Fred Meintjes analyses the fallout of this week’s historic decision to allow expropriation of land without compensation in South Africa, and argues now is not the time to panic 

South Africa’s parliament voted by a huge margin this week to approve a motion brought by the often radical-viewed Economic Freedom Front leader Julius Malema to allow expropriation of land without compensation. The new presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa is still in its infancy, and while he was swearing in his new cabinet, parliament adopted the land motion. 

Ramaphosa’s appointment has brought much hope to South Africa and in his cabinet appointments he removed a number of previous ministers who are reportedly involved with corruption. He also named trusted replacements in key ministries which bring hope to South Africans and will lead to more confidence in the international community. Ramaphosa, in his state of the nation address last Friday, confirmed that expropriation of land without compensation will be part of the government’s policy. He previously stated that this will not be done at the expense of the economy and food security. This brought some comfort to the agricultural sector and prior to yesterday’s debate the new president’s appointment and early actions were generally praised by the fruit industries. 

After the negative experience of former president Zuma over the past nine years, many people felt that just about anyone would have been more acceptable, as long as corruption ends. In that context, the razzmatazz in parliament needs to be considered carefully, without people pressing their panic buttons. 

After yesterday’s decision, the initial euphoria in the fruit industry will have been muted. Realistically though, there is still much water to flow into the sea before the reality of expropriation of land without compensation finally dawns. What the final deal will look like remains to be seen and in the end it may even be a storm in a tea cup. 

For the government the skeletons in the cupboard is 20 years of mostly failed land transformation projects and the fact that the government already administers large tracks of tribal lands, which will have to be expropriated too and given to a still unidentified recipient base. Whether the constitution will allow them to treat certain sectors of the country differently, is a question. How they will get round basic human rights, or the fact that most of South Africa’s rural economy is based on individual ownership in which the country’s financial institutions play a huge role, which add to financial instability. 

So the government may be pitted against the tribal leaders, a key part of the ANC’s constituency, who will not want to see their influence diminished by private ownership by their own followers or tribe members. Expropriation of productively farmed land, in and outside the fruit industry, will also be in conflict to the ANC’s own policy on which Ramaphosa bases his policy declarations. 

The constitution of South Africa will have to be changed and it can be accepted that many clauses and safeguards will be built into that. The process is expected to take much time – beyond next year’s national elections, during which the ANC government will have to win convincingly to be able to right the South African ship. If they do so, it is unlikely that they will show the kind of cooperation to the EFF’s radical policies as was shown yesterday. Simply, leading up to the election they cannot afford for the radical EFF to dictate terms and increase their eight per cent share of the vote. They are close to the 50 per cent vote share mark and if they lose next year, South Africa will most probably have its first non-ANC government. 

The focus on expropriation without compensation is therefore very likely to be an election ploy to win back support from black voters lost in the 2016 local government elections. World opinion, the views of the world’s financial grading agencies – which presently has South Africa in junk status due to Zuma’s shenanigans – and the fact that South Africa can only meet its growth targets to increase jobs and reduce poverty with the full support of the business sector, including the fruit industry, will play as much a part in the future of South Africa as radical demands. 

The most positive developments, in the immediate term, one can hope for would be sorting out the government’s own land transformation schemes, to make sure they work properly. In the fruit industry it will promote entry of new growers who will make a contribution to the future of the industry. 


Fred Meintjes is Market Intelligence’s southern African correspondent, reporting regularly from Cape Town on developments in the region’s fresh produce sector for Americafruit, Asiafruit, Eurofruit and the Fresh Produce Journal. An expert commentator on the international fresh produce business, Fred previously worked as group manager of corporate affairs at Capespan, which at the time was South Africa’s single-desk exporter for all fruit shipments out of the country.

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