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Home » October 2009

Land expropriation a key tool in urban transformation

In an article published in the Mail and Guardian recently, Urban LandMark policy consultant Stephen Berrisford argues that South Africa needs more, not less, expropriation of land in both urban and rural areas under current legislation. This is one of the issues to be debated by a panel of experts at the Urban Landmark Conference on
28 and 29 October 2009.

Reform hasn't quite landed

Comment by Stephen Berrisford

The power to expropriate land is a common property of governments across the world; it is not the unique invention of a fevered presidential mind north of the Limpopo.

Certainly, expropriation outside of a set of transparent and fair rules that provide predictability on compensation is problematic. But for South Africa, where land distribution and markets are so skewed, land expropriation is not only something that the government should be able to do as a normal part of its business, but is also indeed an essential prerequisite for economic development.

President Jacob Zuma recently announced "significant changes" to be made to the "willing buyer, wiling seller model of land redistribution", saying there will be a "much more pragmatic formula to land redistribution".

The Freedom Front Plus (FF+) predictably responded angrily, citing inefficiency and incapacity within state agencies as the primary obstacle to land reform rather than the stubborn resistance of unwilling sellers of land to sell at the offered price.

They may have a point, but that does not hide the fact that we need more, not less, expropriation of land in both urban and rural areas. Although the slow pace of rural land reform is a grave concern, it is important not to neglect the urban land question. Just as skewed by apartheid, the largely unchanged urban land ownership patterns undermine our economic development prospects in at least two ways.

First the low level of black land ownership in urban areas, and especially in those parts of urban South Africa where land has proved to be a remarkably valuable asset makes it extremely difficult for poorer South Africans (and even the not so poor whose household incomes don't benefit from inherited land-based wealth) to move up the housing ladder.

Second, the concentration of most people in low-value, marginal townships, RDP housing estates and informal settlements makes for an extraordinarily inefficient and unsustainable urban form. The growth of social division and tension is no unconnected.

The newly established Housing Development Agency faces the daunting task of assembling urban land for housing. It is crucial that this land be better - better located, better developed and more easily transacted - than the land used for housing poor South Africans before and even since 1994.

Prices of urban land are lower now than they have been in a decade. Now is the time to buy that land and leverage the maximum economic benefits, both for families haunted by the economic legacy of apartheid and for a sustainable economic future for all of us.

The owners of that land are not going to be willing to sell it now because prices are low. That is precisely the reason why the state must intervene to buy it, using the powers of expropriation given to it by the Constitution (and the Expropriation Ace), but also enjoyed - quite ordinarily - by all normal democratic states across the world.

It is a bargain for all of us; one we cannot afford to miss simply because of sensitivities fuelled by the irrational actions of a neighbouring despot. The law governing expropriation ensures that the expropriated landowner receives fair compensation, taking into account the market value of the land as well as its historical background.

Although a speculative urban landowner may resent the effect of an expropriation order, he or she will receive a fair, market-related price for it. The price of not obtaining and developing well-located land for less well-off South Africans to live, work and play on, however, is one that we will all pay - heavily and for a long time.