Land debate: Why evidence must be presented accurately – IRR

JOHANNESBURG — Emotions have raced ahead of the land debate in South Africa, leaving a muddied pictured that fails to tell the real story. Terence Corrigan, of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), highlights this observation in this poignant piece below. A debate as important as expropriation of land without compensation MUST be conducted on the grounds of accurate information – and not just conjecture. Otherwise, South Africa risks becoming a victim of populism and will lose out on the opportunity to ensure a win-win solution for all. – Gareth van Zyl

By Terence Corrigan* 

Donald Trump’s twitter feed is the gift that keeps on giving. His remarks on South Africa’s land politics provided a foil for his detractors: his contentions are erroneous, his actions are reckless (if not downright racist), and he is in any event ignorant of the context and trajectory of South Africa’s land reform endeavours.

Noah Smith’s piece (‘More small farmers on expropriated land produce well’, 10 September 2018) is a good example of this. Critiquing the positions of people in authority is indispensable to democratic contestation, and is invariably to be welcomed. But those doing so must be subject to the same standards of accuracy as they demand of their targets.

From this perspective, Smith’s piece falls short.

His assertion that there is no ‘large-scale’ killing of farmers is – beyond arguing about the semantics – questionable. He is not alone in this. Perhaps because farm murders in South Africa have become a rallying point for the far right, there is a stubborn reluctance to acknowledge their extent or severity. Typically, the issue is dismissed by claiming on methodological grounds that it is impossible to compare the vulnerability of farmers to other parts of society.

Twitter Fallout, Zapiro, SA land debate
Twitter Fallout. More magic available at www.zapiro.com.

Dr James Myburgh, editor of the Politicsweb website, showed that this was in fact broadly possible. His data – gleaned from Stats SA, the South African Police service and the Transvaal Agricultural Union – enabled some like-with-like comparisons. In 2016/17, the overall murder rate for South Africa was 34.0 per 100 000 people, that for white farming households (‘white’ people being the issue around which this question turns for both proponents and detractors) was 52.8, and that for farmers (or heads of white farming households) was 108.0 per 100 000.

A more accurate comparison between the vulnerability of the farming population to the general population needs to take into the account the specific circumstances under which murder is perpetrated. This requires estimating murders committed during robberies (usually expressed as ‘aggravated robbery’, or what in German is called Raubmord), which circumstances most closely mirror farm murders.

While Dr Myburgh’s information may be imperfect, it is at least strongly indicative. For the population as a whole, the Raubmord rate is around 12 for all robberies and some 4 per 100 000 during house- or business robberies.

Thus, he argues, the Raubmord rate for white farming households is ‘about four times a plausible national Raubmord rate for all aggravated robbery, and thirteen times the rate for home and business robbery-murders only.’ If the reference point is white farmers alone, this rate can be doubled.

In discussing South Africa’s land reform process, Smith cuts some corners. ‘The move [South Africa’s drive to introduce a policy of expropriation without compensation] is ostensibly about racial justice — white farmers own about 72 percent of the country’s individually owned farmland, which they wouldn’t own if not for colonialism and apartheid.’

The ’72 percent’ reference has been repeatedly invoked to justify EWC, usually implying that it represents the entirety of agricultural land. In fact, individually owned farmland accounts for less than a third of the country (and a great deal of the white-owned portion is in the arid Northern Cape, where large tracts are necessary to compensate for poor soil and rainfall conditions – and in which little interest has been shown in acquiring land for land reform). Most of the rest is held by the state, by trusts, by companies and community based organisations. It is difficult to put racial identities to these tracts, but it should be borne in mind that state land (at around 22% of the surface area) includes the erstwhile ‘homelands’. These were territories set aside for African people, and were intended to become independent states in terms of the ‘grand apartheid’ design. Land was generally held not by the (black) people living and working on it, but ‘in trust’ by the state, usually through traditional authorities. This situation, a denial of the individual property rights of millions of South Africans, persists today.

Indeed, current policy around land redistribution – that part of the reform agenda which is intended to transfer land to black users and encourage the development of black farmers (in the absence of a clear personal historical claim) – has over the past decade been NOT to extend ownership to beneficiaries, but rather for them to exist as tenants of the state.

The State Land Lease and Disposal Policy, which codifies this approach, makes the option to own (through purchase) the land acquired through redistribution programmes available only to those able to farm on a large commercial scale – and then, only after fifty years. Prof Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape – and no opponent of land reform – describes this as ‘a policy that says that black people are not to be trusted with land’.

So, Smith’s contention that the plan for expropriated land is to ‘give it to black farmers’ is an assumption, not a fact. And it’s one that pushes against the grain of existing policy.

Read also: South Africa’s Land Bank warns EWC risks triggering a default

Whether small-scale agriculture could gainfully absorb millions of unemployed people is a difficult point to sustain. Certainly, historically, there is much that can be said for the contribution of small-scale agriculture. But what Smith ignores is that as examples for South Africa, the South Korean and Taiwanese experiences match neither existing policy, nor the trajectory of social development.

For various reasons – not least colonial and apartheid-era restrictions on Africa’s economic activity – South Africa’s peasantry has been in decline for decades. Millions of people have opted to move out of a life of small-scale farming, and to seek opportunities in the cities: South Africa is around two-thirds urbanised. Opinion polls reveal little enthusiasm for a life in agriculture, this being the ambition of between 1 percent and 2 percent of the population.

As the former minister of rural development and land reform, Gugile Nkwinti, put it a few years ago: ‘We no longer have a peasantry; we have wage earners now.’ 

Meanwhile, if there are lessons to be learned from the more successful Asian examples – the ‘land to the tiller policies’ – all that can be said is that they are not being followed. Taiwan and South Korea both transferred ownership of land from landlords to peasants. In other words, they gave those who were already working their plots a greater stake in them, encouraging enterprise and investment, and doing away with rent seeking. The closest analogy to this state of affairs is to be found in land under the control of traditional leadership (that is, state-owned land) – but the ruling party has pledged that EWC will not be exercised here.

Read also: Political ballet in the minefields of land expropriation – John Kane-Berman

Instead, the intention of the government appears to be to move on commercial farming. Following Smith, this may not be a bad thing, as Zimbabwe apparently demonstrates the potential of small-scale farming, as maize yields are rising. Perhaps, but Zimbabwe is not South Africa – always a far more rural society, in which an active peasantry had endured. Even discounting the disruption of its agricultural sector as it ‘transitioned’ from large-scale commercial to smallholder farming, it is not apparent that there would be an appetite to take up the latter.

And while Smith may take a sanguine view of the long-term consequences of Zimbabwe’s programme of land seizures, it should not be forgotten what the costs of this were: a reliance on food aid, a collapsed currency, faltering infrastructure, degraded public services, large-scale emigration and a bottoming out of life expectancy. It is unclear whether sustaining smallholder agriculture is compensation for having become an ‘economic basket case’ (his words)?  

Smith concludes by remarking that ‘if South Africa decides to go through with extensive land reform, it will be important to get things right.’ That is correct. Land reform – a different concept from EWC – can succeed if it accurately diagnoses South Africa’s problems, appreciates its realities and properly evaluates what is possible. Otherwise it risks disaster. And ensuring that evidence is presented accurately is a shared responsibility – not one to which only President Trump should be held.

  • Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the Institute of Race Relations in opposing the introduction of Expropriation without Compensation by sending an SMS to 32823.