Max du Preez

It's not as simple as 'giving back the land'

2016-11-22 08:18

The burning land question is actually not a land question. It is more about symbolism, history and inequality than about land to live and farm on.

This makes it a more difficult and complex issue, because even rapid and successful but orderly land transformation won’t satisfy many militants and the fires will still be stoked.

The EFF foregrounded the land issue again with strong statements that “the land” should be taken from present white owners without any compensation and given to black people, or else there will be large scale violent attacks on white South Africans.

“Give back the land” has also become a very popular mantra on social media and is now being repeated so often that few stop and ask what it would actually mean.

Most if not all black South Africans feel justifiably strongly about the great injustice done to them and their ancestors by the descendants of the white arrivals of centuries ago by taking most of the land for themselves, a situation that hasn’t changed fundamentally.

But in 2017 the solution cannot be as simplistic as handing all the land to government to dish out to black citizens.

The very nature of ownership of land, at least agricultural land, has changed fundamentally over the last decades. Agricultural land has shifted from being about identity, history and heritage to more of a business commodity, a means to create wealth, job and food security. This doesn’t mean some land doesn’t still have historical and sentimental value, but it is true of land as a whole.

Land outside the cities only has real monetary value if it is used for commercial agriculture or tourism, and again this doesn’t exclude subsistence farming.

But the populists are playing a dangerous game when they declare that landlessness is the root of all black poverty. It doesn’t even help when one points out that in many of the poorest countries in the world, even those with fertile soil and good rainfall, most or all citizens have access to land. 

It’s also not popular to say that in some of the wealthiest and most equal countries in the world only a tiny minority live off the land. It would help the general discourse if those who agitate about land put the real facts out there. Here are some.

Fifteen percent of the land surface is in black communal ownership. The state controls another 10 percent  (game reserves, hospitals, jails, military and police land). 

South Africa is almost two-thirds urbanised. The eight metropolitan areas account for just 2 percent of the land, but are home to about a third of the population.

More than 60 percent of black South Africans have indicated in opinion polls conducted by the HSRC that they’re more interested in better jobs, better houses, better healthcare and education than in owning land, and most of those who did say they wanted land, desired only a hectare or two.

Current attitudes towards land ownership was demonstrated by the fact that only 5 856 of the first batch of some 80 000 people who had qualified for land restitution, preferred the land. The rest preferred to be paid out – R6 billion was spent on this first group.

Most of the more militant land activists look the other way when one explains that all South Africa’s banks – and the economy – would collapse when land is confiscated on a large scale. It would have catastrophic consequences for food security, employment and rural stability.

There are only about 35 000 commercial farmers left working their share of the agricultural land that forms 67 percent of our land surface. (Surely, when the EFF and others talk about giving the land back, they don’t mean suburban stands?)

It is unclear how much has really been achieved by the government’s land reform schemes, but four years ago the responsible minister said that more than five thousand farms had been transferred to black owners, benefiting about 230 000 people. This excludes land identified for restitution.

White commercial farmers and companies and organised agriculture have themselves launched many land reform initiatives and empowerment schemes, and quite a number of black people and companies have bought land for commercial farming purposes.

Another fact that some activists don’t want to hear, is that large areas of communally owned land are lying fallow because younger people prefer to move to the cities to find a better and more exciting life.

It is significant that there has been no illegal occupation of commercial farm land or land grabs, but this has happened and is happening to land in and around cities and towns. 

People are rightfully angry when they have to live in crowded ghettos in urban areas, right next to big open spaces. Few people could blame them if they eventually lose patience and illegally occupy that land.

This should, in my view, be the first priority: give people in urban and peri-urban areas enough land to live on, and grant them full ownership.
This is do-able in the short term, doesn’t need to cost billions and won’t affect food production.

But I’m not trying to make an argument that agricultural land should be exempt from rapid transformation. Government has demonstrated over the last 22 years that it was totally incompetent and unable to move land reform at a significant pace.

White commercial farmers and organised agriculture should take notice of the strong emotions about land ownership.

They will have to move much faster and be far more ambitious with their own land reform schemes if they want to remain unscathed.

If we transfer urban land to those who need it, tend to the needs and development of subsistence farmers and rapidly put a lot more aspirant black agriculturalists on the land, we have a chance to buy more time and avoid a disaster. 

* This column was first published on 22 November 2016.

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Read more on:    land expropriation  |  land reform  |  eff  |  land redistribution

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