The land reform mess

Pete Bower

There are a number of issues clouding the current land “problem” in South Africa, not the least being that the problem is not one problem, but a number of problems that have been conflated by the politicians for their own rhetorical convenience, and which have, as a result, confused and alarmed the general public.

For, to the man in the street, land invasions, land restitution, land reform and the most recent bug-a-boo, expropriation without compensation, all appear to be the same thing: frightening strands in the same tangled ball of wool.

So, let’s shed some light on the issues involved by discussing the various elements and some of the related observations made by economists, agrarians and sundry commentators.

At the outset let’s be clear that expropriation, with or without compensation, is already part of our law, and has been for generations, just as it is in most countries. But it exists to help the state or local authorities to provide necessary infrastructure such as roads, hospitals or dams. The state has within its powers the right to simply take the land needed, for the greater good of the general population, although generally it pays compensation, related in some measure top the land’s market value. That’s expropriation, and in the extreme case (and under the apartheid era Group Areas Act), without compensation, or EWC, as it has come to be called.

But that should not be confused with what the EFF and its new-found fellow-travellers in the ANC propose, which is expropriation without compensation, of “property”, with the idea of redistributing it to previously disadvantaged people. In the EFF’s version of this process, the expropriatees (ie those whose property will be expropriated) will be white. Fullstop.

Depending on how much you trust politicians generally, and the ANC in particular, you can form your own opinion as to whether this will devolve into a wholesale Zimbabwe-style land-grab or be something more measured and protective of the economy, jobs and food security.

But the EWC “proposal” should not be confused with land occupation, tried last month by hopeful shack dwellers in Midrand, Pretoria East and elsewhere, where hundreds of people suddenly converge on a piece of land and begin staking claims, often having parted with hard-earned cash to some persuasive “entrepreneur” (who may or may not be a rogue member of a political party).

Then there is the subtle difference between “land reform” and “restitution”. Reform should include, for example, the management of land to integrate established apartheid-era townships into their associated formerly “white” towns, by proclaiming linking industrial, commerial or residential developments, upgrading facilities etc. Restitution is the handing over of land to previously-dispossessed individuals or communities.

But the entire land reform/restitution issue is fraught with disagreement even as to its starting point.  For example, during the worst apartheid years black, Indian and coloured families were forcibly removed under the Group Areas Act from areas such as District Six and Wynberg in Cape Town, or Sophiatown in Johannesburg, and dumped in Manenberg or Mitchell’s Plain, or in Soweto, or in the bantustans. Members of many of those families are still alive, still remember the hurt and indignity of those removals, and still feel a sense of loss and deprivation.

But it goes back earlier than that. Another significant milestone was the 1913 Native Land Act which, at a stroke, deprived vast numbers of black families of their land. Obviously, anybody who was dispossessed at that stage is no longer alive and the entire landscape has changed vastly since that time.

But it goes back even earlier than that. Radicals in the ANC and EFF are now arguing that it was in 1652 that the first dispossession of black land took place.

The fact that even at this stage South Africa does not have one single land “ownership” model on the statutes, but many, ranging from freehold with title deeds, to tribal trusts, to permissions to occupy (PTOs), to communal land ownership, with the question of mining rights driving a legal cart and horses through the whole lot. Certainly a complicating factor, particularly if you wish to take 1652 as your dispossession starting point.

But there are another two significant snags in this mess. Firstly, nobody knows for sure who owns what land, and the government’s own report on the subject is fraught with inaccuracies, generalisations and false assumptions.

Just as it is false to assume that there is a universal “hunger for land” among black people. In many cases in the ANC’s land reform programme, when offered land or money, the beneficiaries have taken the money rather than the land.

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