South Africa and the Global Indigenous Struggle for Land
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

South Africa and the Global Indigenous Struggle for Land

Mar. 07, 2018  |     |  0 comments

On February 27, 2018, South Africa’s National Assembly voted, by a large majority of 241 to 83, to “begin a process to amend Section 25 of the Constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation.” The Constitutional Review Committee will now review the proposal and advise the National Assembly by the end of August whether the amendment should be made. Should the Constitution be amended, this will allow the government to redistribute — without compensation — the 72 percent of South African farmland currently owned by whites to black ownership.

Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s new President, declared in his first state of the nation address last month that his government will “accelerate our land redistribution programme … to redress a grave historical injustice,” while Julius Malema, the radical leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters who brought the land expropriation motion, said in his address to the National Assembly that: “The time for reconciliation is over. Now is the time for justice … We must ensure that we restore the dignity of our people without compensating the criminals who stole our land.”

Indigenous activists have applauded the vote. As Thami Ka Plaatjie recalls: “The first object of dispute between the Africans and colonialists was based on greed for our land … Successive rapine colonial rule witnessed the loss of African land and the impoverishment of our people.” Indeed, South Africa’s traditional leaders have called on the government to implement land expropriation without compensation “without further delay.” As Limpopo Chief Malesela Dikgale explained: “We want to get the land because it belongs to the people.” In his address to the National House of Traditional Leaders, President Ramaphosa affirmed that traditional leaders “should be at the forefront of land transformation in their areas.”

However, this Constitutional amendment is likely to not happen quickly. As Ray Mahlaka explains: “If changes to Section 25 — which forms part of the Bill of Rights — impinge on the founding values of the Constitution, then a 75% majority might be required. This might require taking the matter to the courts for a declaratory order.” In addition, “expropriation of land without compensation impacts other pieces of legislation that have to be reviewed. These include the National Credit Act and Expropriation Act, which contemplates just and equitable compensation.” The final passage of the amendment hence could take years to complete.

The South African land debate is part of the larger worldwide struggle of indigenous peoples for the restoration of their ancestral lands. Unlike individuals from diasporic or settler groups, land is an essential component of the self-understanding of individuals from indigenous communities. This is because the groups which identify themselves as indigenous to the land understand themselves — through their origin myths — to be the descendants of ancestors who originally emerged from the land, giving them a blood connection with their ancestral lands.

As Jacques Lacan (1992) reminds us, interdiction creates desire (pp. 83-84). For indigenous groups who have been dispossessed from their lands, their desire to be restored to their ancestral lands is amplified by the prohibitions against their access. In the absence of legal remedies restoring their traditional rights to the land, such desire can escalate into violence. In Pakistan’s Balochistan province, a violent separatist movement has emerged that is motivated in part by the expropriation of indigenous Baloch lands for development by the Pakistani state and foreign investors. In one case, that of the Saindak copper mine, 50 percent of its profits are received by its Chinese owners, 48 percent by the Pakistani state, and the remaining 2 percent by the Baloch provincial government. Thanks to such exploitation by outsiders, “while Balochistan has the greatest share in Pakistan of the country’s natural wealth, the province remains the poorest in the country.” The separatists hence demand not just autonomy for Balochistan, “but also full control over its natural resources” (Lim, 2017, p. 8).

If the Constitution is indeed amended and land redistribution takes place, the South African banking sector stands to lose up to R160 billion in defaults from existing property loans in the agricultural sector.

There is also a cultural dimension to the desire of indigenous peoples for their ancestral lands. In her seminal work From a Native Daughter, Haunani-Kay Trask (1999) describes the indigenous understanding of the land as a “cultural … bond between people and land” which is enlivened by traditional practices which constitute their “way of living within” their ancestral lands (p. 120). The expropriation by outsiders of their lands hence not only threatens the economic well-being of indigenous groups but their traditional cultures as well. In Balochistan, the separatists have targeted Gwadar Port, which is the southern terminus of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). For the Baloch, CPEC represents the external force of globalization which threatens their traditional way of life. The danger posed by globalization to the traditional cultures of indigenous peoples arises from its potential to erase “the substantial world of locally rooted objects” and replace it with “a world of objects that is radically disconnected from the local community.” In Balochistan, CPEC brings with it a “marketplace of objects” which threatens to “swamp out the smaller number of locally rooted objects which hold substantive meaning for the Baloch” (Lim, 2017, p. 7). As George Ritzer (2003) explains, while locally-rooted objects count as “something” to indigenous groups, given that they are “indigenously conceived, controlled, and comparatively rich in distinctive substantive content,” the commodities produced by globalization count as “nothing” as they are “centrally conceived, controlled, and comparatively devoid of distinctive substantive content” (p. 191). The Baloch hence have undergone a double alienation: first from the natural bounty of their ancestral lands, and next from the world of meaning produced by their locally rooted objects.

