Property rights are key - IOL

3 January 2018 - Given the resolution taken at the ANC’s national conference on pushing for ‘expropriation without compensation’, it was fitting that The Star ended the year with Lisa Del Grande’s most interesting contribution on land reform.

She is quite correct to highlight the mix of complexities, information gaps and lapses in conceptual clarity that bedevil our understanding of land and agrarian matters in South Africa. To which one might add a positive refusal to hear narratives or evidence that challenge existing beliefs. She is wholeheartedly to be supported in her pleas for various issues to be debated. At present, far too little real debate is happening around them. Rather, we have become trapped in discourses fuelled by ideology and emotion.

This is particularly the case in relation to agricultural land-holding and land reform. Nationalist movements worldwide have tended to idealise their rural populations as the bearers of pure and authentic cultural and historical experience. Drawing a livelihood off ‘the land’ exerts a powerful ideological pull long after (perhaps because…?) a country’s political centre of gravity has become urban. This outcome is invariably very bad policy.

One area where sober reflection is often displaced by emotion is the discussion of private property rights. The notion that the ‘property clause’ in the Constitution has undermined land reform has been an article of faith in some quarters since the 1990s, although there is very little evidence to substantiate this contention.

Indeed, worldwide, giving people (particularly those engaged in farming) security in their landholdings is recognised as a social good and economic necessity. It is true that this can take any number of forms other than freehold ownership. The land certification programme in Ethiopia or petits papiers in Madagascar are prime examples. Indeed, this may make more sense in the short term than formal titling, particularly in areas where communal property regimes dominate. Titling can be complex and disruptive, and can be a daunting move for those unfamiliar with it and its implications.

That said, freehold, titled ownership confers important benefits, notably that it can be used for collateral or commercial ventures. It is the companion of growth and innovation, and intrinsic to the business models of commercial famers, be they ‘established’ or ‘emergent’. A land reform process needs to make property rights possible to those who have been denied them in the past – and certainly to those with aspirations to leverage them for their own prosperity.

At present, however, government policy is, if anything, hostile to private ownership. This is clear in the 2013 State Land Lease and Disposal Policy, which aims at creating tenants of the state, rather than nurturing owners. The reality is that the state simply does not have the administrative capacity to manage a large portfolio of landholdings, or to provide the support that small-scale farmers may need. Indeed, some very unsettling research in the Eastern Cape has shown how land reform ‘beneficiaries’ and former farmworkers have effectively been reduced to squatting on state land.

This is a reality that should give pause to any consideration of granting the state more intrusive powers over private property owners.

A successful and amicable land reform process is possible, even if it is no easy proposition. The solution is to move towards more secure property rights, coupled with real support for new farmers – support that can best be found among the established farming community, rather than among state officials. On this point at least, the evidence seems quite clear.

* Corrigan is Policy Fellow qat the Institute of Race Relations
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.