The land crisis could be a catalyst for beneficial change if the opportunity to rectify decades of neglect is recognised and harnessed‚ says one of SA’s leading restitution experts.

Delivering a public lecture at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on Tuesday‚ Prof Ruth Hall said an engaged citizenry willing to hold the government accountable was the solution to land redistribution‚ rather than a constitutional amendment.

Hall‚ from UWC’s poverty‚ land and agrarian studies unit‚ said the state’s available powers had not been tested. The government had had the power to redistribute land without compensation since 1996. Section 25.3 of the Constitution specified that compensation for expropriation of property should be "just and equitable"‚ and it had been suggested that the way it was framed could allow compensation to be set at zero.

"Could compensation be zero rand?" Hall asked. "We don’t know because it has never been used."

In February‚ the EFF and the ANC supported a parliamentary resolution to set up a constitutional review committee to investigate whether Section 25 should be amended to provide for expropriation of land without compensation. The DA opposed the move‚ saying it would undermine the property rights enshrined in the Constitution, and criticised the ANC for failing to implement the land redistribution programme that was already in place.

Hall described the contestation as an exciting moment in the national debate. "Will changing the words in the Constitution change the outcome? I do not think so. If expropriation is the means to the end — then what is the end? What would land-reformed countryside and cities look like?"

She suggested political action rather than a technical‚ legal fix was needed. "What is going to drive this change is politics‚ not the law‚" she said. "This is where the most exciting conversations can happen."

A member of the audience challenged her suggestion that politics should be separated from law, saying, "We want restitution of land without compensation. Land is part of racism itself‚ therefore we must amend the Constitution so that there is total expropriation without compensation."

Another audience member argued that the matter was beyond legal niceties. "We are oppressed as a race‚ it is outside of legality. People are worried about going through the state to take back their land from the oppressors."

Hall cautioned against a blanket approach‚ calling for a holistic view that would allow for case-by-case resolution. She also pointed out that the debate should be wider than just focusing on land.

"Land dispensation was the basis for white privilege during apartheid. That white privilege still exists‚ it has just transformed and is now sitting in stocks and bonds and nice residential houses. Shouldn’t these people be paying?

"It is simply naive to think that expanding state powers which have sat unused for 22 years is going to result in change. The question, instead, is how people can marshal their power‚ mobilise‚ and organise around other alternatives and then force the hand of the state."

Hawkey is on a study abroad programme with Round Earth Media.