Land reform without property rights is mere hot air

THE poor will be mired in poverty and uncertainty until they are guaranteed property rights.

A new study from the University of the Western Cape and Rhodes University that focused on farms in the Eastern Cape, reveals that although poor families and communities have “access” to state land (ie, they “occupy” it), because they are not granted title, they serve as nothing more than de facto security guards for the state.

They are not free to use it in just any way or improve the state land which they are supposed to own, to gain any lasting benefit for themselves or their families. Until the true value of rightful ownership is recognised and realised, this is a quagmire that will continue to suck in the potential wealth of poor South Africans.

No one, no matter how talented or hard-working, poor or rich, can use their property to better their lives if their property rights are not absolute and legally enshrined as such.

The research found that since 2011, the state has been buying land for redistribution and has been distributing it under various forms of lease, instead of transferring ownership to the beneficiaries.

Is the government no longer concerned with the dignity of the individual?

The research also shines a light on the state land lease and disposal policy of Gugile Nkwinti, the minister of Rural Development and Land Reform.

Since 2013, policy has made it clear that small-scale and subsistence farmers may not become land owners but must remain tenants of the state.

Big land owners, though, enjoy a degree of state protection as they have an option to buy farms if they have leased land for 30 to 50 years. Preventing the previously disadvantaged from owning land they could purchase does not sound like real land reform.

It is highly disingenuous for politicians to talk about land reform just to score political points and yet deny poor South Africans their real and essential property rights.

“Ownership” is devoid of meaning without title, without the actual right to the property, a right that is protected by a proper legal framework.

Possessing a piece of land is no guarantee that the owners will eventually become wealthy; that rests on them and what they do with it.

But once they have bought it, they should be fully entitled to do with it as they please, to farm or start a business, or lease it, or whatever else. The possibilities are endless, but they can invest in their futures only if they know that their property rights are secure.

When politicians, those in academia, media experts and analysts tell people that the state owes them land, should we be surprised by the anger that flares up when they realise those are empty promises?

When people come to realise they do not have full title to the land they believe they own and have built a life upon, that it can be taken away from them at any time, can we expect the same empty talk about land reform to produce anything positive?

Real land reform means the transfer of ownership of the land from the state to the people — an ownership that is protected through property rights and recorded through a title deed.

Apartheid denied millions of South Africans their property rights.

The legacy of apartheid will live on as long as millions of South Africans are still denied property rights.

When the government “gives” the people land, it must give them a freehold title deed as well.

It is time for the government to deliver real, enriching and empowering land reform. — FMF.

• Chris Hattingh is a researcher at the Free Market Foundation.

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