Since the motion on land expropriation was passed in Parliament on February 27 many opinion pieces, perspectives, facts and figures set social media and the press alight. Deep-rooted ideological and moral arguments are evoking emotionally charged responses of all kinds. But at the core of any argument should be credible and verifiable facts that work towards informed decision-making based on a common understanding of any given issue.

There are two important reports from the government that inform the land issue. The first is the Land Audit booklet by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform of 2013 which sets state land (registered and unregistered) at 17,061,822ha or 14% of South Africa.

The second is the Land Audit Report of 2017 which attempts to show private land ownership by race, gender and nationality. The report puts private land ownership at 93,956,125ha or 77.03% of the total area of South Africa (121,973,200ha). According to the report ownership is based on land parcels registered at  the deeds office, but "ownership" is not defined in the report. If ownership means freehold in terms of a title deed, then this figure is doubtful.

This article shows the spatial distribution and extent of land under control of the state and organs of state. 

The extent of land controlled by the state is unpacked in four steps:

• First, land that is directly state owned and listed in the department spatial data (2013);

• Second, tribal (or traditional) land not included in the department’s data;

• Third, the remnants of the former homeland areas not included under the previous two categories. This land was expropriated for incorporation into the homelands and then transferred to institutions such as the South African Development Trust and former homeland governments; and 

• Fourth, the protected areas affected by the National Environmental Management Act (Act 107 of 1998) that represent national parks and nature reserves under the control of state entities (mainly South African National Parks) or provincial governments.

The map below shows the extent of state land in South Africa as mapped from the department’s 2013 spatial data.

It sets state land at 13,357,235ha or 11% of total land. The main categories are: land used for agriculture and fisheries (30.2%), residential purposes (17%), conservation and leisure (25.4%) and undeveloped land (7.9%). These figures include only farms and farm portions and exclude erven or urban properties. The extent of state land in urban areas is not available for all provinces. However, in Gauteng the state owns 185,113 properties which amounts to 25,819ha.

Map 1: State land  in South  Africa

The next category of land to be considered is traditional or tribal land not included in state-land data. Tribal land is not available on the open market nor is freehold ownership allowed. If all tribal land, not included in state land, is added to the equation the total land not privately owned rises to 26,976,657ha or 22.1% of the total land in South Africa.. It implies that there are 13,619,421ha of tribal land not recognised as state land.

Map 2: State and tribal land

The third element to be considered is the portion of former homelands not included in the above. These portions might be a bit problematic in the sense that it is land that was designated and/or expropriated for incorporation into the homelands. This land was transferred to homeland governments prior to 1994. A total of 17,083,490ha must then be added to the previous total covering state land and the remainder of tribal land. The total land controlled by the state then amounts to 44,060,147ha or 36.1% of the total South Africa.

Map 3: State, tribal and the balance of former homelands

The last category that does not appear in any land audit is formal protected areas which include national parks and nature reserves under the control of provincial governments. These areas are protected by law.

Although there are continuous efforts to involve local communities in these areas they are obviously not designated for private ownership or control and must be removed from the land pool.

These areas add another 8,050,643ha to the equation and brings the total land under state control to 52,110,790ha or 42.7% of all land in South Africa

Map 4: State, tribal,  the balance of former homelands plus protected areas

These figures make it difficult to reconcile the numbers with those quoted by the government of private land ownership at 93,956,125ha or 77.03% of the total area of South Africa.

Somewhere there is a nearly 24-million hectare discrepancy that could have a significant impact on the land debate.

The data are unimportant in a land nationalisation debate but are very significant for those concerned with upholding private property rights and resolving land restitution in a fair and equitable way.

As a postscript, one should note that, notwithstanding property rights, the state can exercise full control over the use of land through the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act 16 of 2013.

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