Land reform: Empower people, not the state

Terence Corrigan

President Cyril Ramaphosa's performance during question time on Wednesday was certainly an improvement on what we have become used to in recent years. Unfortunately, the discussion around government’s plans for expropriation without compensation offers South Africa little clarity on what awaits it, and little hope that it will signify something better in the future.

In his remarks, President Ramaphosa referred to government’s land audit to highlight racial disparities in land ownership:

"White people in our country still own around 72% of the farms owned by individuals, coloured people in our country own 15%, Indians 5% and Africans - who constitute the majority of the people who live in this beautiful land - only own 4%."

A lack of information about land ownership has been a critical hindrance to an informed debate around land reform. As a rendering of the findings of the land audit, President Ramaphosa’s words are a good deal, more accurate than what some of his associates have put out. But they still obscure as much as they reveal. 

Ownership "by individuals" to which the president refers is a minority of the land in the country. Of the 121 924 881 ha in the country, some 37 078 289 ha is farmland held by individuals and registered at the deeds office. This accounts for some 30% of South Africa and it is to this, exclusively, that President Ramaphosa is referring. Registered private ownership by individuals of all land across the country amounts to 37 800 986 ha, or 31% of the total.

Most land in South Africa – more than two thirds – cannot be classified in this way, being owned by companies, trusts, community based organisations and the state. The land to which Africans have historically had 'access' (and to a large extent, the land to which they have 'access' today) has not generally been held under registered freehold title. Since 1994, the democratic government has shown little interest in granting it. 

Land redistribution policy now excludes most "beneficiaries" from ever owning the land they might settle on. Rather, they will remain tenants of the state, their livelihoods in the hands of officials.

President Ramaphosa had a point in arguing that the property clause of the Constitution was intended to enhance property rights. That it has fallen short in this respect can, in significant measure, be attributed largely to government policy.

For its part, the High Level Panel into Transformative Legislation chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe commented: "It is of great concern to the Panel that recent policy shifts appear to default to some of the key repertoires that were used to justify the denial of political and property rights for black people during colonialism and apartheid."

President Ramaphosa was perhaps more correct than he realised when he called for "meaningful and sustainable land" reform. Expropriation without compensation offers little in this regard. Rather, we need a rational programme that enhances property rights and true ownership among its beneficiaries – not the sleight of hand that empowers government over the people.

- Terence Corrigan is a Project Manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

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