Don't mistake panic for justifiable unease - Daily Dispatch

26 September 2019 - The response of the farming community is not panic. It is an attitude of deep concern driven by the words and actions of the ANC and government.

Against a background of grinding insecurity over the direction of land and agrarian policy, Deputy President Mabuza’s comments to the National Council of Provinces last week offered an assurance of sorts: ‘I want to say to our commercial farmers that there is no need to panic. We want to keep your skills, we want to keep you here.’

If this provided the farming community with comfort, another assertion did not: ‘We will expropriate land without compensation.’

Indeed, to the extent that ‘panic’ describes prevailing sentiment, it is driven above all by the government’s plans to undertake seizures of property.

Panic, however, is a misnomer. It denotes a directionless – even irrational – and above all, an emotive state. It suggests a disconnect between the circumstances that aroused it and the responses of those subject to it.

Farmers are not panicking. They are reacting to threats to their interests if not to the very viability of the farming sector. Their concerns are entirely rational and justified. Since late 2017, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the government it leads have been declaring that they will use expropriation without compensation to drive land reform.

To this end, the Bill of Rights is to be amended (the ‘consultation’ process having all the appearances of a pro forma exercise with a predetermined conclusion) – a drastic measure under any circumstances – to dilute the property protections in the Constitution.

Regulations gazetted in terms of the Property Valuation Act late last year grant the government extension discounts when acquiring property for land reform purposes. The acting Valuer General has suggested that the principle underlying this formula – ‘current use value – be included in a constitutional amendment. And he told a parliamentary committee that with this formula ‘one could get to zero compensation’.

An Expropriation Bill has been introduced that would allow property to be taken from its owners, but not in law considered to be expropriation.

The report of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture pushes this further. For example, proposals for acquiring land as part of municipal development plans will be backed by the threat of expropriation: ‘Individual owners of properties that meet the criteria of land required for redistribution, or for tenure upgrades for farm dwellers, may offer their land as donations, or enter into negotiations with the State, failing which the State may proceed to expropriate.’

The clear implication is that what municipalities want they will get, with coercive power looming large. Given the pathologies that afflict the country’s municipal sphere, it would be irrational not to be deeply concerned about this proposal. It has less the potential for abuse than the certainty of abuse.

All of this tilts the relationship between government and those subject to it decisively towards the former. Property becomes contingent on the goodwill and policy direction of the government.

Cumulatively, this is less land reform than the creeping assertion of state control. And while it has often been paired with a sinister racial nationalism – it’s not always clear that government wants to keep white farmers in the economy – it gives little sign of manifesting itself positively for black farmers.

The recent court victory of David Rakgase – a successful black farmer of nearly 30 years, who wanted no more than to buy the state-owned land which he was working – was an immensely positive development. But it was also deeply distressing to see the extent to which government would go to ensure that he remained a tenant. As courts papers for the government put it, policy rests on ‘the principle that black farming households and communities may obtain 30-year leases, renewable for a further 20 years, before the state will consider transferring ownership to them’.

Note that this is a ‘principled’ position. Those who have argued that this process may produce ‘better property rights’ are betting on a turnabout change to current policy orientation.

The response of the farming community is not panic. It is an attitude of deep concern driven by the words and actions of the ANC and government. It is a response to the political choices. And until those change – and, with them, the perilous drift of policy – it will endure.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).