While this idea may have some moral purchase, it is less clear whether it offers a practicable solution for a constitutional state and a highly advanced economy.

A set of intriguing (if rather opaquely written) articles was recently carried on the BizNews website. Authored by Chuck Stephens of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership, they centre on the idea of ‘shrinking the cup’, something he apparently borrows from Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church.

In essence this is about voluntarism in the interests of the greater good. Stephens cites as an example of what he has in mind the Giving Pledge initiative – which encourages private and corporate philanthropy from the world’s great and good. It entails a call for the more affluent to sacrifice to ensure the ‘equalisation’ of society, and consequent prosperity and stability in future.

This he rolls together with discussions of landholding, farming, poverty, inequality and unemployment. Although not wanting to get ‘sidelined into an argument over statistics’, he calls attention to the disproportionate landholding by white people. The worst-case scenario, as he puts it, is that 72% of farmland is owned by 35 000 commercial (presumably white) farmers. As has been repeatedly pointed out, this represents a misreading of the government’s land audit, extrapolating its estimate for individually-owned and registered land (less than a third of the total) to the population as a whole.

He comes across as ambivalent about Expropriation without Compensation (EWC), calling rather for donations to a Jubilee Land Bank.

This concept echoes in many ways the call of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform. Its report calls for mechanisms to be established to accept donations of land. The report also envisages donation as an intermediate step on the road to expropriation: once the state has identified what it wants, landowners may wish to hand it over, failing which the government may expropriate. Donation under coercion in other words.

To be fair, Stephens would probably argue that his proposal is based on an appeal to moral conscience, and would seek to avoid the coercion that is explicit in EWC or implicit in the Panel’s report. There is a strong strain of religious optimism in the idea, as it is unambiguously indebted to the Old Testament (the Book of Leviticus) which proclaimed an occasional levelling of sorts across society, in a year of redistribution, debt forgiveness, liberty for slaves and so on.

This idea has actually been knocking about in theological circles for decades. And while it may have some moral purchase for a society in which the Christian faith exercises continued influence, it is less clear whether it offers a practicable solution for a constitutional state and a highly advanced economy.

One key problem, the trap into which Stephens himself seems unwittingly to fall, is whether such a programme could generate the scale of ‘donation’ that would alter the ‘unsustainable’ demographic patterns that are perceived to exist. In the absence of reliable information, the recourse is to resort to ‘worst case’ guestimates, as Stephens does – with implied demands for a consummate scale of transfer. Frankly, it’s doubtful that donations would ever match this. Indeed, there is no shortage of predatory politicians and interest groups that would then invoke this shortfall as proof of the recalcitrance of white farmers. The conciliatory purpose of the proposal, such as it is, may backfire badly.

He is quite correct to point to the national crisis of unemployment and exclusion. But once again, whether land (or agriculture) provides a way out is highly debatable. We are not a pastoral society in the early Biblical epoch. That the country is urbanising is a fact, and that relatively few  see their future secured through land reform or the farming economy is not a mere assertion by ‘whites’, but is demonstrated in official censuses and in survey evidence.

This is not to say that land reform does not hold out promise, only that its promise is limited. And landholding is only one of many variables involved in farming, and not the most troublesome one.

Indeed, Stephens commendably pays tribute to the country’s farmers, as those who feed it, provide hundreds of thousands with jobs, and make highly strategic economic contributions elsewhere. The Jubilee Land Bank’s plan stresses the need to keep land productive, to maximize its potential as a resource for as many people as possible. As Stephens no doubt appreciates, the country needs to hang on to its existing farmers, even as it encourages a new generation – of all colours and backgrounds.

Stephens remarks in respect of the agrarian disasters in Russia and China that at their roots lay bad state decisions. This is no less true in the case of South Africa, although, fortunately, we have not plumbed the depths of their experiences.

We need to change. Conceptually, we need to shift the focus from land to farming. We must understand the proper scale of need for agricultural land (still a vague area), and what proper and meaningful support can be made available to assist aspirant farmers to get going – or to expand. Part of this is financing. Another part is granting proper title to farmers. And expanding and maintaining rural infrastructure. And refusing to tolerate land invasions. All of this is dealt with in our IPULAZI plan.

And perhaps the idea of ‘shrinking the cup’ – with its connotations of sacrifice and contraction – is less than helpful. We need to expand the cup, and its contents. And as Stephens has argued elsewhere, South Africa is a great country, with the vigour and resourcefulness to do so.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

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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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