In theory, SA is committed to an evidence-based approach to policy-making. And for good reason — the National Development Plan of some years ago argued that this was a necessary methodology to tackle problems as they existed (rather than as they were presumed to exist) and to ensure meaningful course correction for the future. The goal was to shift from "short-term symptom-based policies to longer-term policies based on sound evidence and reason".

For decades a lack of evidence has been a central hindrance to land policy. As the government contemplates the introduction of a regime of expropriation without compensation, and quite possibly other changes to the nature of property rights in SA, it is more important now than ever that policy is undergirded by an appropriate evidentiary base.

It is therefore profoundly distressing to see that, just as attempts to place such evidence on the table are being made, the evidence we have is being misrepresented.

It should be noted that consideration is being given to the effective nationalisation of all land in SA

A statement issued on behalf of Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane is a case in point. It draws attention to the government’s land audit, dated November 2017: "The land audit report on private land ownership by race, gender and nationality, released by the department earlier this year, reveals that black South Africans own only 4% of the land in this country."

This is incorrect. The government’s land audit is one of a number of initiatives seeking to understand the vexed issue of land ownership patterns across SA. It found that about 37,800,986 hectares of South African land (of a total of 121,924,881 hectares — about a third of the total area) is held by individuals as privately owned, registered, freehold land. The 4% owned by "black South Africans" (the minister is referring to people of African ancestry and excluding coloured and Indian people from her definition of black) refers exclusively to land held under this type of ownership.

Put differently, the land audit found that of the land registered at the Deeds Office under freehold title and owned by private individuals, Africans own 1,314,873 hectares (4%), coloured people 5,371,383 hectares (15%), Indians 2,031,790 hectares (5%) and whites 26,663,144 hectares (72%). Those classified as "other" hold 1,271,562 hectares (3%) and co-ownership arrangements account for 425,537 hectares (1%).

But — and assuming that the information in the government’s land audit was accurate (the audit itself notes methodological limitations) — one of its most significant findings was that it was difficult to assign a racial identity to most land in the country. About 7,701,605 hectares, or 6% of the total — a large part of which is in the former homelands, especially the Eastern Cape — is not registered at the Deeds Office.

Aside from the landholdings owned by individuals, as detailed above, about 76,422,290 hectares is registered at the Deeds Office as being owned by trusts, companies, community-based organisations (which includes community property associations) and the state. As a whole, the audit notes that registered, privately owned land amounts to about 93,956,125 hectares, or 77% of the total, leaving the state with a very significant landholding footprint.

The Ingonyama Trust, estimated to control in excess of 2.8-million hectares in KwaZulu-Natal, is classed as state land by the audit.

The relatively small extent of Africans’ private, freehold landholdings reflects both the restrictions on black people’s property rights in the past and the reluctance on the part of the government for much of the post-1994 period to extend them.

Over the past decade in particular, land policy has stressed tenancy rather than ownership for beneficiaries of land redistribution initiatives.

The 2013 State Land Lease and Disposal Policy, for example, specified that land acquired for purposes of redistribution would be leased to prospective farmers. An option to buy their holdings would be available only to the largest tenants (essentially those able to farm on a commercial scale) — and then only after decades of working the land. The wording used in the policy document is revealing: "the option to purchase provided in this chapter is therefore a concession granted to farmers as an incentive for them to pursue production".

The use of the words "concessions" and "incentives" is revealing. As Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape so bitingly put it: "This is a policy that says that black people are not to be trusted with land."

Ownership not being possible except in exceptional circumstances, any gains in black people’s access to land in terms of this policy would never be reflected in the numbers the minister quotes. Indeed, this would be the consequence of the "successful" application of policy. Besides, the focus on hectares and percentages obscures a major reality if land reform is to be a developmental process rather than a mere numbers game: different parcels of land have different economic values.

In agrarian terms, SA’s eastern parts offer many more productive options than its western ones. In fact, the goal of "30% land redistribution" could be achieved quite easily by focusing on the Northern Cape, which accounts for about a third of the land area of the country, as well as over 40% of land held by white individual owners and about the same proportion of land held by coloured individuals. But it is arid, and farming it is mostly economically viable only on large scale. For smaller farming operations, the better soil and water endowments of SA’s eastern regions are more promising. It’s no surprise the government has targeted its land reform efforts there.

It was for this reason that the land audit published last year by AgriSA’s Land Centre of Excellence attempted to understand land value and land potential as elements crucial to understanding the state of land ownership. Among other things, it attempted to establish the racial identity of owners of companies and trusts. Its data makes for more optimistic reading: land in the hands of previously disadvantaged individuals (the formulation preferred in its report) and the state accounts for over 46% of the country’s agricultural potential.

It should be noted that consideration is being given to the effective nationalisation of all land in SA. This was proposed by the government’s land audit and it was part of the EFF’s original motion in Parliament, which referred to the "necessity of the state being a custodian of all South African land". While amendments introduced by the ANC made the wording more ambiguous, this is a concept that has attracted support from members of the party in the past. It seems reasonable to believe that this is one of the policy options before the country.

There is bitter irony in this. Placing all land in the hands of the state would compound the exclusion from true land ownership and property rights that black people had long been subjected to in SA. Under a custodial regime, no one would in reality own any land. EFF leader Julius Malema has been quite forthright about this. All landholders — black and white, large and small, urban and rural — would be beholden to the state for their rights of occupation.

The High Level Panel into Transformative Legislation chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe had a point in noting the continuities between colonial-and apartheid-era assumptions and those of the democratic era about the rights black people should have in relation to property.

All of this suggests that the current enthusiasm in some quarters for expropriation without compensation is profoundly misplaced. Landholdings in the hands of black people are certainly more extensive than the minister — and many others — have claimed. But this has been obscured by the manner in which it is held: by companies, trusts, associations and the state. Perhaps most importantly, a historical and current lack of title has not only helped deny black people the property rights they deserve it is also a hindrance to farming, as among other things it restricts farmers’ ability to raise capital.

A far better course of action would be for the minister and her department to back a programme geared for success: proper project design, adequate funding, appropriate support and the enhancement rather than the undermining of property rights. This would address the real problems afflicting land reform, which have been identified by numerous studies, not least the government’s own. The evidence speaks for itself.

• Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

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