In his state of the nation address in February this year, President Thabo Mbeki came out strongly against the discredited willing seller, willing buyer principle and shifted gear towards expropriation of land, 84% of which is still held by the country's white minority (in fact 55,000 white farmers). It is a move adopted by the Namibian government last year after many years of frustration with the willing seller, willing buyer principle. Both countries, together with Zimbabwe, have a shared history of violent colonial dispossession of land, without compensation. The concept of willing seller, willing buyer became fashionable in Southern Africa when South Africa's Expropriation Act of 1975 spelt out the parameters for compensation when property is expropriated. The cost would be determined by reference to the price that would be paid for the property if it were exchanged between a willing seller and a willing buyer. An imaginary deal underpinned by the operation of market forces. Somehow the concept found its way into the discourse of land reform in Zimbabwe and embedded itself in the Lancaster House agreement of 1980. The state was entitled to expropriate unused and underutilised land, but had to pay a market related price for productive land. It had the right of first refusal and acted on behalf of the landless. Needless to say the protracted intransigence of white farmers in Zimbabwe and the British government, which failed to honour an agreement to fund the process, led to dire consequences both for the farmers and the Zimbabwean government--a no-win situation instead of a win-win outcome. Zimbabwe now provides a mirror into the future of land reform in South Africa and Namibia.
A white paper on South African land policy in 1997 adopted the willing seller, willing buyer concept, but in a worse form than the Zimbabwe agreement. The South African government does not have the right of first refusal. In other words, no farmer is obliged to first approach the government to offer land for sale. The government, on behalf of the landless, simply has to find money and go to the open market like any ordinary buyer and purchase land when it is available for sale. This policy has led to a situation where the government has adopted a hands-off approach to land acquisition. Instead of direct intervention, it chooses to approve grants to beneficiaries who then enter the market themselves and find "willing sellers". If white landowners gang up and decide not to sell to black people, it is within their right. They may also decide or collude to ask for unreasonably high prices. It effectively gives white landowners veto power over a fundamental issue of land and justice, the very reason why blacks sacrificed their sons and daughters over decades.
The outcome was predictable. The "seller side" is organised to resist, exploit and harvest. On the "buyer side", the only real power is the government which has pussy-footed since the death of apartheid in 1994. It was said then that 30% of agricultural land would be transferred to landless blacks by 2014. But after 12 years, only 3% (repeat three per cent!) has been transferred. But the fault is not the government's alone. When the government makes any radical move towards redressing racial injustice, the threat is "investors will be upset", "it will lead to job losses", etcetera, etcetera. Frightening stuff! As a result, the invisible mighty hand of the investor has influenced government decisions at every turn, coupled with the power of white employers to cause pain to the government by laying-off workers.
Even when the government has given grants to buyers to buy, there is a huge inequality of power and resources when dealing with experienced landowners, market operators and crooked valuators. A 20-million-rand scam in the Mpumalanga Province has illustrated the futility of the willing seller, willing buyer approach. In August 2004, a re-evaluation of 21 farms in an area called Badplaas indicated that prices for land earmarked for sale to the government had been fraudulently inflated by an average of 30%. …