Zweli Mkhize. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Zweli Mkhize. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

The ANC has decided to push for the right to seize land without compensation for redistribution to black citizens because it feels that the time is right to tackle an issue that still divides the country, Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Zweli Mkhize says.

An earlier attempt to take land without paying for it could have jeopardized investor confidence in the economy in the sensitive years after the end of white rule while waiting further could stoke anger in a country where more than a quarter are unemployed and inequality rates are among the highest in the world, said Mkhize.

If we don’t raise it now, we’ll never have time to

"You want to try a middle road," he said in an interview in Johannesburg on Friday. "Today if you don’t talk about land you stand alone."

Land and the access to it is one of the symbols of inequality in post-apartheid SA, with wealth and poverty still largely divided along racial lines.

White people own almost three-quarters of agricultural land, according to a land audit by farm lobbying group Agri SA, down from 87% during the segregation system known as apartheid.

Time is now

"If we don’t raise it now, we’ll never have time to," said Mkhize, who is also a member of the ANC’s national executive committee.

Land ownership, health and education are some basic things that people require and "if you don’t provide that, it doesn’t matter who you are, you get out of power".

The ANC, which has led the country since Nelson Mandela became its first black president in 1994, decided at a December conference to pursue expropriation without compensation to speed up giving black people more land. In February, MPs started the process to change the constitution to allow for that.

White fear, black anger

"One mistake that we must never make, is to trivialise the issue of the land and the sensitivity around it," Mkhize said.

"The two biggest problems or threats this country has, are white fear and black anger."

The ANC will contest national elections next year in the first ballot since opposition parties won control of several key municipalities, including Johannesburg and Pretoria, in 2016.

Former president Jacob Zuma’s scandal-ridden nine-year tenure, which ended in February when he resigned, cost the party some support. The decision to change the Constitution brings the ANC closer to the populist EFF, which has won support from young voters in impoverished townships by vowing to nationalise everything from land to banks.

The ANC does not plan to put all land under the control of government and believes in a mixed economy, Mkhize said.

Bloodshed, law

President Cyril Ramaphosa has said land reform is urgently needed to address skewed patterns of ownership, but must not harm agricultural production or the economy.

He seeks to raise $100bn in new investment over five years to boost economic growth and bring down a 27% unemployment rate.

"The land was taken through bloodshed," Mkhize said. "Redistribution must take place through the Constitution and the law."

While the DA, farmers’ groups and ratings company Moody’s Investors Service have warned that uncertainty over the planned changes to the Constitution could deter investment, Mkhize said the move will have the opposite effect because it can ensure stability.

"We don’t want to sit here and get South Africans burning everything here because they want issues resolved, but we are worried about an investor over there," he said. "You don’t help that investor if this country is burning. If you get to stability, every investor will come here. If ultimately someone can’t deal with us because they don’t like our constitution, too bad."