‘We’re satisfied with SA’s land reform policy’— US Ambassador

In the wake of recent comments by United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the country’s ambassador to South Africa says she has been assured that private land will not be expropriated without compensation.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, US ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks responded to Pompeo’s warning that plans to expropriate private property would be “disastrous” for the economy. “I am 100% satisfied in the way in which President [Cyril] Ramaphosa is handling everything — in a totally open and transparent manner. I am totally satisfied.

“I have personally advised all partners regarding this in the United States. There will be no confiscation whatsoever of private land … So now, having said that there will be no confiscation of any private land whatsoever, now is the time for major US investment in South Africa.”

Marks later added that she has been assured that there will be no confiscation of private land “across the board, in a transparent manner with President Ramaphosa”.

But legislation clarifying the circumstances in which land may be expropriated without compensation is still in the process of being drafted.

The president said as much in his response to the State of the Nation debate last Thursday.

Ramaphosa added that “land reform is an essential part of inclusive growth”.

“Unless we change the patterns of land ownership in this country — unless we give all South Africans access to land for agriculture, for commerce, for housing — we will not only be perpetuating a grave injustice, but we will also be constraining the economic potential of our land and our people,” he said. “The lack of land is — alongside the lack of skills — one of the greatest impediments to growth and prosperity.”

The Expropriation Bill was released for public comment in December 2018 and is likely to be tabled in Parliament in June.

The Bill will be processed together with the amendment to section 25 of the Constitution, which provides for expropriation without compensation. The first round of public hearings on the constitutional amendment are set to start on February 28 in Mpumalanga and the Free State.

At the Goldman Sachs investor conference in May last year, Ramaphosa reportedly allayed fears that investors would be prejudiced by land expropriation without compensation.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump share a laugh during a cabinet meeting with US President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House, July 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

According to BusinessTech, the president said: “I’ve said it before — foreign investors have nothing to fear; there’s no way we can invite foreign investors to our country and say ‘come, invest’ and tomorrow we take your land away. 

“That is not going to happen. That is not sensible. It’s not something that any sensible person does.”

In the interview with the M&G, Marks said she was not consulted by the US state department on the land reform issue prior to Pompeo’s remarks last week.

“But I think he [Pompeo] was just addressing this to say ‘Please, South Africa, keep things in check’ … I think it was just a matter that was on his bucket list in his huge responsibility in Africa and around the world,” Marks said.

Pompeo’s remarks were not the first time US government officials have stoked fears about land expropriation in South Africa.

In 2018, US President Donald Trump tweeted that he had asked Pompeo to closely study “the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations”.

But Marks said: “South Africa has seriously addressed all of the contentious issues in the most serious and responsible manner. And I have relayed this clearly and articulately to Washington. And now is the time for serious American investment in South Africa.” 

Marks, who was first approached  by Trump in November 2016 to become ambassador — shortly after he was elected — only officially started work at the embassy in Pretoria three years later. 

Her first 90 days in the position have been marked by her ambitions to lift South Africa into the top 20 of US trade partners. In 2019, South Africa was ranked 39th. 

Marks said she has met some of the major US corporations engaged in industry in South Africa “for many years” with the view of increasing investment: “Obviously South Africa faces its most daunting economic challenges since the dawn of democracy a quarter of a century ago. And we are doing everything possible to assist with that flat economy to really raise it out of the doldrums.”

In response to Marks’ comment that “there will be no confiscation of any private land whatsoever” under the new land reform legislation, spokesperson for the president Khusela Diko noted that Ramaphosa has said, “Government is committed to accelerating land reform and thus reversing what he calls the ‘original sin’ of land dispossession of the oppressed people of South Africa.”

“He has further indicated that such land reform will be undertaken within the strict confines of our laws, of which the Constitution is the most supreme. Both within the country and elsewhere he has committed that South Africa will continue to protect property rights, while setting out very clear policy positions on how land reform will be accelerated.”  

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.
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