So far, lack of data about land ownership patterns and wealth inequality has inflamed debates about land reform, and the possible role of white citizens in preventing equitable redress from unfolding, says the writer. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency/ANA

In the context of growing, popular calls to “Give us back our land” and “Expropriation without compensation”, the findings by AgriSA in its recent land audit report raise more questions than answers. Have they really considered what lies behind the calls? And, what exactly should be “given” back?
What the AgriSA survey shows is that there is a lack of reliable data on land ownership patterns and a lack of agreement on how best to measure progress.

AgriSA proposes that an alternative measure to number of hectares distributed should be distribution of the asset value. This is a significant proposal because a focus on only measuring hectares transferred averts discussions about the real value of land in the property system of the economy and its impact on wealth inequality and inclusive growth. So far, the lack of data about land ownership patterns and wealth inequality has inflamed debates about land reform, and the possible role of white citizens in preventing equitable redress from unfolding. Arguments around this continue, perhaps opportunistically or naively, to be framed at the level of racial inequity with limited attention to the important economic measures at play.

A critical question about the land asset needs to be explored much more deeply: “When and how does land in South Africa become a valuable asset in formal wealth measures?”

AgriSA has suggested a certain method for calculating this value but in doing this it revives the private property debate. The constitution, while protecting private property, gives the right to equitable access to land and the right to secure tenure.

It does not propose that everyone has the right to private property or “ownership”. It is the dominant neo-liberal economic lobby groups, among which AgriSA falls, that want us to believe that an ideal outcome of land reform is ownership of private property. So, despite growing international concerns around these economic ideas, the current private property rights ironically remain sacrosanct amid the rhetoric of radical economic transformation.

Interestingly, expropriation without compensation will not necessarily radically transform the existence of private property rights or the system that upholds these types of rights. The fears expressed around expropriation have more to do with its possible impact on the asset value of the property rights.

Property is a concept that has continued to evolve over centuries. It has never been a static system. It has a history that saw various systems across the world allocate and amend rights between people, over things, in different ways, for different, and locally specific, political and economic reasons.

The focus of debates on how to get more people into the existing property system should perhaps rather be on how the property system might be reconstituted to properly meet the needs of the democratic economy. The current property system was created to serve a particular historical political and economic system. Does it have the capacity to serve the current political economy and its objectives?

The land reform agenda then has to be a deliberately political and economic one if it is to redress a history of deliberate and extreme dispossession. This deprivation process led to a situation of dire poverty and inequality, which persists today.

The report by the High Level Panel (HLP) drives home the concern that South Africa remains a highly unequal society in terms of wealth and income. The report emphasises the point that stubborn inequality is a critical factor in inhibiting inclusive growth and ensuring stability.

The HLP report pegs 10% of our population as owning 90-95% of all assets. Inequality is about inequitable access to wealth across the entire population.

What this means is that if 90% of assets were owned by 10% of black South Africans, this would still be a highly unequal economy.

There is growing global research and evidence that markets will not necessarily self-regulate towards equitable distribution, especially where the underlying wealth distribution is highly skewed. This means that if there is no specific intervention by governments to regulate against inequality, those who already own assets will steadily become wealthier and economies will become increasingly unequal.

So, the AgriSA report, while trying to address a gap in our information about land ownership, raises many other questions. The first is what constitutes “black South Africans” and why are they treated as one big homogenous and classless group? Second, what constitutes land “ownership” and why is this a useful measure of economic transformation? Third, why focus on agricultural land when land access is about so many other livelihood and human settlement needs.

South Africa’s skewed land ownership pattern, which has been incorporated as a tradeable asset, is viewed as a critical obstacle to a more equitable society and a more stable and inclusive economy.

This form of ownership has value in our economic system through the process of surveying of pieces, registration at the Deeds Office and the ability to trade with it on the market.

Apartheid resulted in deliberate racial exclusion from an important part of the economy that creates wealth. The question remains - how to redress this part of the economy’s asset inequality and exclusion effectively and efficiently?

It seems impractical and financially unfeasible to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth through a land reform programme that supports each citizen to buy into the existing property system, by buying out existing property rights. More innovative mechanisms for wealth redistribution are required that reduce inequality from both ends of the wealth spectrum by changing the way land can be valued and how people can access the property system. This could include taxations, limiting types of land uses, capping land ownership, adopting a “use or lose it” principle, introducing new types of land rights that can be given value, and even setting a minimum level of land rights and land access for every citizen. The land reform programme attempts to amend the existing property system have faced fierce resistance from the proponents of private property.

An example is the new land rights giving more secure tenure to tenants and occupiers on other people’s private property. However, these rights are not recognised as having asset value in the property system. Private property owners continue to view these rights as devaluing the private property land asset. Wide-scale evictions and conflicts over land rights have resulted.

A further concern in the wealth equity debate is whether it really matters if black South Africans own 30%, if we can’t show who benefits from the “ownership” of this asset? If land is a mechanism to achieve more equity in wealth then how many South Africans should get access to what types of land rights? These questions must be opened up now for further consideration if land is the key.

* Del Grande is an independent researcher, land activist and rural development planner.

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

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