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South Africa at the Crossroads: How Expropriations of White Farmers Could Threaten Political Stability

South Africa, 12/12/2018 by Steven Sohn

Stunning scenery, breath-taking wildlife, vibrant cities – South Africa is one of the most popular destinations for Swiss tourists and emigrants. However, we increasingly receive alarming reports of violence, unemployment and a threatening wave of expropriations. What is happening in South Africa? How safe is it?

South Africa in the Grip of Recession, Social Inequality and Criminality

As the African National Congress (ANC) took power in 1994, after decisively helping end the racist apartheid system in South Africa, many promises were made with hopes for a better future of a united, peaceful and prosperous people (the “Rainbow Nation”). However, disillusion has since set in.

In spite of initial progress, the economy is in a downwards trend: unemployment is currently at a staggering 27% and the country plunged into recession in the second quarter of 2018. Social conditions remain precarious for large parts of the population: 55% live below the poverty line and the gap between rich and poor is widening constantly. In fact, according to the World Bank, South Africa is now considered one of the countries with the greatest social inequalities.

On top of that, South Africa suffers from a surge in widespread criminality. On a national level, robberies, assaults and murders are increasingly widespread. With 20,000 murders and over 40,000 cases of rape in 2017 alone, South Africa has one of the highest rates of murder and rape worldwide, with the trend increasing still.

The fact that it is primarily the black population that is affected by poverty, unemployment and excessive violence further aggravates the situation. The numerous programs put in place since 1994 to remedy these issues – some with highly contentious measures such as quotas – failed to meet expectations, in part owing to corruption and incompetence. In fact, only a small black elite has benefitted, while the rest of the population has been left empty-handed and frustrated.


The Disenchantment with the African National Congress (ANC) 

As a consequence, large sections of the population are disillusioned with the ANC, and widespread frustration has taken hold. This can be seen in the run-up to the elections in early 2019, especially with the rise of the radical left, anti-capitalist “Economic Freedom Fighters” party (EFF). Much of its campaigning focuses on the question of land distribution, a controversial subject in South Africa for many years.

As a remnant of colonial rule, agricultural lands were and are mostly in the possession (still 72% in 2017) of white farmers (the “Boers”), although only 8% of South Africans are white. This discrepancy has repeatedly led to tensions between blacks and whites. In fact, observers have been warning of a ticking time bomb for years.

As part of its campaign, the EFF blames the ANC for its inability to make significant progress in the land question despite the abundant promises made in 1994. As a solution, the EFF suggests “expropriation without compensation”. Specifically: the EFF wants the government to take land from white farmers without payment and to hand it over to black farmers. The idea seems to strike a chord with voters: the EFF could claim over 10% of votes in the 2019 election, placing the already weakened ANC under further pressure.

According to observers, this pressure caused the ANC under current South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, to itself outline plans for uncompensated expropriations. The Parliament is currently reviewing the constitutionality of the idea.


The Spectre of Expropriations: Possible Economic and Security Consequences 

The rise of the EFF and the government’s own plans are causing significant uncertainty among white farmers as expropriations without compensation would take away their livelihood. Moreover, the mere rumour of pending expropriations could lead to crumbling land prices, forcing farmers to sell their lands at a loss and thus leaving them unable to repay their loans. This could in turn weaken the banks that by the end of 2016 had lent over ZAR 90 billion (CHF 6.5 billion) to farmers. The result could be a banking crisis leading to a generalized downward spiral for the already struggling economy. In this context, a look over the Zimbabwean border provides a sobering example: land dispossessions under President Robert Mugabe had led to a severe decline in agricultural output and significantly contributed to the country falling into a severe economic crisis.

The fears go even deeper for sections of the white population: white farmers in particular have warned of a pending anti-white genocide. This concern stems from the apparent increase in farm attacks across South Africa, where white farmers are robbed and occasionally tortured and killed. However, owing to the lack of data, it is disputed whether this increase actually exists and, if so, what reasons are behind it. It remains unclear to whether the attacks should be understood in the context of the generally increasing criminality or whether they are driven primarily by racist motives.

What is clear, however, is that white farmers are facing an increasingly strong headwind at the political level, especially from the EFF. Its President Julius Malema regularly makes headlines with his radical, partially anti-white rhetoric. For example, he stated in 2016 that the EFF was “not calling for the slaughter of white people… at least for now”. He has also sung the anti-white song Shoot the Boer several times in public. In 2018 he reaffirmed: “We are cutting the throat of whiteness.”

Thus, the tension between whites and blacks is increasing. The dream of the “rainbow nation” seems to be fading away.


Outlook: South Africa Remains a Powder Keg  

The situation is complex. If expropriations without compensation actually occur, catastrophic consequences could ensue for the economy and social conditions could be further worsened. Even a descent into violence could not be ruled out – not least since certain white farmers have already announced armed resistance.

However, should the government end up deciding to backpedal, the EFF could cause further trouble. Malema has already declared that there could be a revolution if the population is “deceived again”. And he promised: “The EFF would support the people with all its might.” He sees now no way back.

The situation in South Africa is thus to be categorised as “unstable”. This is also reflected in the current Soliswiss Risk Index: at 30 points (of a possible 40), South Africa belongs to those countries with an elevated security risk; although the security situation is different depending on the region, the general risk should not be underestimated, especially as elections draw nearer.

Travellers and emigrants alike should therefore take appropriate safety and insurance precautions, and avoid areas considered to be dangerous. We also recommend regularly consulting the FDFA′s Travel Advice on South Africa (available in German, French and Italian).

Photo: Werner du Plessier, unsplash.com

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