Land reform, yes – the question is, how?

Terence Corrigan

Mikhail Moosa's piece about the support for land reform registered by the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation's (IJR) polling "Research shows Ramaphosa is right - South Africans do want land reform" makes for intriguing reading.

The IJR's annual Reconciliation Barometer is, after all, a valuable study of popular attitudes about matters pertaining to social cohesion in South Africa. Whether this points the way to good public policy is less certain.

As Moosa correctly states, the IJR's report analysed the "perceived importance of land reform as a means to address inequality", and found that 63% of its respondents believed that land reform should be part of a reconciliation process. A further 23% were neutral on the question, and only 8% disagreed.

Taken on its own terms, that is uncontroversial – in one way or another most interest groups in South Africa are in favour of land reform. In the sense that it shows a popular belief in the value of land reform, it does indeed constitute a "mandate for land reform". 

What it does not tell us is how this abstract approval manifests in demand for land (and for what type of land), and whether people personally expect to benefit from it. But these questions are important. They give shape and texture to the sentiments that the IJR's respondents are expressing. Above all they are important empirical pointers to the practical demand for a particular policy – which may well mean emphasis on one course of action to the exclusion of others.

The Institute of Race Relations' (IRR) opinion poll factored this consideration in when conducting its enquiries into South Africans' views on the policy steps that the government should take to improve their lives (Moosa refers to this in passing as "part of a general question about problems in the country").

Our results show that in 2017, only 1% of South Africans regarded land reform as a priority. This was down from 2% the previous year. Employment, education and combating crime emerged as the key priorities. This is hardly surprising given that South Africa is increasingly urbanised, and these are the concerns of an urban society. Land – certainly land for farming – is not viewed as a key priority.

Nor is mass land and agrarian reform likely to produce the result that is evidently close to Moosa's heart – the substantial reduction of inequality. 

Farming is tough, uncertain and not especially lucrative work. As countries' economies grow in sophistication, it becomes an ever less attractive option. For example, in developed economies, the agricultural sector is frequently maintained by subsidies or by extensive state investment in infrastructure and research. It is doubtful that South Africa could match this. 

Any attempt to deal with South Africa's challenges through the large-scale settlement of peasant farmers is, ironically, likely to exacerbate rather than reduce inequality.

This is not to suggest that land reform has no role to play in South Africa's development. It simply means that the expectations that are raised around it, and the policy choices made to drive it need to be realistic.  

We at the IRR have put forward a workable plan for effective and sustainable land reform. It would demand a change in the manner in which land reform has been undertaken. It would require, for example, recognising property rights (something the government's proposed plans for expropriation without compensation manifestly does not) and providing adequate financing (which has not hitherto been forthcoming, even as billions have been committed to sustaining state-owned enterprises). 

In this way, land reform can facilitate upward mobility, employment and positive knock-on effects throughout the economy.

Continuing on the current, failing path – or worse, compounding it with assumptions at odds with reality – would be to tragically forfeit these opportunities. 

- Terence Corrigan is the project manager at the IRR, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read, then SMS your name to 32823.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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