Mechanics of deprivation have been written into the Expropriation Bill - Businesslive

25 February 2019 - Property reform is overdue not only because access to tradeable assets was historically denied, but that it remains limited. Perversely, it is under renewed threat.

Michael Morris

I nearly fell off my chair in a recent radio debate when the host put it to me with levelling confidence: Isn’t the problem with giving poor black South Africans rights to property that they might just go and sell it the next morning?

If this was an invitation, as I sensed it was, to dispense with highfalutin principles and get to grips with reality instead, it struck me that when I replied, “Why on earth shouldn’t they?” I ran the risk of seeming to want to change the subject.

Yet, of course, the greatest delusion is that land reform is somehow detached from household economics, or that the benefits of reform, whether in the countryside or city, derive from anything but people’s access to tradeable assets.

The perceived “risk” of the poor actually having assets, and trading them, points to the least appealing of all the impulses that bind much of the intelligentsia; their enthusiasm for the idea that the poor need to be told how to live (and the rich, how not to).

On the back of such thinking, governments amass whatever powers they can to meddle, on the false grounds that they know better.

Property reform is overdue not only because access to tradeable assets was historically denied, but that it remains limited. Perversely, it is under renewed threat.

That’s the nub of the Institute of Race Relations’ objection to the mechanics of deprivation written into the new Expropriation Bill, one more enabling step along SA’s  path to eroding property rights.

As my colleague, and author of the institute’s submission on the bill, Anthea Jeffery, writes: “Black South Africans, in particular, will once again find themselves debarred from enjoying secure property rights, which are the essential foundation for prosperity and upward mobility. Having been prohibited from owning homes and land in much of ‘white’ SA in the apartheid past, they will find themselves constantly at risk of losing their homes and other assets to the state, in return for limited or nil compensation.

“Instead of being able to build or improve their homes and then bequeath these assets to their children, they will never know when the next venal or corrupt municipality or other organ of state will seize the houses they have worked so hard to acquire and develop.”

The ramifications extend far, and negatively, into the realms of banking, urban development, investment, job creation and thus the well-being of people who might have hoped the government would expand not imperil the property rights, which, as Jeffery observes, “anchor human liberty in every free and open society because a government cannot oppress people whose property rights are secure”.

Freedom to trade — or, in a candid 200-year-old liberal formulation, “to dispose of property, and even to abuse it” — is a fundamental remedy of dispossession.

Swiss-French liberal Benjamin Constant wrote in 1819 that “commerce confers a new quality on property”, which is “circulation”.

“Without circulation, property is merely a usufruct; political authority can always affect usufruct, because it can prevent its enjoyment; but circulation creates an invisible and invincible obstacle to the actions of social power.”

While commerce made “the action of arbitrary power over our existence more oppressive than in the past, because, as our speculations are more varied, arbitrary power must multiply itself to reach them”, it also made arbitrary power “easier to elude, because it changes the nature of property, which becomes, in virtue of this change, almost impossible to seize”.

Except, of course, via bad law that permits seizure.

Thinking back on that radio debate, freedom is no insurance against error, but state intervention that impedes freedom guarantees it.

Constant’s admonishment of the governments of his age remains testingly true of ours: “Let them confine themselves to being just. We shall assume the responsibility of being happy for ourselves.”

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.