Truth the biggest loser in land expropriation debate

Minister of Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe
Minister of Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe

Just over a month ago, former US president Barack Obama urged South Africa and the world to stand up for the truth in an era of fake news and information wars.

"Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. They just make stuff up," Obama told his audience as he celebrated the truthful life of Nelson Mandela.

I thought of Obama's words last week as it became clear that "objective truth" was taking a backseat in the increasingly polarised "debate" about land expropriation. Just like Obama's tanned successor, a number of South Africans are simply making up stuff to drive their own narrow agendas.

The biggest lie told so far, of course, is the one by the ANC that land is the most pressing social issue in the country at the moment, when the party's own internal research shows it doesn't even feature in the top five.

The objective truth is: land is not the most pressing social issue in the country, according to every credible piece of research done on the topic. The triple-timebomb of poverty-unemployment-inequality, and crime and corruption are the five things that keep most South Africans – ANC voters included – awake at night.

Another uncomfortable truth is that the ANC has failed dismally in transforming the agricultural sector with the billions of rands and legal tools it had available since 1994. But those facts don't suit a populist narrative about "giving back the land".

Last week saw the ANC chair and mineral resources minister, Gwede Mantashe, shooting off his mouth about capped land ownership in an interview with News24. Nobody should own more than 12 000 hectares of agricultural land, was his brilliant solution for this complicated matter.

As was later pointed out to him, the objective truth is that there are only a tiny number of farms in the country larger than 12 000 hectares and they are all in the Northern Cape. Mantashe was also not aware of legislation introduced to Parliament last year already that proposes capped land ownership in certain districts when Rapport put it to him.

Another example where the objective facts stood in the way of a "good" story was AfriForum's "list" of 192 farms that are, according to the Afrikaner lobby group, the target of expropriation without compensation.

According to the group's deputy CEO, Ernst Roets, the list was leaked to them from within the rural development and land reform department. Without doing the most basic of veracity checks, like speaking to each of the 192 land owners about the status of their negotiations (or not) with the state, AfriForum published the list, irrespective of the objective truth.

In a most irresponsible way, the group endangered the lives and livelihoods of each of the 192 farmers and their families on that list because AfriForum wants to position itself as the champion against expropriation without compensation. Watch how the group will attack Agri SA, the farmers' organisation that believes in talking rather than fighting, in the next few days.  

AfriForum's friends at the Institute for Race Relations have since come out in support of the veracity of the list, without providing a shred of evidence why they say it is real and while the department is on record that no such list exists. This is quite extraordinary for an organisation built on a proud legacy of empirical research.

Turns out only one farm on the list is the target of expropriation, but the real fight is about the valuation of the land, not whether the state will take the farm without compensation.

The state has been negotiating with farmers about the valuation of land that is the subject of land claims for over 20 years – this is nothing new.

The debate about land ownership is too important for people to just make stuff up; objective truths should inform all our viewpoints and arguments. Anything else is propaganda by people who do not have South Africa's best interests at heart.

- Basson is editor-in-chief of News24. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanBasson

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