In this file picture, Koos Mthimkhulu inspects his crop at his farm in Senekal in the Free State, an area picked by the post-1994 government for a land reform programme. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
In this file picture, Koos Mthimkhulu inspects his crop at his farm in Senekal in the Free State, an area picked by the post-1994 government for a land reform programme. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Opinion: Land reform needs more action and less talk

By Douglas Gibson Time of article published Oct 1, 2019

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On Heritage Day, President Cyril Ramaphosa stated: “Land is dignity”.

EFF leader Julius Malema opined: “Heritage Day means nothing without the return of the land.”

Both were exaggerating. Land does not necessarily confer dignity. Our Constitution protects and promotes human dignity and the rights and freedoms of all of us. Nowhere does it provide that if we have no land, we have no dignity.

Malema’s idea of the return of the land is the abolition of private ownership, with each of us becoming tenants of the state. Hardly the recipe for dignity. Despite this, it is one of the hallmarks of free societies and constitutional democracies that people should be able to own, occupy, sell, lease or mortgage land, and have their rights protected.

Land reform has been a disastrous failure. Anyone who expects it to improve will be disappointed. One read over the weekend about hundreds of thousands of properties the state owns but does not know the addresses, the extent or the value. Many could be sold or given to landless people if we really do care.

Land does not only mean farm land. It also includes land in townships, rural and urban.

Almost 40 years ago, the PW Botha government, realising that change was necessary, appointed a commission of inquiry, known as the Venter Commission, into township development. Colin Eglin and I were appointed to represent the PFP, together with a swathe of National Party politicians. Eglin was a senior parliamentarian and a practising land surveyor. I was the leader of the opposition in the Transvaal Provincial Council, and also a practising attorney and conveyancer.

I started off as a minority of one determined to persuade the commission to recommend the marriage of the two deeds registry systems into one system for all. South Africa had one of the best deeds registry systems in the world for white people and an unsatisfactory system for black people. At the end of a year or so, the commission unanimously recommended that there be one system for all.

One of the problems we encountered was that much of the land occupied by black people had not been surveyed and, as a result, was not registrable and title deeds could not be issued. We made recommendations about overcoming the surveying problem and expediting the survey of land.

Forty years later, the ANC has done little to fix the problem. I understand that many RDP houses were built on unsurveyed land, perpetuating the problem that could have ceased to exist decades ago. The result is that, every now and then, 1 000 or so title deeds are handed over but hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who could become home owners are forgotten. Time for another Venter Commission of Inquiry?

I have not touched on the tribal land that ought to be made available to those who live on them and work them. The Kgalema Motlanthe recommendations, eminently sensible, have been dumped. Nor have I dealt with the looming disaster of the theft of private property under the guise of legitimacy by being called expropriation without compensation.

Why don’t we tackle what can be done and stop faffing around about land while doing nothing more than mouthing platitudes and idle promises?

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com

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