Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

ONE of the things Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan could chop in cutting back on government profligacy is the audit the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform wants to conduct to classify landownership according to race. Better still, he should stop the department from wasting any more money on the failed and fanciful policy of land reform.

The policy rests on several fallacies. One is that whites "stole" the land. Among those who have recently stated this is Stone Sizani, chairman of the parliamentary portfolio committee on rural development and land reform. The Transvaal Agricultural Union has rightly rejected the accusation.

The land acts did of course impose apartheid on landownership, but this does not mean that white farmers (or anyone else) who bought their land actually stole it. Moreover, as several scholars have pointed out, the acts also protected land in the homelands from being snapped up by whites.

A second fallacy is that there is huge black demand for land to farm. No one has produced evidence of this. Such evidence as there is suggests the opposite. Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti, admits that 92% of 77,000 potential beneficiaries of land restitution chose financial compensation instead.

"We thought everybody, when they got a chance to get land, would jump at it," he said. But they had become urbanised and "deculturised" and preferred to earn wages. Yet he seems to disapprove of this, contending that land claimants should opt for land, not money. Some African National Congress (ANC) MPs even complain about beneficiaries who lease their land back to white farmers. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has said most land claims beneficiaries preferred to sell their farms. Nor were their children interested in farming or studying agriculture.

Yet the government persists in trying to rekindle the class of black commercial farmers that was destroyed by the land acts. Allister Sparks was correct to argue in Business Day last week that society could not be "re-engineered" in this way. The R2.7bn budgeted for recapitalising some of the failed farms during the present financial year is likely to be good money thrown after bad.

Despite what Nkwinti has said about reinventing a black peasantry, land reform is not about farming at all. It is about racial quotas and redress. What counts is not how much land blacks own, but how much has been taken away from whites.

This is why the government never bothered to help restitution or redistribution beneficiaries to farm. It is also why the land acquired by blacks via "willing buyer, willing seller" is ignored in government calculations of racial landownership numbers — despite indications that if land acquired on the market is taken into account, the 30% redistribution target might already have been met.

Fixation with the desire to transfer ownership from whites to blacks is also one of the reasons the government fails to introduce individual ownership in the former homelands. According to Sizani, the ANC will never allow the privatisation of communal land, on the grounds that "BEE (black economic empowerment) types will buy it".

In addition, this fixation probably accounts for the fact — as an AgriSA official said last week — that the land reform programme ignores blacks already farming successfully. Many don’t need help. But those who do, have had more help from established agricultural organisations in various agricultural subsectors than from the government.

The land acts were a grievous injustice — compounded by the forced removal of about 2-million black people from the supposedly "white" area into the homelands. Undermining land rights, setting more land reform beneficiaries up for failure and damaging the agricultural sector will not fix that wrong.

• Kane-Berman is CE of the South African Institute of Race Relations.