Since the cessation of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has struggled with conflict over property rights. One of the first bills signed in 1994 by the incoming African National Congress (ANC), led by Nelson Mandela, was the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Act. The bill was meant as restitution for those who had lost land due to colonialism or racially discriminatory practices. Initially applauded as a way forward for South Africa, the bill has become a contentious point in the nation’s politics and continues to affect many citizens daily, particularly farm owners and workers.
As was experienced in Zimbabwe, a hasty and unplanned transfer of land can destroy a country’s economy. To avoid similar results, the South African Land Rights Act included provisions for lengthy legal due process. In the 24 years since the bill’s inception, land ownership by South African blacks has increased to 20%, up from 13% in 1994. For many the land transfer process has been unnecessarily slow and has provided a political platform for politicians and black nationalist groups during tumultuous periods. Often tied to the land rights argument are squatters. The constitution allows those who might otherwise be homeless or displaced to squat on land until a complex legal evictions process is completed. The politicians, nationalists and squatters keep the land reformation argument at the forefront of the news.
In February of 2018, long-time president, Jacob Zuma, was forced to resign under a shroud of controversy. His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, also of the ANC, won the election unopposed. This marked a transitional period for South Africa and forced the ANC to make statements to increase its popularity. Ramaphosa promised to revisit the Land Rights Amendment and push for change. Following his statements, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a far-left political party, stated that the land reforms would be impossible unless land was taken without compensation. Under the current bill and constitution, expropriation without compensation is unlawful. Many believe, the president is sympathetic to the EFF and could amend the constitution to allow land seizure without compensation despite his comments to the contrary.
Further complicating land issues are inherent constitutional rights provided to squatters in South Africa. Under current law, squatters can be evicted only through a legal process which can take up to six months or more. With the argument that the land is underutilized and could be used for housing, squatters have resisted large scale evictions by prompting riots and farm burnings. The evictions have bolstered nationalist and radical group activities and increased rhetoric around taking land from current owners using any means necessary. These activities are responsible for ongoing violence against farmers since the first iteration of the bill was signed in 1994.
The violence continues to dominate headlines and divide the nation along cultural, racial, and economic lines. The most recent information reported by Afriforum, an advocate group for farmer rights and protection, states that over a one-year period between Spring 2016 and Spring 2017, there were a total of 43 farm murders and over 400 farm attacks (robberies, burglary, larceny, etc.) spread across South Africa’s nine provinces. While a few of the attacks were retaliation for poor treatment of farm workers, Afriforum reported that the clear majority were made by black nationalist groups and were primarily on agricultural farms rather than hunting or game farms/reserves.
Despite the presence of violence and political conflict in South Africa related to the Land Reform Amendment, the likelihood of a visitor to one of South Africa’s game reserves becoming victim of nationalist group’s violent activity is low. However, prior to travel all visitors should check with their tour provider and property owner for the most up-to-date information in the area they will be visiting. Further, visitors should monitor news sources for any changes in current laws or constitutional amendments which could prompt more widescale protests or violent action.