Picture: David Ritchie/ ANA
The politics of land, and specifically the impending adoption of a policy of expropriation without compensation, is becoming a defining issue for South Africa. Mishandled, it could collapse South Africa’s future prospects. Futurist Clem Sunter recently wrote that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that, in a worst-case scenario, it could spark civil war. ‘Reform,’ he commented, ‘has to happen but it must happen in a way that encourages enough goodwill on all sides to rule any form of conflict out.’

This may be true. And setting violent conflict aside as a possible outcome, just as vital are the implications for economic growth, for food security, and for the ability of people to build a stake in the economy. The current debate is, after all, not solely about land, but – in placing Section 25 of the constitution in play – about property rights in their totality and what it means to give the government power to abridge them. This is why it is beyond important that policy choices are informed by reliable evidence, high-quality information and sober deliberation.

And so it is a matter of particularly grave concern when the information we have is distorted or misrepresented. 

The discussion of racial ownership is a case in point. An accurate picture of the racial composition of land ownership in South Africa would provide a sense of the extent to which the country has moved from the strictures imposed by the Land Acts and subsequent abuses of segregation and apartheid. Being able to demonstrate progress – or more to the point, a lack thereof – has become central to the case being made for expropriation without compensation. ‘Untransformed’ land ownership patterns, by this reasoning, demand enhanced powers by government to intervene.

Government’s Land Audit was central to informing this part of the land debate. The Audit was intended to provide an overview of the ownership of South African land, and its supposed findings have been invoked repeatedly. The minster of rural development and land reform, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane claimed a few weeks ago that only 4% of land is in the hands of black people. This closely parallels the claim made in the introduction to February’s parliamentary resolution on expropriation without compensation, that ‘black people own less than 2% of rural land, and less than 7% of urban land.’

These claims are incorrect, and the Land Audit makes no such claims. As the IRR has shown in its analysis of the matter, Who Owns the Land?, the Land Audit was only able to willing to assign a racial identity to around a third of South Africa’s land – held by individuals as privately owned, freehold land, registered at the Deeds Office. Of this portion of the country, Africans are estimated by the Audit to own 4% (or – against the whole surface area of the country, 1.2%).

It is less than honest to present this as applicable to landholdings across the country as a whole. And most was owned by trusts, companies, community-based organizations and the state. It is important to note that during the colonial and apartheid eras, it was rare for Africans to own land under registered freehold arrangements. Since the advent of democracy, this has remained the case. African landholdings – or, perhaps more accurately, the land to which African people have ‘access’ – are far more extensive than the ‘4%’. But they are generally either not registered at the Deeds Office, or registered as something other than private freehold property.

The estimated 2.8 million hectares of the Ingonyama Trust in Kwazulu-Natal, for example, is regarded by the Land Audit as state land. Much of the former Transkei is not registered at all.

Avoiding these realities manages to ‘disappear’ not only the historical holdings to which African people have had access, but most of the roughly 8.1 million hectares that have changed hands through restitution or redistribution – since this has tended to be handed to trusts or communities (not individuals, and hence not captured in the oft-cited numbers), or retained as state ownership.

Indeed, there has been a serious failure to acknowledge candidly the fact that many of the iniquities in land ownership reflect decisions made by government since 1994. A few weeks ago, Deputy President David Mabuza berated the unfairness of a situation in which ‘you have a neighbour who owns 31 000 hectares of land ... and you have someone who does not even own a title [deed]’. 

But the lack of title that concerns the Deputy President is in no small measure the result of government choices. No effort has been made since 1994 to confer title on Africans in the former ‘homelands’. And it is in the design of the current redistribution strategy – the State Land Lease and Disposal Policy – that few but the largest beneficiaries will ever qualify for ownership. They will remain perpetual, rent-paying tenants to the state. And in urban contexts, many people who have received housing have not been favoured with legal ownership. 

Perhaps most disturbing in its brazen inaccuracy were comments made by ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule. Noting that expropriation without compensation has been undertaken at various times in South Africa’s history, he remarked that ‘there has never been any problem when the apartheid government did that.’

This is not only untrue, but manages to dispense with a big chunk of his own party’s history. For little underlined the depravity of apartheid as the dread term ‘forced removals’. The loss of property was intrinsic to this. A government proclamation on Cato Manor in the late 1950s callously noted: ‘In Cato Manor, Natal; 25 798 Indians, 2 107 Coloureds and 28,298 Africans would be shifted. Indians will lose 2 891 acres of land and 2 444 dwellings valued at £1 685 350. Coloureds and Africans will lose over 70 acres of land and 133 dwellings valued at £25 940.’

Forced removals ignited global condemnation of apartheid. More than that, it sparked domestic resistance – whether by those affected (as the residents of Sophiatown declared, ‘Ons dak nie, ons phola hier’), or by anti-apartheid groups like the Institute of Race Relations. The ANC itself protested vigorously against legislation that undermined black people’s property rights – such as the Land Acts – and later against forced removals.

In each of these cases, there is something at work that goes beyond the mere warping of information. As Ghandi is often quoted as having said: ‘Morality is the basis of things and truth is the substance of all morality.’

To distort the evidentiary basis of policy – whether by deliberately misrepresenting information, by omitting pertinent details, or even by refusing to acquaint oneself properly with the available evidence – is not merely damaging to governance, but is profoundly immoral.

It seeks to delink policy choices from existing realities, substituting the latter for ideology or political convenience, and saddles society with the consequences for so doing. Underplaying the complexities of landholding is bad enough – it denies the public an understanding of the issues at play. It attempts to stir people’s resentments and passions worst, predictably (probably intentionally) driving a mix of fact-free confrontation and defensiveness that is inimical to democratic debate and the compromise it should engender. It retards the ability of ordinary people to participate in governance as informed, active citizens.

The stakes in this debate are high. It demands calm and rational thinking and public debate. The distortion of information makes this difficult if not impossible.

* Terence Corrigan is a Project Manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

 * The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.