MORULENG, South Africa (Reuters) – A hardscrabble patch of South Africa disputed between black farmers and tribal leaders working with platinum mining interests is legal ground zero in a battle to loosen the chiefs’ grip on communal lands.
Land rights are a hot-button issue ahead of elections in 2019 as the African National Congress (ANC) moves forward with a constitutional amendment aimed at a more equitable distribution of land, including possibly expropriating land from whites without compensation.
That prospect, evoking the chaotic land grabs that wrecked the economy of neighboring Zimbabwe, has grabbed headlines and alarmed investors despite repeated pledges by President Cyril Ramaphosa that things will be different in South Africa.
A related issue is also sensitive for the ANC, however: the plight of poor blacks vulnerable to forced evictions in tribal lands because of a system of property rights that dates back to the colonial era, before apartheid.
The “Homelands” make up only 13 percent of the land but are home to a third of the population, 17 million blacks, mostly subsistence farmers working tiny plots. Tribal councils control these areas, often determining who gets to farm or where cattle is grazed but also access to resources like water and minerals.