Picture: Matthews Baloyi/African News Agency (ANA)
A colleague of mine at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) tells a revealing story. While on business in Durban earlier this year, he got into a conversation with the driver he’d hired to take him around. When the talk turned to expropriation without compensation (EWC), and South Africa’s land politics, the driver grew animated. His enthusiasm for seizing and redistributing property was well-nigh unlimited. So were the benefits that doing so would bestow on the beneficiaries and the country as a whole. Thoroughgoing agrarian reform was the missing link in South Africa’s developmental chain.

‘So you’d like a plot to farm?’ my colleague asked.

At this, the driver assumed a startled, even offended, countenance. ‘No,’ he said emphatically, ‘I want a glamorous life.’

The results of our recently published opinion poll calls this to mind and puts it into perspective. It also calls into question the political narrative that has gathered momentum over the past year – that land reform, driven by EWC, is critical to addressing a demand that can no longer be ignored.  

The latter position was well articulated a few days ago by Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, minister in the presidency and advocate of ‘Radical Economic Transformation’. She was quoted as saying: ‘The continuous denial of land rights to the vast majority of South Africans is a time bomb. We stand to lose as the patience of our people is slowly wearing out. There must be urgently a way of dealing with this land issue. Failure to do that means we risk instability in the country and we risk … [losing] a lot more than we can gain from being quiet. It cannot be business as usual.’
 
A dire warning indeed. It is also at odds with what ordinary South Africans see as their priorities. 

It is common cause that South Africa is stuck in a socio-economic and developmental malaise. For millions, the post-1994 dispensation has not delivered the opportunities and material benefits to which they aspire, and which have to some degree become associated with the very idea of democracy. More than this, they face a future in which prospects for mobility are bleak. This is deeply concerning. 
A 2017 analysis by Professor Christian Houle, and American academic, argued compellingly that rather than current circumstances or inequality, it is a lack of social mobility that is pressing; the sense that not only is life hard today, but that it is unlikely to get better – and that the options for one’s children are no better – fosters the conditions for instability.

We asked a sample of South Africans, covering all communities – black, white, coloured and Indian, rural and urban, spread across the country – to identify the issues that should inform government’s priorities.

Land reform was the issue least identified by the respondents, accounting for a mere 6% of results. Jobs topped the list by a considerable margin (47%), followed by concerns about drugs and drug abuse (23%) and crime (20%). Behind these issues, respondents identified education (18%), corruption (18%), illegal immigration (16%), housing (14%), the provision of services like electricity and sanitation (12%), healthcare (8%), rising prices (7%) and racism (7%).

Perhaps counterintuitively, the demand for land reform is not driven by the rural, African poor. Among African voters, only 4% of responses identified land reform as a priority. Those from South Africa’s racial minorities were in fact considerably more likely to mention land reform – at 11% of responses. And, by a small margin, urban respondents were more inclined than their rural counterparts to view land reform as a priority. 

As we at the IRR have long maintained, land reform – in the agrarian sense – is neither a driving concern for most of South Africa’s population, nor a solution to the country’s socio-economic problems. For a population that is two-thirds urbanised, and whose people aspire to participation in a modern consumer culture, this is unsurprising. Indeed, there is some evidence that subsistence farming is in decline, at least in some parts of the country.

Patience, in other words, may be wearing out, but the pace of land reform is not the foremost consideration.

Land reform has assumed a political significance for the country’s elites far in excess of the position it occupies in the minds of ordinary people. It has become an avatar concept, now overlain with the very doubtful notion of EWC (itself a policy position that seeks to expand the power and discretion of the state), embodying a set of fundamentally political impulses.

Regrettably, this makes a sensible, productive land reform programme less likely. Land reform has a moral imperative and – if well-designed, properly resourced and competently managed – could make a positive contribution to South Africa. The nature of South Africa’s current land ‘debate’ indicates a failure to consider evidence, and to structure policy accordingly.

Rather, government and the ruling party have put forward little beyond an intention to expropriate without compensation (compensation requirements having never been shown to have been a major hindrance to land reform). Disturbingly, it is at best unclear whether any limiting principles exist.

Meanwhile, warnings from the World Bank are apposite: ‘Although redistributive policies have the potential to benefit the poor both directly and indirectly, they will do so only if redistribution does not jeopardise investment – this may be one explanation for the observation that, in the past, redistributive policies such as land reform have often failed to help the poor.’

Given that it is waged employment, particularly in cities, which most South Africans view as their best chance of a secure future, there is a real danger that a reckless, ideologically driven land reform programme will not only fail to deliver the benefits that its proponents expect, but that it will undermine whatever prospects of job-generating growth we might have.

If that happens, the chance of ‘glamourous’ lives – indeed, hopeful lives – will disappear.

* Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the Institute of Race Relations sending an SMS to 32823.

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