Category Archives: expropriation

Concept note: Willing seller – Willing buyer

Concept note: Willing seller – Willing buyer
Draft 1
June 2006

In the context of South Africa’s failing land reform programme, the Willing seller – Willing buyer policy was problematic, and remains so1. It was/is one representation of how post-apartheid state policy structured and expressed power relations – in favour of market stability and capitalist relations over deep structural transformation in an overarching way; and specifically of (largely white) existing land owners over the rightful expectations the poor majority.

It is also important to recognise how it helped structure the poor too – in the name of a ‘demand-led’ policy approach, claimants had to identify and constitute themselves as some sort of entrepreneurial, legalistic and conforming unit entirely dependent on plodding through the bureaucratic processes decreed by the state systems.

In the early phases of our democracy, our tendency was to assume that the interests of justice and freedom were more or less compatible with the project of the new democratic state. Thinking this way explains why we would tend to critique something like the Willing seller – Willing buyer principle and to lobby for reforms that would give the state more power at the expense of existing land owners.

Notwithstanding great un-evenness, for many of us who cherish deep ideals of justice and freedom, and especially for those who fight now for their realisation, there is real doubt about this assumption. There are at least two part to this emerging doubt: firstly this state has demonstrated through the material effects of its project that it’s actual priority project is an elite, capitalist one (with the false promise the ‘economic growth’ benefits everyone); secondly, a more generalised question arises now as to whether state power as such might not be invariably an oppressive and alienating force over people.

With these questions in mind we can return to the current debates and developments concerning the Willing seller – Willing buyer principle in the land reform programme. In essence government signalled a re-think in their approach in order to both (i) weaken the stranglehold of land owners over the implementation of land reform, and (ii) to take more power to the state in order to have more leverage over the pace and content of that land reform programme. Clearly, government’s more or less simultaneous suggestion that it will increasingly utilise its powers to expropriate land (from ‘unwilling’ or at least uncooperative land-owners) simply complements the shift away a slavish adherence to the Willing seller – Willing buyer principle. However, in the light of the questions we have raised, it is not at all clear that these developments are an advance for justice and freedom as we see it.

What can we conclude?

Certainly, weakening the stranglehold of the land-owning class is good and a necessary pre-condition for justice.

Building the power of the poor and the landless is equally necessary but it is not at all the same as strengthening the state. Indeed we have clearly seen how shepherding peoples’ organisations into ‘partnership’ with the state’s project weakens and silences those organisations’ liberatory and transformatory tendencies – except when their patience is tried beyond endurance, at which point they may elect to step outside the formal apparatus of obedience and partnership to make their voices heard in angry protest.

The Willing seller – Willing buyer approach was and is only one problematic part of the problematic land reform programme – and land reform is in turn only one, rather small, part of a much broader problematic process of neo-liberal and liberal restructuring in post-apartheid South Africa.

A better land reform can only emerge from the autonomous and critically-conscious praxis of the poor landless themselves. The basis for that praxis is very weak at the moment. Prophetic and liberatory spaces within churches must start here – and not by engaging policy debates in a manner that: (a) effectively strengthens the state project (even if by mounting critiques of particular policy aspects); or (b) speaks on behalf of marginalised people so entrenching their marginalisation. Rather the task is surely to encourage, affirm and even facilitate where appropriate critical reflection, imagination and action by the poor – and to listen very carefully to what emerges.

1. See ‘Occasional Paper No. 1’ from the Church Land Program entitled: Land in South Africa: Gift for all or commodity for a few?.