STEPHEN GROOTES: ANC's inertia puts a populist weapon in its future arsenal
AS THE African National Congress (ANC) prepares for its policy conference next week, the ANC Youth League and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) have attempted to put the land question back on the national agenda.
Both organisations claim that without wholesale, rapid and total land redistribution, there will be land invasions and violence in the near future. But their claim that it is the land question that really drives anger against the formerly advantaged needs to be interrogated. And the facts are far more complicated than the simple claim that "white people own the majority of the land".
This argument should be about more than simple redistribution, it must be about realising the inherent value land holds. If we don't do that, we may achieve redistribution but nothing else - and at great cost. The beggar at the Sandton traffic lights should be at the heart of this debate. But none of the proposals currently on the table are aimed at maximising the value of SA's land, or of improving his situation.
It is often claimed that land redistribution is taking place too slowly and that the "willing seller, willing buyer" model is not working. When this was first raised by the youth league several years ago, it was headline news. Now, when President Jacob Zuma says it in Parliament, no-one notices. This is an indication that the comment is widely accepted to be true. But this is not so much an indictment of white farmers, who can reasonably be expected to try to leverage as much value for their land as they can, than it is of the league's elders in the ANC itself. If this is such a critical issue, then why has the political will to solve it been lacking?
It took more than a year for the current land reform green paper to be made public. And it turned out to be a mere 12 pages long and lacking in detail. There have been rumblings that it could be redrafted. This issue is so complex, with so many different strands, that the ANC itself is divided on how to approach it. It's hard to blame the ANC for not knowing what to do; this is the toughest of nuts to crack. A good starting point is to work out who actually owns SA.
The Department of Rural Development doesn't have a hard figure. It says there is an ownership audit currently under way but that even after it is completed we may not have a definitive answer because title deeds don't mention race. And, until then, it won't speculate on the issue.
The South African Institute of Race Relations suggests that in February last year, at least one quarter of the country's 122-million hectares was owned by the government. Tracts of this land could presumably be made available for redistribution.
Congress of Traditional Leaders president Patekile Holomisa says traditional leaders still administer the 13% of land the 1913 Land Act put aside for "black Africans". He also points out it's the land where "the great majority of rural Africans live, it's not for sale". He suggests that if that land were ever "exposed to the market, you would merely open the door to the dispossession of those communities". While he is speaking with a particular agenda, it's clear that any move to change the administration of this land would be politically difficult.
However, this state of affairs also makes it difficult for this land to be used in its most productive fashion. It cannot be sold, leased or used as surety for a bank loan to start a business. Its full value is not being realised.
Then some land has been redistributed, some has been given back to its original owners and the market itself has changed. Black people have bought land from white people since 1994. The institute reckons all of this could mean that more than half of SA is now owned by black people.
But much of the land classed as "black-owned" is not being used to its full value. A good example is at the Kei River mouth, near Kenton-on-Sea in the Eastern Cape. The river is lined with expensive holiday homes from the beach to its first major bend. These properties have been passed down through the (white) generations and have become very valuable. A five-minute canoe trip down the river, the township of Ekuphumleni begins. It is higher than the holiday homes, and thus the properties closer to the river have amazing views. But that land has nowhere near the monetary value of the holiday homes. The people living there are poor. But if they could somehow realise the true value of that land, the possibility that their children could receive better education than that being received by many other Eastern Cape youngsters increases. The owners of the property could create capital to start their own businesses. This is a situation replicated in many parts of KwaZulu-Natal. All that is stopping this from happening is political will.
The countries that have grown their economies the most over time have tended to place private land ownership among the highest of rights. While this is partially due to the fact that landowners have resources and thus political influence, it is also because private land ownership works. Secure tenure, free from political interference, leads to individuals improving their land, and thus growing capital. It is the basis of much, if not most, economic activity. Which is why, when Zimbabwe targeted land, the country's economy went downhill quickly. But the ANC's land discussions don't currently seem to value land ownership particularly highly.
They focus on four different types of landholding, described in the green paper as: "(a) state and public land leasehold; (b) privately owned land - freehold, with limited extent; (c) land owned by foreigners - freehold, but precarious tenure, with obligations and conditions to comply with; and (d) communally owned land - communal tenure, with institutionalised use rights."
None of these really address the question of how best to help the person begging for food. There is no focus on addressing the real question, which is not how to ensure everyone gets a piece of land, but how they get a job.
The youth league and Numsa somehow believe that by "nationalising" land, all our problems will be solved. They have never explained how. What is the link between the child-headed household in Diepsloot, and land? Someone living in a shack in Diepsloot receiving a parcel of land in a rural area would suddenly have an asset that could be leveraged to his advantage. But the current proposals don't envisage that at all. They seem to propose something else, a situation in which government officials are in charge. Recent history would indicate that is unlikely to make things better. It is more likely to lead to arbitrary changes in land ownership and uncertainty among landowners.
The ANC appears to be doing very little on the land issue, repeating the refrain that land invasions and land grabs won't happen here and hoping for the best.
In our politics, it is not much of a hop from land issues to race issues. And that makes it the best populist weapon of all should the ANC's share of the vote ever start to slip, or if a leader's popularity declines.
The ANC is simply storing up trouble for the future.
. Grootes is a contributing editor to Business Day and an Eyewitness News reporter.
'The facts are far more complicated than the simple claim that white people own the majority of the land'
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