Max du Preez

Done right, land redistribution will boost economy

2018-06-05 08:25

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The expectations and fears around land redistribution are what bedevil the national conversation on this issue rather than the process of giving black people more access to land.

The EFF and some elements in the ANC are building up an anticipation that farms, businesses and urban properties are going to be expropriated on a large scale without any compensation and handed out to ordinary people, instantly making them wealthy.

AfriForum and other right wing whites are playing along for their own reasons, warning white people that “the blacks” are going to throw them off their properties as happened in Zimbabwe and that would finally destroy the economy and the peace.

Instead, it should be an ideal opportunity to settle an old and serious issue – indeed, the original sin of the colonial era.

If done properly, quickly and on a big enough scale, land redistribution could actually achieve more than just address the strong emotions around redress, justice, symbolism and historic evil. It could actually become a major injection to economic growth.

But nobody will become rich overnight, despite Julius Malema and Jacob Zuma’s populist promises. Land itself is not as important as what one does with it. The people of, for instance, Mali and Mozambique have ample access to land, yet they remain among the poorest in the world.

Whites should start calming the hell down and know that they stand to benefit more than they could lose if the process really works.

From their point of view, even the worst possible scenario would not be such a catastrophic scenario. In the unlikely event that the ANC decides to vote with the EFF to change the Constitution to spell out that the state could expropriate property without compensation, arbitrary expropriation would still not be possible.

That would be a violation of the Founding Principles in Chapter One of the Constitution that cements the rule of law and the supremacy of the Constitution. If the rule of law is followed, property owners will always have recourse to the courts.

Chapter One of the Constitution may only be amended with 75% of Parliament and six out of the nine provinces agreeing to it.

It is clear from the national mood that if the status quo is allowed to remain unaltered for much longer, the emotions around land will get more and more inflamed and could eventually lead to so much instability that our democracy could be under threat.

Even the hardest Afrikaner nationalist must know deep down that it cannot be normal that so few black South Africans own so little land and that so many black people still live in squalor where they have to bring up their children.

Urban land hunger is clearly the biggest and most urgent problem. I cannot remember more than one or two illegal occupations of farms over the last decades, but we have had hundreds of cases of urban land occupation just in the last year.

The reason? The massive movement of people from the communal black areas to the cities over the last two decades. Between 2000 and 2010 the population of Gauteng had grown by 31% and of the Western Cape by 29% – a movement of more than five million people in ten short years.

The governments since 1994 had not anticipated this and certainly didn’t plan for it. Almost two-thirds of our nation are now urbanised, the highest in Africa by far.

About seven million people live in desperate conditions in vast informal settlements or squatter camps in the country. Seven million out of a population of 56 million. Moreover, many of the formal townships are hugely over-populated and offer a very low quality of life.

The government is now planning an ambitious project to rapidly supply open tracts of land in and around cities with water and sewerage infrastructure and then transfer them to people with title deeds and permission to build their own houses.

Abandoned buildings in inner cities will be renovated into decent living units.

It is in this project that expropriation will be essential in terms of costs and time.

We are talking blandly about expropriation without compensation, but actually it means expropriation with no compensation, very little compensation, ample compensation or compensation equalling full market value.

It is worth reading Section 25 (3) of the Constitution in this regard. It states that regard should be paid to “all relevant circumstances” which it defines as “the current use of the property; the history of the acquisition and the use of the property; the market value of the property; the extent of direct state investment and subsidy and the acquisition and beneficial capital improvement of the property; and the purpose of expropriation.”

The redistribution of agricultural land is also important, but not quite as urgent. Post-settlement support to new farmers is more difficult than acquiring the land – the vast majority of redistributed farms have become commercial failures because of the lack of support.

The government has confirmed that it sits on more than four thousand commercial farms that it hasn’t been able to give to new farmers. Former president Kgalema Motlanthe’s High Level Report commissioned by Parliament makes it clear that state capacity, an incompetent bureaucracy and corruption are more to blame for the slow pace of land reform that any other factor.

So why would the government embark on the large scale expropriation of farms now if it doesn’t have the capability to establish successful new farmers on the land?

AgriSA, representing most commercial farmers, has proved to be very pragmatic and this week again confirmed its acknowledgement of the untenability of having so few black farmers on the land. It has spent some R330 million on supporting emerging farmers over the last year and is committed to step up those efforts even more.

But establishing new black commercial farmers is just one part of the solution. We urgently need to empower large numbers of smallholder farmers on the land in every province and assist them to be productive. This is done very successfully in Ethiopia where more than a million families were given small pockets of land and ample support from the state.

A recent opinion poll quoted by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies indicated that about a third of black South Africans want land for the purpose of growing food and that the vast majority of them said they would be happy with five hectares or less. Most of these people are from the rural areas, probably farm workers and people in the former Bantustans, and some who had recently become urbanised and yearn for a piece of land for a patch of maize and a few cows and chickens.

It is good to agitate against any reckless expropriation process and illegal land grabs, but it is as important for citizens and civil society to agitate for a speedy and ambitious redistribution of land.

It will benefit the landless as well as those fortunate citizens who already own land, urban and agricultural land, because it will lower the levels of anger and resentment and make South Africa a more just and stable country.

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