Justice and rationality belong together - The Herald

17 April 2018 - ‘Land reform in South Africa will not make sense, economically.’ So says Dr Ismail Lagardien in a piece which otherwise has a great deal to commend it (‘Land reform a just measure’, 10 April 2018).

Terence Corrigan

 ‘Land reform in South Africa will not make sense, economically.’ So says Dr Ismail Lagardien in a piece which otherwise has a great deal to commend it (‘Land reform a just measure’, 10 April 2018).

Dr Lagardien is quite correct about the history of land dispossession – it is a painful and tragic topic wherever it has occurred. It is a powerful argument for land reform. Justice, rather than economic rationality, will drive land reform. ‘We may want to get used to this idea’, he adds.

One can’t avoid the implication that land reform will come with some painful costs and inevitable costs that we must be willing to bear for the higher ideal of a more just society.

This is questionable. There may be some ideological satisfaction and a sense of justice in ‘taking back’ the land, but unless the economic imperatives are kept firmly in mind, it is likely to be a pyrrhic and transitory satisfaction. The challenge for South Africa is to blend the legitimate demand for redress for historical (and current) wrongs with the imperatives of economic value. Failure to do so will mean failed land reform.

To say, as Dr Lagardien does, that ‘land reform will happen’, is to miss a key point. Land reform has been happening in South Africa – just with very disappointing results. (More disappointing than the failure to transfer larger quantities of land has been the failure of many projects to provide beneficiaries with the prosperity that may have been hoped for.) The reasons for this have been studied often enough: indifferent political will, a lack of budget, poor post-settlement support and so on. Indeed, for all the rhetoric that now surrounds it, land reform has never been a priority for government.

What is unconscionable is that government has made little effort to use its land reform programme to help black people – more specifically, Africans – become property owners. The High Level Panel into Transformative Legislation chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe protested the policy that ‘defaulted’ to colonial- and apartheid-style reasoning that denied property rights to black people. And Prof Ruth Hall described the State Land Lease and Disposal Policy – the framework for redistribution – as ‘a policy that says that black people are not to be trusted with land.’

Besides, the issue of land and land ownership, especially as regards the farming economy, is but one of many that confront South Africa, and each one of these can make its appeal in an idiom of justice. Poverty and the economic exclusion of South Africans who do not live on the land – and have no desire to do so – is a case in point.

South Africa is an urbanising society, with nearly two thirds of its population living in its towns and cities. This is where its future will be. Even the former minister of rural development and land reform conceded this in remarking on the reluctance of many land reform beneficiaries to take up farming: ‘We no longer have a peasantry; we have wage earners now.’

The urban population depends on a sound agricultural economy for many things, and not just for the food supply. Agricultural value chains employ large numbers of people, and agricultural exports help to maintain our sometimes tenuous balance of payments. Indeed, the ability to export agricultural produce and agricultural products makes possible the food imports – including large quantities of staples like rice and wheat – with which we feed ourselves.

Disruptive, poorly thought through and ideologically-driven land reform – in other words, a programme that dispenses with economic considerations – will hit the agricultural and farming sectors hard. It will also hit the country’s non-farm population as the agricultural supply lines to the cities shrivel. Poor people, who already spend around a third of their income on food, would be especially hard hit.

It is difficult to justify any programme – no matter its intentions – that undermines the foundations and prospects of the economy at large. For that matter, to do so would inflict a significant injustice on the country’s most vulnerable.

This is, of course, not an argument against land reform – it is a plea for this to be done sensibly, with due consideration for its economic outcomes, with realistic planning and with proper support for beneficiaries. It is also an appeal for policy to seek to empower people to pursue their own prosperity, by making them owners of their landholdings, and not mere tenants of the state.

Indeed, one could do worse than to quote Dr Lagadien’s own words. A few weeks back, he authored a piece which asked Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader Julius Malema to provide proof for his assertions that land in South Africa was ‘stolen’ and that nationalisation would be a cure all for South Africa’s problems. Among his concluding statements was this: ‘Some of the most successful of political economic reforms across history began with land reform. The point is to avoid violence, bloodshed and vengefulness and, of course, self-enrichment by corpulent cadres.’ To which one might add, ‘and to promote robust economic activity’. 

Economic rationality does not exist apart from justice – it is an intrinsic part of it.

Terence Corrigan is a Project Manager at the Institute of Race Relations