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PLAAS Working Paper: Unravelling the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ question, by Michael Aliber

by Michael Aliber in 2015

(Draft chapter for ‘Land Divided Land Restored. Land Reform in South Africa for the 21st  Century’ edited by Ben Cousins and Cherryl Walker, Jacana Media, 2015) 

If there is one thing regarding land reform in South Africa about which there is near-universal agreement, it is that the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ (WB/WS) approach is problematic. At the 2005 Land Summit, for instance, the commission which addressed redistribution reported a ‘consensus on rejection of willing buyer, willing seller (except Agri SA)’, while the overall report noted, ‘The overwhelming majority of participants in the Summit rejected the notion that the land reform process should be based solely on the notion of willing seller-willing buyer. Ten years on, these remain fair assessments of prevailing sentiments on the matter. 
The rejection of WB/WS is largely based on two overlapping but distinct concerns. First, people allege that WB/WS is mainly responsible for the slow pace of land reform. And second, WB/WS is the ugly face of the ‘property clause’ of the 1996 Constitution, which some critics argue protects largely white landowners at the expense of the disenfranchised and thus also helps explain the slow pace of land reform. 
In the light of this apparent consensus, Fred Hendricks poses an astute question: ‘Why then does the government persist with this palpably inappropriate policy, given the widespread recognition that it does not work? The current impasse seems all the more odd given that, complementing the ‘widespread recognition’ that WB/WS is the main problem with the pace of land reform, there is a shared conviction that there are superior alternatives. These have remained more or less the same for some years, and have been repeatedly touted by senior government leaders: namely expropriation, land tax and the application of ‘just and equitable compensation’. Some critics of WB/WS, of course, go further, suggesting constitutional amendments to the property clause or endorsement of Zimbabwe-style land invasions.