YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A debate about land redistribution in South Africa is heating up, with the country’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, saying it is right and fitting to “expropriate land without compensation” in order to correct what he has described as “a historical wrong” that was done to black people.

White settlers had confiscated land from blacks in the colonial period, but now it’s a question of whether it’s right to now take that land back.

In an interview with Crux, Peter-John Pearson, the director of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference Parliamentary Liaison Office, said that the problem of land for black people was “exceptionally serious” and needed urgent redress.

“Figures for the Western Cape – where I live – for example, show that a mere 13 percent of the land is in the hands of black people, broadly defined. The organization Africa Check states that direct ownership of listed assets is 10 percent for blacks, and indirectly 13 percent,” he said.

Pearson said when it comes to wealth, 40 percent of the population, the majority of whom are black, own no wealth.

“This continues to skew any development, increases the already wide gap in inequalities and perpetuates a culture – indeed a reality – of injustice, and therefore renders any social cohesion impossible. Since it has the effect of damning the population to a never-ending cycle of poverty, it also ensures that any talk of hope is rendered hollow. It thus increases the inevitability of continuing social pathologies,” he said.

Pearson said there was already “debate and dialogue around the best way forward,” noting that there were proposals to change the constitution “which at present would not allow expropriation without compensation.”

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) held a land summit May 19, during which they resolved to start testing the constitution and proceed using a section to redistribute land without compensation in certain circumstances.

“We are saying they must proceed to expropriate and do so without compensation in certain circumstances, and if there is a challenge, they must not be scared to go to court to clarify the principle,” said ANC executive member, Ronald Lamola.

Ramophosa described the land redistribution issue as “our historic task” and explained that it constituted the very reason why the ANC was founded.

“Land, agrarian reform, is the issue, that can be low-hanging fruit, but that can also begin to change the fortunes of our people to improve their lives and inject growth in our economy,” the president said.

Land reform has been the main focus of the ANC since Ramaphosa took over the leadership of the party and the presidency earlier this year, and analysts expect it to be a leading issue in the 2019 general election.

With 72 percent of private lands still in the hands of white farmers, it is wholly understandable why the issue of expropriation has become so important.

The Economic Freedom Fighters, a left-wing opposition party led by Julius Malema, has long demanded expropriation, and a year ago introduced a bill in parliament calling for a change to the constitution to allow for expropriation without compensation.

“We must ensure that we restore the dignity of our people without compensating the criminals who stole our land,” Malema said in February when entering a motion to establish a constitutional review committee on the matter.

The motion was passed, and the committee is expected to report back to parliament by August 30.

As the debate continues, Pearson told Crux that “many in Church circles are interrogating this call in the light of Catholic Social Teaching principles with regard to the universal destination of goods,” which he said emphasizes the need for the land redistribution to be done in such a way that it enhances the common good.

White farmers are not supportive

While most black people support land redistribution, Pearson said that the majority in the white community are opposed.

“There seems only limited support from white land owners for redistribution policies in general and the expropriation issue is a huge bogey. Some enlightened voices in this community have looked at the need for basic redistribution possibly as a form of enlightened self-interest and as a bulwark to more radical policies,” he said.

Such limited support probably is reinforced by the calamitous land redistribution policy in neighboring Zimbabwe, where land was confiscated from experienced white farmers and given to blacks who did not have the know-how to manage industrial plantations. As a result, harvests plummeted, and the country – once the breadbasket of Africa – almost starved.

Pearson said the government has been keen in avoiding such an outcome.

“The government has been very strict on countering and dissuading any form of land grabs as happened in Zimbabwe,” he told Crux.

He said the debate has been broadly welcomed, noting that the South African government “is trying to deal with 1,151 outstanding land claims from people who were forcibly removed from their land under apartheid almost entirely without compensation or with very minimal compensation.”

These claims will amount to something in the region of $150 million.

Right now, the South African government uses a model of ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ and Pearson said there have not been enough sellers, meaning enough land has not become available.

“Hence the pressure from black people for a greater availability of land,” he said.

Pearson also indicated that as of May 10, “the parliamentary committee tasked to look into the issue of especially expropriation without compensation received 140,000 submissions. This indicates huge public interest.”

But he warns that expropriation must never be done at the expense of food production.

“It has been stressed by the government that even as they open the possibilities for expropriation, one of the caveats are that it must in no way disturb food production. It’s worth bearing that in mind,” he said.

However, in the long run, South Africa needs a better distribution of land.

Pearson said economic progress would be retarded “as long as land lay unused and as long as people who could work the land were denied access to the land, thus excluding them from economic participation.”