The lie of the land


In the context of growing popular calls to “Give us back our Land” and “Expropriation without compensation”, the findings by AgriSA, in their recent Land Audit report, raise more questions than answers. Have they really considered what lies behind the call to “Give us back our land”?  Who is the “us” and “our” in this call? Which “land” is being referred to?  And, what exactly should be “given” back?  

What the AgriSA survey tells us 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 in South Africa- “When and how does land in South Africa become a valuable asset in formal wealth measures?”  AgriSA have suggested a certain method for calculating this value but in doing this they resurface 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 have the right to private property or “ownership”.  It is the dominant neoliberal economic lobby groups, among which Agri SA fall, 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 in South Africa ironically remains sacrosanct amidst 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. This debate really needs to unfold.  It is an opportunity for South Africa to critically explore and debate the issue of private property once again, with a serious focus on its role in equitable wealth creation.

Property is a concept that has continued to evolve over centuries. It has never been a static system. It has a history that saw different 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 current 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 in South Africa 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 lead to a situation of dire poverty and inequality, which persists today. The recent report released 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 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 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, then 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, actually raises many other questions. The first, is what constitutes “black South Africans” and why are they treated as one big homogenous and classless group? Secondly, what constitutes land “ownership” and why is this a useful measure of economic transformation? Thirdly, 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. AgriSA suggests that progress in Land Reform be measured through the redistribution of this asset value. The question remains now- how to redress this part of the national 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 in the system and how people can access the property system. This could include taxations, limiting types of land uses, capping land ownership, adopting a “use of 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 has faced fierce resistance from the proponents of private property.

An example are the new land rights giving more secure tenure to tenants and occupiers on other peoples private property. However, these rights are not recognised as having asset value in the property system. Instead, private property owners continue to view these new land rights as devaluing the private property land asset. Wide scale evictions and conflicts over land rights has 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 actually benefits from the “ownership” of this asset? If it is a simple measure of equity between race groups as a whole, then the target should surely be 89% of the land owned by any black South Africans, even if it is just one person who owns it all.  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.

There is little doubt that South Africa requires radical targeted interventions if it wishes to transform the state of inequality in the country.  However, to do this probably means letting go of dated economic assumptions that threaten doom if the property system is changed.  If the current property system is unable to absorb the majority of citizens so that there is a more equitable share of the value of land as an asset, then surely the property system must be unbundled and reconstituted so that it meets the needs of all citizens. The value that the current 10% of asset owners might lose through this process of change must be weighed up against the value that 90% of the population stand to gain.  

Lisa Del Grande is and independent researcher, land activist and rural development planner who has worked in the Land Reform field for the past 20 years