File picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)
Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Ms Lindiwe Sisulu responded to US President Donald Trump’s tweet on South Africa’s land politics by attacking “false and exaggerated information and conclusions that have been disproved many times by concrete facts”.

We agree wholeheartedly that empirical evidence must be at the heart of any meaningful debate and of the policy that emerges from it.

For this reason, it is disappointing to see that even as President Trump is taken to task for supposedly being economical with the truth, a long-standing canard has been aggressively advanced to answer him.

At issue here is land ownership, specifically what the state’s land audit - released earlier this year - had to say about what proportions of the country’s land were owned by people of different races.

Ms Sisulu asserts that South Africa’s “apartheid legacy means that today, 72% of agricultural land is owned by white people; 15% by coloured people; 5% by Indian people; and 4% by African people”. Exactly the same information has been used by a number of other commentators.

It has been pointed out on numerous occasions that this is incorrect.

The land audit does not make this claim. It found that it was impossible to assign any racial identity to ownership for more than two-thirds of rural land.

This is because most is owned by the state, and by companies, trusts and community property associations.

The figures Ms Sisulu and others cite is valid (at least within the context of the audit report) only to land held by private individuals, registered at the deeds office (about 31% of the country).

Certainly, this shows the imprint of the apartheid legacy. These figures reflect past and current practices. Under colonial and apartheid rule, freehold title was typically denied to Africans.

Land they did have access to was held “in trust”, by the state or by traditional leaders. It also reflects dynamics at work since 1994.

Landholding through trusts and companies is a growing trend - it would be interesting to know whether President Ramaphosa’s landholdings are “black-owned”.

Land transferred to beneficiaries via land reform had invariably been to trusts and community property associations - and so is not captured in the racial data.

Moreover, it has been state policy for some years not to transfer land to beneficiaries for redistribution, but rather to have them exist as tenants of the state.

And little has been done to grant ownership of the land to which they had “access” to the millions of Africans living in the former homelands.

This is classed as state land. Given the assurances made to traditional leaders that they will not be dispossessed in the envisaged land reform process, it seems that this is unlikely to change.

We have been critical of the accuracy of the land audit, but believe there is a responsibility to represent what it says and not what might make for a sensational soundbite. It is of particular concern when those in positions of authority fail in this regard.

Corrigan is the project manager at the Institute of Race Relations