View distorts reality of land reform issues

Terence Corrigan
Terence Corrigan

Inadequate data is a major problem when conducting a sensible public conversation about South African land policy. An equally serious problem is the creative presentation of information, which sacrifices clarity for the sake of a narrative. Gender commissioner Nthabiseng Moleko’s intervention – Women must be the focus of land redistribution, City Press, July 15 – comes close to indulging in the latter.

She writes: “The latest audit on land ownership trends in the country, which took place last year, reflects that Africans constitute 79% of the population as individuals directly owning 1.2% of rural land. The land audit also shows that whites own 72% of total farm and agricultural holdings, coloureds own 15%, Indians own 5% and Africans 4%. Women only own 13% of farms and agricultural land, while men own 71%.”

This does not accurately reflect the findings of the land audit. Of the 121 924 881 hectares in South Africa, some 37 800 986 hectares are owned by individuals as registered, freehold property. This accounts for less than a third of South Africa’s surface area. It is the only land in South Africa in respect of which the race of its owners can be identified (and even this involves an element of guess work). It is of this portion of the country’s land that white people are said to own 72%, coloureds 15%, Indians 5%, Africans 4%, “others” 3% and co-ownership arrangements 1%.

Likewise, the data Moleko cites on male and female land ownership is only valid insofar as land owned and registered to individuals is concerned. (Incidentally, some 16% of individuals’ holdings are under some form of joint male-female – or “other” – ownership.)

More than two-thirds of South Africa’s land – based on the land audit data – is held by trusts (24%), the state (22%), companies (19%), community based organisations (3%) and co-ownership schemes (1%).

It is important to note that the manner in which land has been and continues to be held in South Africa – historically and at present – means that to focus on the holdings of individuals produces a very limited picture.

African people, for example, were for the most part denied individual freehold title under the colonial and apartheid regimes. The tracts of land to which they had “access” (in the erstwhile homelands and in many townships) were ultimately in the hands of the state, administered by traditional leaders or local authorities. Shamefully, this remains the case all too often today. And given that government has pledged not to alter the status of land under traditional authorities, no change is likely soon.

In addition, transfers via the land reform programmes (which have involved more than 8 million hectares, or 6.6% of the extent of South Africa) very seldom – if ever – transfer ownership to individuals, but to trusts and community property organisations. The focus on individual ownership effectively manages to “disappear” all of this.

It is worth noting Moleko is not alone in putting forward a view of landholding that obscures the realities and complexities of landholding in South Africa. Numerous other figures in government and the ruling party have done likewise. (It is a matter of bewilderment that some in government wish to present a picture of their own land reform efforts as being less successful than they have actually been.) In so doing, they are heightening the tensions and passions around the issue, introducing distractions into a very necessary debate, and ultimately leading us away from a resolution – not least from sober consideration of the matter close to Moleko’s heart, ensuring that women benefit from land reform.

Corrigan is project manager at the Institute of Race Relations

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