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Millions of lives would be transformed and the economy would get a huge boost, says Allister Sparks.
Durban - Nothing riles me more than the endless debate about land redistribution. It is a debate laden with obscurantism and hypocrisy, an issue the government and demagogues such as Julius Malema, and doubtless more dangerous others still to come, exploit for its highly emotional content, without any realistic policies for dealing with it.
I am the first to acknowledge that the Land Act of 1913 was a cruel and wicked deed, making this a centenary year of shame.
I have called that act, passed just three years after the independence of Union, the “Original Sin” committed by white South Africans.
In prohibiting black people from owning land anywhere in the country, it destroyed the black peasantry at a stroke and distorted the structure of this country’s society to this day.
We still live with the consequences.
The entire black population was turned into a landless, unskilled labour force, what Karl Marx would have called a lumpen proletariat, that has been compelled to drift towards the towns and cities since – where apartheid prohibited them from acquiring skills and declared them prohibited immigrants in urban areas.
They were supposed to go back to their desolate “homelands”, but vast numbers ended up as unskilled job-seekers in informal settlements around our towns and cities.
Yes, there is a lot that white South Africans have to answer for, but you cannot reverse history any more that you can re-engineer societies.
We have to live with what those wicked laws have bequeathed us and try as best we can to ameliorate the ills they have caused.
But this is not what the government is trying to do.
Instead it is committed to a policy that is impractical, unjust and just plain foolhardy. That policy, that is going nowhere after 20 years of majority rule, is to transfer 30 percent of the 122 million hectares of what the South African Institute of Race Relations estimates to be the total land area of the country – and which the government, therefore, considers to be in “white” hands – into black ownership by next year.
It is an impossible task, which the government says is because of the “willing buyer, willing seller” requirement.
It wants a “just and equitable” approach instead, which means forcing white farmers off their land with compensation below market value. But you cannot rectify one injustice by inflicting another.
No, the policy is impractical because in the century since the Land Act, South Africa has been the only country in Africa to undergo a full-blown industrial revolution and an agrarian revolution.
The one has resulted in most of our people becoming urbanites; the other has transformed agriculture into large commercial enterprises that can never revert to small-scale peasant farming without wholesale destruction.
That means if the government’s policy is fully implemented, the only beneficiaries will be, not the descendants of those disinherited peasants who now constitute the bulk of our unskilled and largely unemployed labour force, but the new black bourgeoisie – the wealthy BEE beneficiaries who will have the capital needed to invest in and run these major enterprises, which is what a modern commercial farm is.
And they will be so few as to be meaningless in the overall project of building a better life for all.
Leon Louw, the director of the Free Market Foundation, estimates that there are fewer than 40 000 white commercial farmers. Assuming 30 percent of them are displaced by two black farmers each, that would be about 25 000 black farmers – less than 1 percent of the black population.
Which means all it will result in is more patronage politics of the kind that has destroyed Zimbabwe and is already corroding our own society.
That does not mean there is nothing that can be done. Far from it.
The problem is simply that the more obvious steps that the government should be taking are less politically enticing because they lack the emotional appeal of displacing whites to give back the land to the disinherited blacks.
Let us look, for a moment, at who really owns land in South Africa. Yes, the white commercial farmers do own quite a lot, but in value rather than area terms white urban dwellers, myself included, own far more. Official land distribution figures never seem to take value into consideration.
But in fact the state itself owns huge amounts, and it is time it gave some away to the people whose interests it purports to represent.
It has long been assumed that under apartheid black South Africans owned 13 percent of the land and whites the other 87 percent. Untrue. Blacks owned nothing. Zero.
That Bantustan land belonged to the state, and still does. The estimated 16 million black people in the old Bantustans still do not own the land they are living on.
It belongs to the state, and is held “in trust” by the traditional chiefs.
That is why the people living on that land do not develop it. It’s not theirs.
And they have no security of tenure, because the chief can evict them if they should fail to show him sufficient fealty.
The women, particularly, have no rights whatsoever, not even of inheritance should a husband die.
It is an outrageous feudal system that the ANC sustains because the chiefs can deliver their vassals to the polling booths every five years.
So I say to the government, if you are serious about land redistribution, just give those people in the old Bantustans the land they are living on. It’s yours. Give it to them, free, with title deeds.
Then we come to the much more valuable land in and around the towns and cities.
All that land in the townships and informal settlements belongs, not to the people living there, but to the municipalities, the majority of which are controlled by the ruling ANC.
Years ago, in its desperate last-minute efforts to reform, the apartheid regime gave anyone who had been living in Soweto for 20 years ownership of the properties they had been renting from local authorities or, in the Verwoerd years, the Department of Bantu Administration and Development.
If the apartheid regime could do it, why can’t the government of liberation do the same for everybody living in every township and informal settlement, all on land the state in its various forms owns across the country?
It would cost the government nothing, and it would mean the economic empowerment of millions of black South Africans who, as the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has been saying for years, would find that their “dead capital” was turned into “live capital” because the titled ownership of your home makes it an economic asset that can be traded, or used as collateral to raise a bank loan to start an enterprise.
It could transform the lives of those millions and give our economy a huge boost at the same time. The kind of wage boost Cosatu is always talking about.
So I say to the Zuma government, for God’s sake stop the emotional exploitation of the land issue and just give the people the land they are living on.
It is yours to give.
* Allister Sparks is a veteran journalist and political commentator.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.