Time to let the township millions own their government plots

Mention land reformand many automatically think farm expropriation – but what about the five million urban plots in our so-called ‘townships’ upon which countless millions of South Africans live, denied the dignity and economic advantage of ownership? In this eloquently argued, hard-hitting piece, Martin van Staden, a law student at the University of Pretoria and Southern African Regional Director of Students for Liberty, argues that it’s time to get rid of the apartheid township.

He gives examples of innovative, ground-breaking blueprints that are showing the way. The national economic advantage of expanding these to scale is worth exploring – and would come at very little cost.

It’s fine to talk about decolonising everything from the media to higher education, but how about decolonising government urban land ownership? On the face of it, the status quo seems to be no less than a blithely ignored government continuation of our racist past – which happens to tie in neatly with State ownership of land in a strongly socialist model perpetuating the racist centralisation of power which the apartheid government crafted.

It would be highly informative to get an official ANC response to this challenge.

'Perhaps some strongly intellectual protagonist can refer the article below to a party or government spokesperson for comment – or weigh in themselves. It’s a conversation we need to have – in the interests of a better life for all. – Chris Bateman

By Martin van Staden*

Municipal government throughout South Africa continues to own upwards of five million urban plots currently occupied by previously disadvantaged individuals. Many of these individuals, denied, in the past, the right to own any property by the apartheid government, have lived on these properties for their entire lives.

The problem with this state of affairs is that, 22 years after the end of apartheid, these individuals are still accepted as being mere tenants rather than property owners.

The Free Market Foundation (FMF) and a handful of businesses are apparently the only civil society organisations in South Africa who have taken note of this. There are others, however, who continue to push for more government ownership of property, rather than ownership by the people.


During June 2016, for example, the FMF in cooperation with Christo Wiese and the City of Cape Town, were successful in having 100 plots of council-owned property in Cape Town converted to full ownership for the current occupiers. Last year, the FMF and First National Bank did the same in Tumahole, Parys, where Wiese was also a sponsor.

The project, known as Khaya Lam (My Home), is aimed at giving inhabitants of council-owned property freehold ownership of the property they live on.

The project embraces the concept that ownership does not only lead to immense economic benefits but also implies dignified living for the owner. In Africa, individuals and communities used to have a very close relationship with the land they lived on. During the colonial era, however, the Eurocentric institution of ‘expropriation’ burst onto the scene, which deprived tens of millions of their land and property.

Today, expropriation, in all its colonialist glory, continues to be embraced by our democratic government. With the passing of the new Expropriation Act, our ostensibly ‘post-Apartheid’ government is now itself enjoying the ideological fruits of colonialism.

Expropriation in the colonial era meant that the government could take property from its rightful owners and keep it for itself or hand it out to friends of the State. While much of the latter did indeed happen, vast tracts of land were kept by the government and eventually became ‘native reserves’, and, of course, the urban ‘township’.

The result deprived the majority of South Africans of the immense sense of pride and dignity which came with having certain entitlements to property.

The urban township continues to exist today in much the same form as it did a century ago.

The municipal government, or some other branch of government, usually owns the land upon which the township and the inhabitants are unable to legally sell, let, or mortgage the property they occupy. Not being able to regard ‘their’ properties in the same way as other South Africans in the suburbs can, the deprivation of ownership leads directly to a lack of investment by inhabitants in these properties and the absence of a property market.


If we wish to see townships become middle class suburbs, we must address ownership. The socialist experiment of state ownership has clearly failed and produced bland, poor, and unappealing areas where the government does not care to maintain the millions of plots and homes which it officially owns. This is nothing new, for we know only private owners have a true incentive to maintain and develop their property.

It is unthinkable that ‘land reform’ in South Africa, for some, seems to mean ‘more of the same’ and not the advocating of the extension and strengthening of property rights for the poor and vulnerable. I believe it is time for real land reform. The legacy of apartheid can be healed only when we distance ourselves from the apartheid state-centric mindset.

  • Martin van Staden is a law student at the University of Pretoria and the Southern African Regional Director of Students for Liberty. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.
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