Facts matter in the debate on South Africa’s land politics – IRR

26 September 2018 - It is entirely legitimate to critique President Trump’s views, but, equally, his detractors must be held to standards of accuracy in theirs.

[This article, written in response to the report, ‘In Tacit Rebuke, U.S. Embassy in South Africa Rejects Trump Tweet’, in global affairs journal Foreign Policy on 29 August, was turned down by the journal this week]

Terence Corrigan

United States’ President Donald Trump’s intervention in South Africa’s heavily contested land politics has provoked considerable pushback from his critics, in the United States and abroad. Your article ‘In Tacit Rebuke, U.S. Embassy in South Africa Rejects Trump Tweet’ (Foreign Policy, 29 August) illustrates this. It is entirely legitimate to critique President Trump’s views, but, equally, his detractors must be held to standards of accuracy in theirs.

Your article falls short on this.

You are correct in claiming that ‘the legacy of apartheid still manifests itself in how land is distributed’. This is then illustrated by claiming, ‘though white South Africans make up less than 10 percent of the population, they own some 72 percent of the agricultural land.’

That, however, is incorrect. The ‘72 percent’ estimate is drawn from state land audit, published earlier this year. In truth, it made no such claim. It said that some 72 percent of the country’s farming and agricultural land (in actuality, its rural land) held by private individuals and registered at the deeds office was in the hands of white people. This is the only type of ownership for which racial data can be determined.

However, land owned on this basis only accounts for about 31 percent of South Africa’s rural parts. Going by the audit, some 24 percent is owned by trusts, 22 percent by the state, 19 percent by companies, 3 percent by community property associations and 1 percent by co-ownership arrangements. It is not possible to assign a racial character to land held under these forms of ownership. (Indeed, there is even a margin of error in determining the race of the individual owners, since title deeds do not record race, and it must be inferred out of such features as the surname of the title holder.)

It is important to bear in mind that these figures reflect current as well as historical practices. Trust- or company-based landholding is a growing trend, and does not lend itself to easy racial categorisation (it would be interesting to know if President Cyril Ramaphosa’s properties are considered ‘black’ or ‘African’).

Equally importantly, under colonial and apartheid rule, freehold title was invariably denied to Africans. Land to which the African population has access was held ‘in trust’, by the state or by traditional leaders. This is classed as state land today. There has been very little interest in reforming this arrangement, and certainly not in extending title to those living on these holdings. (Assurances have been given to tradition leaders that land reform will not harm their interests, so no change seems likely.)

Even land acquired and transferred through land reform schemes are not reflected in the racial data. For one thing, land restitution (restoring particular tracts to people who lost them as a result of discriminatory laws) has invariably happened on a communal basis, meaning that transfers were not done to individuals, but to trusts and community property associations.

In respect of land redistribution (that is, land acquired and made available to aspirant black farmers, who have a need for it, but might not have historical claims), it is state policy not  to transfer ownership to the recipients. Rather, it is official policy to have such ‘beneficiaries’ exist as tenants of the state. The State Land Lease and Disposal Policy, which codifies this approach, makes it clear that the option to own (through purchase) the land acquired through redistribution programmes is only to be available to those able to farm of a large commercial scale – and then, only after having worked it for fifty years.

The minister of rural development and land reform, Minister Nkoana-Mashabane, commented earlier this year that ‘ownership brings dignity. Ownership of land is what our people fought for and it hasn’t arrived.’ It is emblematic of what is wrong with South Africa’s land politics that she evidently failed to see that denial of ownership was the policy of her own government.

The invocation of inaccurate and decontextualized information is distressingly common. It seems calculated to simplify, even distort, understanding of the country’s land politics. This in turn feeds a narrative that ‘nothing has changed’ and that government has no choice but to adopt ever more intrusive policies.

Your article goes on to claim that ‘the South African government has pledged to address the issue to tackle inequality but insists it will not seize land from farmers without proper compensation or recourse.’ This is at best a half-truth.

Currently, the ruling party (and through it, the government) is committed to introducing a policy of expropriation without compensation – the latter concept, the central issue in South Africa’s land politics, is absent from your article. As President Ramaphosa said to a party rally in May: ‘We are going to take land and when we take land we are going to take it without compensation.’ He recently announced that his party would be pushing through a constitutional amendment to make the state’s right to take property without paying for it ‘more explicit’ – this before parliamentary hearings were complete, rather undermining his previous calls for debate and engagement on the issue.

Exactly how this will play out is unclear – there is no plan that can be studied, merely a commitment to the general idea, populist rhetoric, no real limiting principle and only non-binding assurances that (implausibly) a campaign of expropriation without compensation will not harm the economy.

The US embassy cable to which your article refers states that ‘some journalists and lobby groups have simplified complex land disputes to serve their own ends’. This may be more accurate than they realise. But, all in all, there are certainly some very real grounds for concern.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, a think tank based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Established in 1929, the Institute is South Africa’s oldest advocate for non-racism and was a staunch opponent of apartheid. It focuses on promoting economic and political liberty.

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