Gov­ern­ment land is cen­tral to land re­form


WITH politi­cians spew­ing an­tiprop­erty rights rhetoric, we could but won­der what ex­actly sets the demo­cratic gov­ern­ment apart from the for­mer apartheid regime.

The cen­tral fea­ture of apartheid was a de­nial of prop­erty rights to black South Africans, a tra­di­tion that the demo­cratic gov­ern­ment has con­tin­ued.

Just as it was un­der the Na­tional Party in the past, the gov­ern­ment to­day still con­trols a sub­stan­tial amount of land in South Africa. For most of the his­tor­i­cally black ar­eas, this re­mains es­pe­cially true.

In 2001, the De­mo­graphic In­for­ma­tion Group and Pop­u­la­tion of South Africa found that a quar­ter of land in South Africa was owned by mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment. Ac­cord­ing to the De­part­ment of Land Af­fairs, in 2009, na­tional and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments owned about 25 mil­lion hectares of land.

By 2013, the to­tal state-own­er­ship of land ap­pears to have de­creased to about 14% of all land in the coun­try.

It re­mains un­clear, how­ever, for which de­part­ments, and what pur­poses, land is be­ing held. As re­cently as 2007, some de­part­ments did not know that they had been al­lot­ted land as re­flected in the Deeds Registry. This, I be­lieve, can be partly at­trib­uted to the com­plex and con­fus­ing na­ture of apartheid land law in­her­ited by the gov­ern­ment.

But that is only part of the rea­son. Rhetoric aside, the state seems to have an ap­par­ent lack of in­ter­est in land re­form.

The con­tro­ver­sial Ex­pro­pri­a­tion Act ex­em­pli­fies how the state seeks to avoid land re­form in a sub­stan­tive sense. The lack of trans­parency about which de­part­ments own which land and for what pur­pose weak­ens the façade that the state is com­mit­ted to eq­ui­table ac­cess to land.

Rather than dis­trib­ute prop­erty that be­longs to our mas­sive bu­reau­cracy of a gov­ern­ment to the peo­ple, the po­lit­i­cal class con­tin­ues to en­gage in racial dem­a­goguery on the is­sue of land.

It would cost the gov­ern­ment very lit­tle to hand its idle prop­erty over to de­serv­ing, poor, pre­vi­ously dis­ad­van­taged in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies. The best way to start this process would be by giv­ing ti­tle deeds to those in­di­vid­u­als al­ready oc­cu­py­ing state land; a so-called “ten­ure up­grade”.

Prop­erty rights are a pre­req­ui­site for a pros­per­ous so­ci­ety. No true in­vest­ment or devel­op­ment takes place – ever, or any­where – if po­ten­tial in­vestors or hold­ers of prop­erty are un­cer­tain about the fu­ture or se­cu­rity of their prop­erty. Noth­ing brings more un­cer­tainty and un­easi­ness than a law which in­cludes the word “ex­pro­pri­a­tion” in its name.

The In­de­pen­dent En­trepreneur­ship Group rec­om­mends that land force­fully taken by the apartheid regime which re­mains in state own­er­ship to­day should be “re­turned to the dis­en­fran­chised un­der a sys­tem of prop­erty-ti­tling and pri­vate own­er­ship”. Pri­vate own­er­ship of prop­erty would be a sure way to pro­pel the South African ma­jor­ity out of poverty.

Politi­cians as­sume that poor, land­less South Africans want the state to “own” prop­erty on their be­half, rather than them own­ing it in­di­vid­u­ally. Al­most as if the state and the ci­ti­zen are in a par­ent-child re­la­tion­ship.

The in­nate de­sire to own the prop­erty on which we live and the wealth-gen­er­at­ing prop­erty with which we work, how­ever, is a dif­fi­cult thing to sup­press, hence why de­cep­tive rhetor­i­cal de­vices and fun slo­gans are em­ployed – think “white mo­nop­oly cap­i­tal”, “ex­pro­pri­a­tion with­out com­pen­sa­tion”, etc. And it does not mat­ter which party we’re talk­ing about – very few, if any, of them truly be­lieve in se­cure prop­erty rights. At worst, they seek to­tal state own­er­ship or “cus­to­di­an­ship” and, at best, a sub­stan­tial reg­u­la­tory role for gov­ern­ment.

The po­lit­i­cal class and civil so­ci­ety con­tinue to ap­proach land re­form through a state-cen­tric lens, and this is the pri­mary ob­sta­cle to mean­ing­ful em­pow­er­ment for the land­less poor. Our fo­cus should be on em­pow­er­ing in­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties, not ex­pand­ing gov­ern­ment reach and power.

Van Staden is a le­gal re­searcher at the Free Mar­ket Foun­da­tion and aca­demic pro­grammes di­rec­tor of Stu­dents For Lib­erty in South­ern Africa.

There is also de­bate con­cern­ing if hunters can re­li­ably age and sex leop­ards.

A piece of land that has been suc­cess­fully claimed through the lands claims process. The writer says the gov­ern­ment to­day still con­trols a sub­stan­tial amount of land in South Africa.

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