JOHANNESBURG — South Africa has a painful history when it comes to land ownership. The 1913 Land Act was disastrous for black South Africa, but also negatively affected white farmers as it diminished the free market, writes Eustace Davie. We don’t want to mess around with land rights and here’s an excellent explanation of why. – Gareth van Zyl
By Eustace Davie*
How do current members of the ANC know what will happen in the future if they remove the strict protection of property rights from the constitution? Was being without property rights for generations not enough warning as to what can happen? Are they prepared to risk their children or grandchildren having their property taken away from them by a hostile government? I urge everyone involved, for their own sake, and for the sake of their descendants, to exercise caution regarding this vitally important issue.
The support by the ANC National Conference for a constitutional change to the property rights clause in the Bill of Rights to allow expropriation of property without compensation is a blow to black South Africans who were deprived of property rights in 1913 and had to wait 78 years for those rights to be restored in 1991. The Constitution and Bill of Rights are intended to protect the country’s citizens in the long term from potential government tyranny. Weakening the protections for some short-term purpose is most unwise.
Those whose intentions it is to punish the descendants of the people who may be seen to have been the beneficiaries of the 1913 Land Act, should consider checking what Sol Plaatje, the first General Secretary of the ANC, had to say on the matter. It is very clear from his writing that the Land Act culprits were politicians and not farmers.
Political interference in peaceful voluntary exchanges
Any political interference that prevents peaceful voluntary exchanges from occurring in an economy has negative consequences that go far beyond specific political intervention. The 1913 Land Act deprived black South Africans of property and the right to own property in land in so-called “white” areas. It was a crime of massive proportions and the repercussions of this abominable political act are being felt 105 years later. What is forgotten is that the Land Act also deprived white farmers of full control over their property rights and their right to continue their mutually profitable partnerships with black farming families.
The notion that all white people in the country gained from this and other political crimes against black citizens is simply not true. Sol Plaatje, in his book Native Life in South Africa reminds us of the threat incorporated in the Land Act, which forced the many white farmers who had entered into beneficial partnerships with black families to terminate these arrangements. He wrote, in addressing the government of the time, “bear in mind that many landowners are anxious to live at peace with, and to keep your people as tenants, but that they are debarred from doing so by your Government which threatens them with a fine of 100 Pounds or six months’ imprisonment”. In other words, the property rights of white citizens were disrespected, and black citizens were totally deprived of their rights.
Many white farm owners at the time found it to be more profitable to farm in partnership with black partners, based on crop-sharing incentives, rather than to rely on wage labour. These partnership arrangements were a win-win arrangement for black and white farmers. Plaatje referred in his book to the political implications of the partnerships. Radical racist white politicians were disturbed by what they regarded as the overly friendly relationships that existed between white farming families and their black family partners. This explains the harsh penalties that were imposed in the Land Act on any white farmers who might otherwise have defied the new law.
Had a free market prevailed in 1913, SA would not face the land question we have today
The loss to white South African farmers caused by the Land Act did not mean the loss only of the good relationships that existed between them and their black partners, the right to do with their property as they wished, and the right to sell their farms to black buyers, it also meant a reduction in the future profitability of their farming operations in the absence of their dependable black partners.
For their black partners, the loss of rights was extreme. They could exchange their partnership positions for work as wage labourers, sell off their livestock at give-away prices, or leave with their livestock and try to find alternative partnerships elsewhere, or at least to find a place to live and graze their livestock. According to Plaatje some black families had accumulated as many as 40 cattle and 100 sheep, grazing on their partners’ farms as part of their agreements. Tragically, it was some time before they realised that the Land Act had slammed shut those options, as, according to the Act, no white farmer was allowed to let grazing land to any black person. Plaatje described how the black farmers tramped the roads looking for grazing to hire, with their livestock dying and the owners being forced to sell off their stock and take up employment on the mines and in the towns and cities to earn money to care for their families.
In a free market based on a sound legal system with a rule of law foundation, equality before the law, and respect for property rights, this tragedy and travesty could not have occurred.
Property rights, the Constitution and the future of South Africa
Research into policies that will bring about consistent high economic growth, higher incomes, lower unemployment, reduced poverty, longer life expectancies and more political and civil liberties, shows unequivocally that all these benefits are best achieved in countries that have a high level of economic freedom. The cornerstones of economic freedom are personal choice, voluntary exchange, open markets, and clearly defined and enforced property rights. Individuals are economically free when they are free to choose for themselves and engage in voluntary transactions as long as they do not harm the person or property of others. In other words, they must be free to decide for themselves rather than have options imposed on them by the political process or the use of violence, theft or fraud by others.
- Eustace Davie is a director at the Free Market Foundation and the author of Jobs for the Jobless: Special Exemption Certificates for the Unemployed and Unchain the Child: Abolish Compulsory Schooling Laws. He authored several chapters in the FMF’s books Nationalisation and Jobs Jobs Jobs. Eustace also authors many of the Foundation’s weekly feature articles and is regularly published in local and international media on labour, money, health care and economic issues.