Lies, damn lies and government in­nu­mer­acy

Weekend Witness - - Opinion - With WIL­LIAM SAUN­DER­SON-MEYER

DE­PEND­ABLE statis­tics are crit­i­cal to mod­ern government. With­out them, delu­sion, wish­ful think­ing and pol­icy chaos reign. Re­cent data re­veals a se­ri­ous flaw in the way that the government is tack­ling land-own­er­ship re­dress. It shows that the resti­tu­tion process dis­torts crit­i­cally the mea­sure that the African Na­tional Congress has cho­sen to as­sess progress on this crit­i­cal and emo­tion­ally charged is­sue.

At present, suc­cess­ful claimants are given an op­tion be­tween land — for prac­ti­cal rea­sons, not al­ways the land they were de­prived of — or the equiv­a­lent mon­e­tary com­pen­sa­tion. This “money-or-the-box” choice has sig­nif­i­cant dis­ad­van­tages.

The first is that it makes it vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to achieve the goal of 30% of “white” land — as­serted to be 87% of South Africa — to be trans­ferred into black own­er­ship.

So far, 2,8 mil­lion hectares have been re­dis­tributed at a cost of R13 bil­lion, or R4,693 per hectare. This rep­re­sents a mere eight per­cent of to­tal agri­cul­tural land and a dis­mal 26% of the government’s tar­get.

Fail­ure to reach that tar­get is the rea­son why the ANC is con­tem­plat­ing com­pul­sory ex­pro­pri­a­tion. But it emerges from an In­sti­tute of Race Re­la­tions sur­vey that on top of the R13 bil­lion, an­other R6 bil­lion was paid in fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion to black claimants.

If this had not been paid out, but in­stead had been used to buy land, an ad­di­tional 1,3 mil­lion hectares could have been trans­ferred, tak­ing the government’s progress to­wards its goal to over the 40% mark. That might not be enough to sat­isfy the ANC’s land­hun­gry sup­port base, but it’s not too shabby, given that the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion pegs 40% as a rea­son­able pass for ma­tric pupils.

It is, of course, the demo­cratic right of suc­cess­ful claimants to take the money in­stead of the land, but their de­ci­sion needs to be fac­tored into land-own­er­ship per­cent­ages.

A sec­ond dis­ad­van­tage of the cur­rent resti­tu­tion process is that paying out claimants slakes land hunger tem­po­rar­ily, but it does not re­solve it. Cash that is not in­vested in pro­duc­tive as­sets tends to evap­o­rate on con­sumer prod­ucts and in a few years the money is likely spent.

Whiteys, how­ever, are still very vis­i­bly sit- ting on the land, which makes dou­ble-dip­ping po­lit­i­cally ir­re­sistible. That is partly why there is pres­sure on the ANC to re­open the land­claim process, which had as its cut-off date dis­pos­ses­sions go­ing back to 1913, the year that the Land Act was passed.

The com­plex­ion of who owns the land and how to keep feed­ing a bur­geon­ing pop­u­la­tion de­mands that the ANC bal­ance emo­tion with prag­ma­tism. Sta­tis­ti­cal dis­tor­tions — ei­ther de­lib­er­ate by politi­cians of ev­ery hue or in­ad­ver­tent, stem­ming from out-of-date as­sump­tions and flawed ex­trap­o­la­tions — should not be al­lowed to be­devil mat­ters fur­ther.

For ex­am­ple, if the ANC used a range of per­for­mance cri­te­ria, in­stead of re­duc­ing land re­form to the sin­gle, sim­plis­tic mea­sure of 30% “white” land re­claimed, it might pat it­self on the back.

By March 2011, the government had set­tled 76 229 claims, in­volv­ing more than 1,6 mil­lion ben­e­fi­cia­ries, rep­re­sent­ing 96% of the to­tal valid claims.

On the other side of the fence, farmer or­gan­i­sa­tions ar­gue, some­what disin­gen­u­ously, that if all state land — an es­ti­mated 25% of South Africa — was pre­vi­ously “white”, it now is “black”, in that government could re­dis­tribute it at the stroke of a pen. Add in al­ready re­stored land and re­dis­tributed land — sep­a­rate pro­cesses with dif­fer­ent bud­gets — as well as the un­known but ap­par­ently sig­nif­i­cant amount of land trans­ferred pri­vately, and black land own­er­ship con­ceiv­ably is in the 40 to 50% range. But we ac­tu­ally just don’t know.

What­ever pro­ce­dural changes there might need to be, such as con­tro­ver­sially aban­don­ing the “will­ing buyer, will­ing seller” pol­icy, Land Af­fairs needs to work with cred­i­ble statis­tics. A full land au­dit would be a good start.

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