here is his get out clause, it increases food production and does not harm South Africa's fragile economy.

“Every six months we ask voters about their attitudes towards key political issues,” says Mari Harris of Ipsos.

“Land reform is not necessarily that well-received by the population. It doesn’t even make the top 10 of the most important issues for voters.

“For a lot of people land reform is an emotional issue but it is not a core issue.”

South Africans are also acutely aware what bad land redistribution looks like.

The ruinous example of former Zimbabwan president Robert Mugabe's land reform programmes sent his country's agricultural sector and economy into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover.

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