South Africa’s new president is vowing to institute land reform in a “responsible” manner, but has been unable to quell rising concern from the country’s minority white farmers and international investors that his government is being pressured to carry out a more radical, racially-based land grab that could undermine the region’s largest and most important economy.
Taking office last month vowing to improve the country’s business image after succeeding the scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma, President Cyril Ramaphosa instead has spent the first days of his administration dealing with the blowback after Parliament voted this month to begin amending the Constitution to make it legal to seize land without compensation.
Supporters say the move is needed to address a yawning gap in landownership between the white minority and the black majority that lingers from South Africa’s apartheid era.
Despite scare stories, officials say, there is no secret plan to seize highly productive white-owned farms. Such a move was widely seen as a contributor to the economic catastrophe across the border in Zimbabwe when Robert Mugabe was president.
It’s not clear the message is getting through.
Mr. Ramaphosa, a wealthy former businessman and major landowner, tried again Wednesday to bat down persistent scare talk about a racially based land grab while insisting that changes are needed.
“We cannot have a situation where we allow land grabs, because that is anarchy,” Mr. Ramaphosa told Parliament. “We cannot have a situation of anarchy when we have proper constitutional means through which we can work to give land to our people.”
But he pledged to escalate the pace of land reform. “If we do not do so,” he warned, “this problem that has stayed with us as a nation for hundreds of years … will implode in our hands.”
Some of his political allies want to go much further and much faster. The ruling African National Congress, in power since the end of apartheid but facing tough national elections next year, dropped its long opposition to the idea of government land seizures without payment at a December party gathering.
The ANC previously followed a “willing seller” principle in which the state would pay for a farm and hand it to those whose families were removed from the land under white minority rule, sometimes up to a century ago.
AfriForum, a lobby group that bills itself as a guardian of minority and Afrikaner rights, warned that the proposed constitutional amendment on land expropriation could unleash chaos and said it planned an international campaign to warn foreign governments and investors about the threat to property rights.
“As a responsible organization, AfriForum must do everything possible to prevent South Africa becoming a second Zimbabwe that is plunged into poverty through the disregard of property rights,” AfriForum CEO Kallie Kriel told reporters in Johannesburg this month after lawmakers referred the proposed amendment to a constitutional review committee.
Mr. Ramaphosa remains under pressure from more extremist political elements to pick up the pace. White South Africans have about 72 percent of individually owned farms in South Africa. The black majority, which was largely concentrated in rural reserves and segregated urban townships under apartheid, owns just 4 percent, according to an audit cited by Mr. Ramaphosa.
South African Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene told the Bloomberg News service that the government would have responsible concrete land reform proposals on the table by August.
But the land grab controversy has muddled Mr. Ramaphosa’s message that his presidency would prove a boon to the South African economy and offer a far friendlier face to the business community and international investors than was the case under the scandal-plagued Mr. Zuma. The global credit rating service Moody’s has met with the new president about the land program ahead of a possible downgrade of the country’s credit rating in the coming weeks.
In November‚ Moody’s said it was reviewing South Africa’s long-term foreign and local currency debt ratings of ‘BAA3’ — barely above “junk” level — for a possible downgrade. Rival rating services S&P Global and Fitch already have South Africa’s credit rating at full junk status.
Meanwhile, the Ramaphosa government has been sounding out global investors over a proposed $3 billion debt offering, timed to exploit the “optimism” generated by the change in power.
South Africa this week found itself in an angry diplomatic dispute after Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told reporters that South Africa’s white farmers may “need help from a civilized country like ours” if massive land seizures are made legal.
“That threat does not exist,” the South African Foreign Ministry said in a response. “There is no reason for any government in the world to suspect that a section of South Africans is under danger from their own democratically elected government.”
The bill to change the constitution was proposed by the Economic Freedom Fighters, a black radical group whose leader, Julius Malema, praised the confiscation of white-owned farms in Zimbabwe under Mr. Mugabe.
But it’s not clear if land reform is a surefire campaign strategy, even though a 2014 census found that black Africans and what are known as “colored” make up 89 percent of the population. Whites constitute just 8.4 percent.
A survey last year by the Institute of Race Relations, a South African think tank, found that just 1 percent of respondents thought land reform would expand the economy. The overwhelming number expressed fears that it would send the national unemployment rate — currently about 25 percent — even higher.
When the survey group Kantar TNS asked black South Africans how they would choose if offered 250 acres of rural land or a job in town, 82 percent chose the job.
Lawmakers opposed to new land claims have filed papers in Parliament showing that government already owns thousands of acres bought from white farmers that have not been distributed.
But Mathole Motshekga, who chairs the ANC’s subcommittee on cultural affairs, said the historic taking of land by conquering whites who arrived in 1652 is South Africa’s “original sin.”
“The triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality, which degrades and dehumanizes black people, is the direct result of that original sin,” he said.
Historians have countered that the San, or Bushmen, occupied much of eastern and southern Africa for an estimated 100,000 years but were exterminated by black settlers moving south from the equator. Descendants of those settlers now dominate the area, they say.
White commercial farmers still produce a majority of South Africa’s food for domestic sale and export, but much of the country’s acreage falls under traditional ownership of chiefs and kings who grant land to their subjects. King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulu tribe has said any attempt to change this policy could lead to civil war.
Wilf Mbanga, publisher of the influential newspaper The Zimbabwean, said it was vital for Mr. Ramaphosa not to repeat Mr. Mugabe’s mistakes.
“We’ve seen this all before in Zimbabwe,” he said in an interview. “And where did it lead? We used to be the second-largest grower of food in Africa, but Mugabe’s seizure of farms left us starving.
“No one,” he said, “would suggest cutting up Wyoming into 5-acre blocks and putting unemployed Americans on that land. So why does anyone see it as an answer to poverty in Africa?”
South Africa has one of the world’s most protected constitutions, purposely designed to fend off a return to the oppression that happened under white rule. Any change requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament and can be challenged in a special constitutional court.
Analysts say it is unlikely any progress on land reform will be made before the general election next year, and some see the debate as a political campaign issue that could subside after the balloting.