If South Africa remains on its present ‘land reform’ course, we shall pay a steep price for it.

The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has for a long time been challenged on its assertion that land reform is not a key priority for South Africa’s people. This, our detractors have suggested, was counterintuitive, if not downright dishonest. 

As one correspondent wrote in Business Day in a letter which challenged us directly, ‘there is no shortage of evidence that land reform is a priority for most South Africans. They are hungry for land, be it for economic or residential purposes.’

It’s not clear what evidence he is referring to. Anecdotes perhaps? Most survey evidence speaks strongly against this. Our polling in 2018 and 2019, for example, suggests that between 3% and 5% of South Africans view it as a priority for improving their own life circumstances (this being a combination of the first and second priorities asked of respondents). 

Afrobarometer’s polling in 2018 put the proportion of South Africans regarding land as a priority issue for government’s attention at around 7% (first, second as well as third priorities).

For its part, government has never treated it as a priority. It has devoted less than 1% of the budget to it annually, with future provision unlikely to increase by much, at least if projections given in last year’s Budget Review are anything to go by. Former President Thabo Mbeki addressed the matter in a recent interview, saying that the African National Congress (ANC) had not seen much evidence that there was pressure for extensive land redistribution. ‘You are assuming the problem,’ he said to his interlocutor.

Moreover, for all the visibility it had attracted over the past eighteen months – in which ‘the land question’, and its putative solution, expropriation without compensation (EWC) dominated politics – it was notable how little land reform actually featured in the recent election campaign. Parties pitched their appeals far more fulsomely at issues like employment (the staple since 1994), education and ‘dealing with’ corruption. These are the concerns of a rapidly urbanising society, whose people aspire to a middle class lifestyle. 

But the fact that land reform is not a priority – it is not what most people would wish to see attended to urgently, addressed before other things, or occupying an elevated position in the hierarchy of their needs – is not to deny its importance. 

South Africa’s ‘land question’ references some profound wrongs in the country’s past. Not least were the millions – and the numbers did run into millions – of people who were forcibly shifted to comply with discriminatory edicts. It is a matter of historical justice that where such instances are identified, appropriate restitution be made. 

And, as the experience of Taiwan and South Korea demonstrates, well-planned and skilfully executed land reform has the potential to deliver real economic gains. 

Moreover, land reform – or, better expressed, land politics – was consciously elevated to the centre of political debate last year. If for no other reason than its ideological resonance or its sheer recognisability, land is an issue about which many people may have developed an interest. 

In that sense, it would not be accurate to claim that land reform is an issue of no meaning, or – by implication – one that can be ignored. This we have never done, and do not suggest.

Tough choices are an inevitable responsibility of leadership in governance. The enduring challenge in statecraft is to bring these various public interests and their varying public demands into alignment with one another. 

Acknowledging how issues are arranged in the public consciousness is crucial for setting a governance agenda that will emphasise those issues that are of greatest concern to the public. This is merely prudent policymaking. Perhaps Mr Mbeki said it best when he remarked on the ANC’s course of action: ‘I would have preferred, before we come to resolutions, to understand the nature of the challenge. Once you understand it, you say what the action is you will take.’

And sometimes policy streams are baldly contradictory – following one may undermine the prospects of achieving another. Indeed, it is this that has informed the IRR’s stubborn opposition to the chimera proposed to deal with land reform. This is, of course, EWC. Offering nothing to deal with the actual problems dogging land reform, it stands to inflict vicious damage on the country’s economy. Indeed, the mere threat of it has already done so, for little so dissuades investors and entrepreneurs as degrading property rights. And in so doing, it has undermined – and will continue to undermine – the prospects for economic growth and for expanding employment opportunities.

Regrettably, while statecraft requires a mature acknowledgment of contradictions and trade-offs, and steering through them, raw politics does not. And the debate around land has fundamentally been driven by politics. It has all too often been a venal, zero-sum affair, geared towards ideological satisfaction rather than productive outcomes. If South Africa remains on this course, we shall pay a steep price for it.

Rather, what we advocate is a land reform programme managed by a competent administration, and aimed directly at the enhancement of property rights. A programme that is sensitive to history, but oriented towards the future, and which recognises the limitations to the contribution the landed economy can make. It also acknowledges the very severe consequences of destroying what currently exists – both in the farming sector and much else besides.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).

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Terence Corrigan
Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.

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