Columnist Peter Bruce writes that according to advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, land is a “huge issue” in SA, and this means land will be transferred (or expropriated) whether white South Africans like it or not (Is There Not a Way to Talk Calmly and Sanely About the Land Issue? September 25).

He also argues that the debate needs to be wrested from the politicians to allow ordinary South Africans to take it forward.

It is unfortunate that Bruce uncritically accepts Ngcukaitobi’s position that land is a major issue in the country.

Our own research has shown that land is fairly low down on what South Africans think the government’s priorities should be. In our 2019 survey on race relations in SA, Uniting The Middle, only 2% of black respondents identified “speeding up land reform” as a government priority.

Creating jobs was by far the most pressing issue identified by black respondents, with 27% saying this should be government’s priority. Improving education and fighting corruption were the next most pressing issues, each being identified by 10% of respondents as a government priority.

Research from other places also does not show evidence that there is any groundswell for land in SA. An Afrobarometer survey conducted in 2018 showed that just over a quarter of South Africans believed the government should jettison the policy of “willing buyer, willing seller”. The same survey showed that land was identified by only 7% of respondents as the country’s most pressing problem.

At the same time, even if there is a mass groundswell of support for land seizures in the country this does not mean we should follow through with that. Expropriation without compensation will cause untold damage to the economy, without making up for the wrongs of the past. There is no doubt that land reform and restitution are necessary, but it needs to be done in an environment that protects property rights.

The land question, while being an important one, is far from being the most pressing issue this country faces. A far greater challenge is the crisis of joblessness. Unemployment and how to grow the economy inclusively should be our primary focus for the immediate future. However, if we allow property rights to be undermined, we will never be able to address these issues (identified by South Africans themselves), whether the populists like it or not.

Marius Roodt, Institute of Race Relations