The Ideology Of Land Is The Seed Of A Poor Harvest - Huffington Post

Jan 11, 2018
11 January 2018 - In our contemporary setting, curbing rights to property will more likely deepen rather than alleviate poverty.


By Michael Morris

To speak of the "lie of the land" is to call on an inescapable truth about how things stand -- but in South Africa's case, the phrase could well hint at a pervasive untruth instead.

Radical promises to reorder South Africa's farming landscape by expropriation without compensation stand in stark contrast to the evident desire of rural people to move off the land and seek a better life among the urban middle classes.

Pressing policy revision is undoubtedly needed -- for gradually dwindling rural as much as steadily growing urban communities -- but research by the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) suggests that the thrust of the government's approach to land reform is way off the mark.

The ANC's willingness to amend the property rights clause in the constitution wells from an ideological, rather than a popular, conviction that the historical injustice of land dispossession is the founding source of poverty in South Africa.

In our contemporary setting, however, curbing rights to property will more likely deepen rather than alleviate poverty.

Even if Cyril Ramaphosa's maiden speech as party leader at the closing of the ANC's pivotal conference last month must necessarily be read against the deep divisions in the party and the unity imperative that weighs heavily on him, his comments risk reinforcing a wrong-headed view of what needs to change in the countryside.

There was a time, Ramaphosa said, when people "led a fulfilled life" on the land, but "when the removals and dispossession took place, poverty became a partner to the people of our country".

Historically, he is doubtless right -- but South Africans are no longer living in the past.

It may be encouraging that Ramaphosa was at pains to warn that any constitutional amendment on property rights should avoid destabilising agriculture, endangering food security or harming any other sector, but these will be the most likely consequences of failing to make success in farming the primary objective of rural reform.

Stripped of the sentimentalism of ideological nostalgia, the countryside - the "land" of political rhetoric -- is a tough and not universally appealing place to live and work. The far greater socioeconomic magnet in contemporary South Africa -- like the rest of the world -- is urban life and the prospect of the middle-class status that towns and cities in the more economically vibrant and successful provinces offer.

This is confirmed in the IRR's latest FastFacts report, "Profiling the Provinces", which shows the continuing migration of people from rural provinces such as Eastern Cape (which lost 326,171 outbound migrants between 2011 and 2016) and Limpopo (which lost 145,767 in the same period) to provinces with growing urban concentrations -- and more jobs, higher pay and better education and other services -- such as Gauteng (which gained 981,290 people between 2011 and 2016) and Western Cape (which gained 292,372).

In all, more than 1.4-million South Africans moved from poor to better-performing provinces between 2011 and 2016.

The low appeal of life on the land is evident elsewhere, too. The government itself has acknowledged that some 92 percent of land restitution beneficiaries have opted for financial compensation instead of land.

This comes as no surprise in light of a 2016 field survey commissioned by the IRR, which found that a mere 0.6 percent (0.5 percent of black people) regarded "land distribution" as one of the country's "most serious unresolved problems".

A similarly low 1 percent (and 1 percent of black people) believed "more land reform" was the "best way to improve lives", down from 2.2 percent (and 2.1 percent of blacks) in a survey a year earlier. In contrast, 74.5 percent of respondents (and 73 percent of blacks) in 2016 said "more jobs and better education" was the best way to improve lives.

While rhetoric and activism around the land issue are fierce and emotive, just 0.4 percent of South Africans (and the same percentage among black people) cited "land distribution and ownership" when asked: "If you do notice racism in your daily life, in what ways do you notice it?" Furthermore, much of the land reform effort to date has been at best ineffective and, at worst, a dismal failure.

According to a comprehensive 2016 study by the IRR, "From land to farming: bringing land reform down to earth", "large tracts of high-quality land in the former homelands... are not being farmed", while "(m)any farms that have already been transferred from white to black are lying fallow (and) some have even been abandoned".

The report cautions that the government's "determination to reverse the ownership patterns arising from the Land Acts as well as to implement the Freedom Charter and promote the national democratic revolution... not only risks more failure, but might worsen poverty and unemployment -- while undermining food production and other agricultural output".

Yet it also emphasises that there are willing and able farmers, white and black, ranging from the established and commercially successful to the small-scale and emergent, on whom South Africa's food security depends -- and whose common needs ought to be the primary focus of rural policy reform.

"Fundamental changes to land policy are therefore required," the report recommends. "These include secure title, embracing the private sector as allies, and building on some of the success stories among small farmers.".

The policy should focus "not on land, but on farming".

"Instead of redistributing more land, land currently underutilised should be brought into full production. Instead of seeking to create many more small farmers, those already in existence should be helped to succeed." This will depend not only on a shift in focus from land reform to farming, "but a recognition that individual entrepreneurship is the key to success".

"It further necessitates acknowledging the enormous challenges facing farming in South Africa, and that agriculture is not the answer to poverty and unemployment the government seems to think it is." Far from being the "be-all and end-all", land is only one of a number of agricultural inputs that require "pragmatic" attention.

"Without all the other inputs -- from finance for seeds and fertiliser and implements, to water rights, to access to markets and knowhow -- no farmer will produce anything. A new policy would also take advantage of the fact that demand for land that goes to farming -- as opposed to the demand for land for housing in the cities -- is more limited than ideology assumes."

Critically, given that agriculture is "an exceptionally high-risk sector", with most farmers facing "the challenge of turning an inert and often barren, dry, and rocky asset into a productive farm", the report argues that the first essential ingredient for success is security of tenure.

Talk of expropriation without compensation might be intended to rattle the cattle pens of the long-established patriarchs of the platteland, but where it undermines optimism in agriculture, it undermines emerging and small-scale farmers, too.

*Michael Morris is head of media at the IRR, a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.

Read the article on HuffPost here

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