South Africa needs to hold a referendum on the ‘land question’. That at least is the word from Gcobani Ndzongana, leader of the Land Party.
The Land Party is not a well-known feature of South Africa’s political landscape. Ndzongana led community protests in Zwelihle in Hermanus in 2018, with the party being a follow-on project. It secured no seats in the 2019 election. Contrary to what might be inferred from its name and iconography (and photos on its social media accounts suggesting closeness to the EFF), its positions don’t seem to lean towards the populist left.
At least that is the impression one gains from its 2019 Manifesto. It weighs in against the cornerstone of the ‘land politics’ agenda – as some of its proponents have defined it – by saying that ‘irresponsible statements by the ANC of [sic] land expropriation without compensation have chased investors away and contributed to grinding our economy to a halt’. The party pledges to amend the Constitution ‘to strengthen private property rights’. It also commits to abolishing capital gains tax and removing ‘small and irritating’ taxes. And it says it will abolish VAT exemptions and that personal taxes may be increased: (not a message most will want to hear).
So exactly what the Land Party would hope to achieve through a referendum is unclear.
But the idea of putting the ‘land question’ to the public in this form is not a new one. From time to time, it has been pushed out as a challenge to those – like myself – who have opposed EWC. The assumption is that it is self-evident that ‘the majority’ or ‘the people’ (according to idiomatic taste) would opt overwhelmingly to give the state enhanced powers of confiscation. So be careful, the subtext went. Oppose the plans championed by the reformist administration of President Ramaphosa at your peril. If ‘the people’ step in, they’ll demand it all, EFF style.
Well, not necessarily.
The reality – if opinion polling is any guide – is that the ‘land question’ barely registers as a societal concern. Afrobarometer’s 2021 survey of South Africa puts this into perspective. Afrobarometer oversees one of the largest, most comprehensive, and longest running polling operations in the country, and has done so regularly since the 1990s. Respondents were asked to name three issues that they considered priority concerns for the government to deal with. Only 1.5% of those polled named land, making it easily one of the least often identified issues.
Indeed, it is telling how land featured as a first, second and third priority in the poll’s outcome. As a first priority, out of a total of 27 identified by the respondents, only 0.5% chose land; and only five issues attracted fewer responses. As a second priority, of the 30 issues identified, again only 0.5% picked land. Here, nine issues were chosen by fewer respondents. And as a third priority, of the 31 issues identified, nine were chosen by fewer respondents than land.
In the same round, Afrobarometer probed land demand from another angle, asking where the government should prioritise land redistribution or the provision of housing. Here, in a binary choice, housing won out convincingly. Some 76% of responded opted for housing as a priority over land, as opposed to 16% who chose the reverse. The remainder had no response.
The relative unimportance of land as a political issue for most people has been confirmed by other polling, including that of the Institute of Race Relations. In 2018 and 2020, at the height of the EWC drive, only 4% of respondents identified land reform as one of their two top priorities.
The Human Sciences Research Council, whose detailed survey results are not public, has nevertheless shown similarly modest demand for land reform, mirroring the IRR findings. A media release on an analysis of its 2017 findings (the latest apparently available) commented: ‘In late 2017, land reform issues were mentioned as a national priority by fewer than 5% of South African adults. From a rank order perspective, land did not even feature in the top ten cited priorities, being placed 14th by adults. This pattern also did not alter appreciably over the last fifteen years, with the percentage citing land reform as a national priority varying in a small range between 2% and 4% over this period on aggregate.’
So, land reform is rejected, and there is no constituency for EWC? Not entirely. To enquire about priorities is to gauge people’s perceptions of what they would like to see done with a view to improving their own circumstances. At the risk of some caricaturing, it probes whether people expect it to do much for them, and the answer is overwhelmingly ‘no’. However, it does not address the rather more abstract or political question of whether people feel that land reform as a policy is necessary for South Africa; in other words, whether someone else will benefit from it.
Here support is stronger. A deep-dive survey on the issue in late 2018 sought to understand South Africans’ views on the issue. Endorsement for various permutations of land reform commanded a large majority: 22% supported ‘willing buyer-willing seller’ only; 29% supported redistributing state land; and 30% supported outright seizure of land from white owners without payment.
On the specific question of EWC, the poll found that 73% of respondents had heard of the concept, and 27% had not. Of the part that had, comfortably more than half opposed it (the 73% who were aware was split 30% in favour, 41% against, and 3% don’t know. (Note, rounding takes the sum of these figures over 73%).
And asked directly, whether respondents would accept having their family’s property taken without compensation, only 9% assented.
The Institute of Justice and Reconciliation, also in 2018, found that 68% of South Africans supported land reform of some description; 63% viewed it as important to the reconciliation process; and 64% perceived it as important to dealing with inequality.
The HSRC, meanwhile, finds substantial support for the principle of land reform. In 2017, this stood at an unassailable 68%, although the HSRC noted that when seen alongside its poor showing among people’s priorities, this made it largely ‘symbolic’. This is a fair reflection of the cumulative message of all the polling.
This presents two related questions: what would a referendum ask and what would it seek to achieve?
Referenda are large, complicated and expensive endeavours, and for that reason – in most countries, anyway – they are held sparingly and on issues that lend themselves to binary choices. So, for example, the landmark (or notorious) 2016 referendum went: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’
What exactly would a referendum on the ‘land question’ be after? To establish whether it is the most important issue in the country, or whether people are in favour of it? But we pretty much know the answer to that, and (broadly speaking) they inform the approach to land reform: a programme exists, as a distinctly second-rate priority – and (like much of what passes for governance), it is not carried out with much efficiency.
Would a referendum ask whether South Africa’s people are satisfied with the land reform programme? Well, once again, the answer is quite apparent from polling from the HSRC (no, they are not), and it’s doubtful that asking the public to vote on it would be useful.
How about asking whether South Africans ‘want’ Expropriation without Compensation? (Is this what the Land Party is after?) But would an assent to the proposition imply carte blanche for the State to do as it wishes? Is the taking of property without payment to be rejected in every instance? What then of the abandoned but technically owned properties that blight inner cities?
What safeguards might be put in place, and how would they be catered for in any referendum question – perhaps an option for ‘Yes, I agree to EWC, provided it’s never directed at me’?
Flippant as the latter suggestion may be, it highlights the essential problems involved in deciding issues by referendum: a complicated multi-faceted matter is not easily expressed in a binary choice. Nor is that choice necessarily disconnected from any number of other impulses that constitute a society’s governance. A question about the value of a piece of legislation (or the advisability of abridging property rights) can easily become a plebiscite about those proposing it. Or about a complicated history, contemporary frustrations or reckless appeals to emotion.
Tough matters demand serious public debate, by political and economic leaders and by the public at large. They do not lend themselves to simple and definitive resolution. Referenda are a hazardous and impractical course of action for something like South Africa’s fraught land politics, and if the Land Party hopes to find a productive way forward, its suggestion is entirely misplaced.
[Photo: By Land Party – https://www.landparty.org.za, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60421728]