Changes to the Constitution may boost, not weaken, South African property rights

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The South African government’s plan to change the Constitution to mention land expropriation without compensation could, ironically, end up strengthening the property rights on which investment depends. Pressure to change the Constitution to allow the government to expropriate land without compensation is currently the country’s most contentious issue. Supporters insist that the measure is essential to end racial land ownership patterns which continue to favour whites a quarter century after the end of apartheid. Critics insist that this will threaten property rights and choke off investment.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has now announced that the governing African National Congress will support a change to the constitution’s property clause. This was greeted with predictable anxiety among pro-business commentators. But their fear that the change will weaken property rights seems misplaced. To see why, we must look at what property rights are, what the constitution says and what Ramaphosa and the ANC leadership may have in mind.

Much of the fear seems based on a view of property rights which sounds credible but does not describe reality in market economies. It sees property rights as the right to do whatever you like with what you own. The philosopher CB MacPherson pointed out four decades ago that this is not how property was understood until fairly recently, and not how property rights actually operate.There is no unlimited right to property anywhere. People who own homes cannot use them to make banned substances or to fire missiles at neighbours. People who own factories cannot use them to enslave labourers or to pump poisons into the air and water. If owners ignore these rules, they will be forced to give up some of their property. Some might even lose the property – think of restaurant owners whose businesses are closed down by health authorities to protect consumers.

None of this is inconsistent with a market economy. On the contrary, these rules are essential to markets. A good analogy is a set of traffic lights. They limit what car and truck owners can do with their property, but they are essential to keeping the property safe.

The property rights of owners are, therefore, strong enough to allow them to invest with confidence when they know what the rules are which decide whether they keep their property.

Certainty is the key – not a blank cheque.

The Constitution

Section 25 of the South African Constitution, which is often held up by friends and foes as a cast-iron guarantee of property rights, is nothing of the sort. It does say the state can expropriate property only if it pays compensation and lists criteria which courts must take into account when deciding compensation. But clause (8) says:

No provision of this section may impede the state from taking legislative and other measures… to redress the results of past racial discrimination

That’s if it complies with Section 36(1) which says the measure must be:

reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom.

So the Section does allow expropriation without compensation – but the wording spelling out when it is allowed is vague. If the government were to test this in court, different judges would inevitably come to different conclusions. This gives owners no certainty and so they don’t know whether their property is safe.

If the constitution is changed to make clear which property may be expropriated without compensation, property rights would be stronger because it would be clear to owners whether their property is safe and what to do to keep it that way.

This is what Ramaphosa and his party say they have in mind. His announcement did not say the constitution should be changed to allow expropriation without compensation – he said that it already does this. The aim, he said, was a clause which “outlines more clearly the conditions under which” land can be expropriated without compensation – in other words, to provide the clarity the current clause lacks.

If he makes good on his promise, the effect will be to strengthen property rights by making it much clearer when the state can take land without compensation. The wording of the clause will be crucial – if it’s too vague and allows the state too much latitude, it will not strengthen property rights. But it’s unlikely that it will seriously threaten these rights because this would place the property of every home-owning ANC voter at risk.