Turning back to South Africa, the government is keen to avoid the problems that emerged over the past two decades in neighboring Zimbabwe following its disastrous land reform program, which, like the proposed South African program, redistributed white-owned farmland to black ownership, but which led many of the farms falling into disrepair, and which in turn led to a “collapse in agricultural production that led to Zimbabwe’s economy being wrecked by hyper-inflation, mass unemployment and emigration.” The total economic cost of Zimbabwe’s land reform was estimated in 2009 to be USD 20 billion, including the cost of “lost export revenues, food aid imports and economic growth foregone.”

The ouster of President Robert Mugabe in November 2017 led to a change in Zimbabwe’s land reform program, with the goal of the new government to “revive the moribund economy and create jobs.” Earlier this year, a white farmer and his black farmworkers were allowed to return to their farm, and the government of the new Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa is “offering incentives to Zimbabwean white farmers, who shifted their business to Zambia at the height of the controversial land reform programme … to return to Zimbabwe,” albeit on farmland distributed on 99-year leases, with possible compensation for their lost farmland.

President Ramaphosa hence has specifically highlighted that the proposed land redistribution program in South Africa will avoid any Zimbabwe-style “collapse in agricultural production” by bringing in “more producers into the agricultural sector,” and by making “more land available for cultivation.” However, the uncertainly brought about by the prospect of land expropriation without compensation could already have had some economic effects, for given the possibility of major change in South Africa’s property rights regime, “it does not seem possible for the agricultural sector to receive further investment.”

Furthermore, if the Constitution is indeed amended and land redistribution takes place, the South African banking sector stands to lose up to R160 billion in defaults from existing property loans in the agricultural sector, as those farmers who lose their land and are not compensated will not be able to continue servicing their loans. Unlike a normal loan default, the affected bank would not be able to “foreclose on the property, because the state now owns the property.” In addition to the land redistribution mechanism, the South African government may hence also have to plan for compensation to the affected banks to avoid any further economic damage.

However, in that scenario, as South African economists Johann Kirsten and Wandile Sihlobo point out, the policy would no longer be one of expropriation without compensation, but would instead be “expropriation with compensation — except that the money goes to the bank not the farmer.” In which case, why not compensate the farmers directly? Kirsten and Sihlobo also warn that, if improperly managed, the proposed land redistribution could lead to a Zimbabwe-like “protracted economic decline that will erode the purchasing power of money, losses in pensions and savings, and deindustrialisation that will destroy future economic growth and off-farm job opportunities for the current generation.” This would indeed be a nightmare scenario that the South African government would want to avoid.


A seized Zimbabwe farm is returned, but uncertainty reigns. (2018, March 1). AFP.

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Kirsten, J., and Sihlobo, W. (2018, March 1). Expropriating land without compensation is impossible—take it from Zimbabwe. Quartz.

Lacan, J. (1992). The Seminar. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60.

(D. Porter, Trans.). New York: Routledge.

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Mahlaka, R. (2018, March 1). 7 questions about expropriating land without compensation. Moneyweb.

Mnangagwa’s govt ‘offering incentives to evicted Zim white farmers in Zambia to return home’—report. (2018, March 2). News24.

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Read Cyril Ramaphosa’s first state of the nation address. (2018, February 16). TimesLIVE.

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Roelf, W. (2018, February 27). Vote in South Africa’s parliament moves land reform closer. Reuters.

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Vallie, Z. (2018, March 4). This is how land expropriation can cripple banks. IOL.

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