Land reform may be – as Rapule Tabane suggests (‘Address the land issue or we’ll all sink’) – among the most prominent issues on the country’s political agenda today, but that should not detract from a sense of proportion in discussing it.
The foundation of any meaningful debate must be a reliance on evidence. Regrettably, although the debate has gathered momentum, it remains mired in half-truths and assumptions.
The most common of these concerns the distribution of land among different types of ownership – not least how much is held by owners of different racial groups. Ironically, considerable effort has been made to determine this.
The suggestion (or variants of it) that “whites continue to own 80% of the land and Africans 4%” is a common one. (In fact, rather than 80%, the figure cited is typically 72%.) It invariably provokes outrage, as it not only paints a picture of gross imbalance, but implies that the extent African landholdings has declined since the apartheid era, when only 13% of the country was set aside for the African population. Things have – in this interpretation – gone backwards.
This is not an accurate representation of the state of landholding. The state land audit, which is accurately described as “disputed”, made no such claim.
By the audit’s reckoning, some 72% of the country’s farmland (in actuality, its rural land) that is held by private individuals and formally registered at the deeds office, was in the hands of white people. This is the only type of ownership for which racial data can be determined. There is even a margin of error in determining this, since title deeds do not record race, and it must be inferred out of such features as the surname of the title holder.
However, land owned on this basis only accounts for about 31% of South Africa’s rural parts. Going by the audit, about 24% is owned by trusts, 22% by the state, 19% by companies, 3% by community property associations and 1% by co-ownership arrangements. It is not possible to assign a racial character to land held under these forms of ownership – it would be interesting to know if President Cyril Ramaphosa’s properties are considered “black”.
Land ownership is a complicated phenomenon. These figures reflect current as well as historical practices. Under colonial and apartheid rule, freehold title was invariably denied to Africans. Land to which the African population has access was held “in trust”, by the state or by traditional leaders. This is classed as state land today.
There has been very little interest in reforming these arrangements, and certainly not in extending title to those living on these holdings.
Even land transferred through land reform schemes is not reflected in the racial data
For one thing, land restitution – restoring tracts to people who lost them as a result of discriminatory laws – has invariably happened on a communal basis, meaning that transfers were not done to individuals, but to trusts and community property associations.
In respect of land redistribution – that is, land acquired and made available to aspirant black farmers, who have a need for it, but might not have historical claims – it is state policy to not transfer ownership to the recipients. Rather, it is official policy to have such “beneficiaries” exist as tenants of the state. The State Land Lease and Disposal Policy, which codifies this approach, makes it clear that the option to own (through purchase) the land acquired through redistribution programmes is only to be available to those able to farm on a large commercial scale – and then, only after having worked it for 50 years.
This is important: it is quite correct to highlight the colonial and apartheid era abuses, but equally, attention must be paid to post-1994 policy that has continued to deny black people property rights and the means to leverage their assets for their economic gain. If a renewed focus on land reform is to enhance property rights and bolster prosperity, it is going to demand a significant revision in current policy.
And this has implications for the ability of land reform to meet socioeconomic expectations – whether it is credibly “instilling hope in many poor black South Africans who believe it will be the panacea to their drudgery”.
We at the Institute of Race Relations recently released the first tranches of our recent poll into the views of South African voters – of all races, urban and rural – which provide a comprehensive overview of their opinions and aspirations. While a comfortable majority recognises the need for land reform, a small minority (6% of responses) regard it as an issue that the government should prioritise. Indeed, of the various issues mentioned – employment, crime, drug abuse, education and so on – land reform ranked last. And voters from South Africa’s minority communities were more inclined than Africans to view it as a priority.
Land reform, in the agrarian sense, seemed by no means to offer a universally popular future alternative
But more revealingly, the survey showed that South Africans are committed to the idea of private property – 68% endorsed the notion that private individuals should be able to own land.
Expropriation without compensation – the kernel of the current “land debate” – was rejected by a sound majority. And when asked whether they would support giving government the power to take their own assets, support for expropriation without compensation collapsed to around 9%. This is by no means theoretical: at the Institute of Race Relations, we are regularly in contact with people who have suffered the loss of their property as a result of abusive politicians and officials in collusion with crooked businesses.
All of this suggests that a new land reform drive would be well advised to rethink our approach to land reform. If it is to offer real and practical benefits, it must be based on proper evidence, and not on satisfying political assumptions.
Existing policy needs to change, and South Africa must step away from the destructive idea of empowering the state to perform expropriation without compensation, and look instead at using land reform to extend genuine property ownership to those who have for too long been denied it.
• Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the Institute of Race Relations sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).