Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines

DEVELOPMENT: South African Land for South Africans?

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Feb 20 2006 (IPS) - A 10-member panel has urged the government of South Africa to bar foreigners temporarily from selling or buying any more land in the country.

“We recommend that a moratorium on the purchase and sale of South African land to non-citizens be imposed with immediate effect, as an interim measure until appropriate legislation has been promulgated,” Joe Matthews, deputy chairman of the panel, told journalists in the South African capital of Pretoria recently. The panel was appointed by Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza in 2004.

The ban would apply to all types of land including farms, golf courses and game reserves.

“We’ll look at the recommendation, present it to the cabinet and make our views known later,” Didiza told journalists after receiving a copy of the panel’s preliminary report, in Pretoria. “The report will help us have a better debate on the issue at hand.”

The panel’s decision appears to have been influenced, in part, by the plight of landless persons – a number of whom were dispossessed of their property under apartheid. Upon coming to power in 1994, South Africa’s first democratic government pledged to transfer 30 percent of white-owned land to blacks within five years. But 11 years later, only two percent has been transferred.

“There remains a strong and growing public opinion and impression that more needs to be done, and…at a faster pace,” Matthews said.

“There is also a very strong public opinion and perception, as manifest in the public hearings convened by the panel, that an unregulated ownership of land…by foreigners contributes significantly to the lack of readily available and affordable land for land reform.”

During a speech earlier this month, President Thabo Mbeki was cheered by supporters when he said land ownership and use by foreigners in South Africa would be addressed by his government.

However, the exact extent of foreign land ownership in South Africa is unknown at present, something Matthews says needs to be dealt with: “You can’t have a situation where the government does not know who owns land in South Africa.”

The coastal city of Cape Town is recognised as being popular amongst foreigners. According to the Institute of Estate Agents of South Africa, the sale of homes to foreigners in Cape Town averaged between six and seven percent of total sales between 1999 and 2004.

With the exception of prime sea-front areas in the Western Cape province (where Cape Town is located) and in the south-eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, residential property sales to foreign nationals account for less than one percent of total sales, notes the institute.

There is also uncertainty about how foreign ownership of land in South Africa affects the country.

“No economic analysis is yet available on the impact of foreign ownership on the property market and foreign direct investment (FDI) or investor confidence,” says the panel’s report, titled the ‘Progress Report on the Panel of Experts on the Development of Policy on the Regulation of Ownership of Land in South Africa by Foreigners (Non-Citizens)’.

Land is an emotive issue in various parts of Southern Africa. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has seized land from more than 4,000 white farmers for redistribution to landless blacks since 2000. Some have argued that this move had more to do with political expediency that the need to rectify unfair patterns of land ownership inherited from the colonial era, however.

Events in Zimbabwe have sparked fears of similar land seizures in South Africa.

“I don’t think South Africa will go Zimbabwe’s way. Our land reform will be transparent and we’ll stick to the constitution,” Bonile Jack, a member of the panel, told IPS.

However, South Africa’s constitution does allow Didiza to expropriate land if there is a deadlock in negotiations to acquire it for redistribution. In such cases, government is allowed to pay farmers an amount deemed reasonable for their property.

So far, one farmer has gone to court in this regard, to challenge last year’s decision by the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Affairs to expropriate his property in North West province.

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