File picture: ALON SKUY
File picture: ALON SKUY

“The state of our economy is the biggest concern that continues and should continue to occupy all of us.” So said President Cyril Ramaphosa in his address to the National House of Traditional Leaders on Tuesday. Predictably, his focus was on the issues confronting rural areas.  

Decrying the lack of opportunities for young people and consequent migration to the cities, the president pointed to the possibilities offered by agriculture and tourism. Naturally, the issue of “land access and ownership” featured prominently.

This is correct, but not in the sense he probably intended. The landholding system in areas under traditional authorities is all too often a hindrance to economic activity.

The Financial Mail recently ran a cover story about the Ingonyama Trust, which holds about 2.9-million hectares of KwaZulu-Natal in the name of the Zulu monarch. Its picture was of indifference towards those living on its lands. Investments are held hostage to political whims. One businessman, interviewed after being evicted from a tourist project he was running, said: “They told me that there is no place for a Basotho man in this Zulu place.”

The chair of the parliamentary committee on rural development and land reform, Phumuzile Ngwenya-Mabila, criticised the trust in 2019: “What we would like to see is the conversion of the informal ownership to title deed, to give our people the dignity that they own the land they are living on. They are not tenants, they are owners.”

Just so. One may debate the process to achieve it, but without firm movement towards real property rights in “traditional” areas, the investment needed for their development will not materialise. Then we can bank on the “state of the economy” occupying us for a long time to come.

Terence Corrigan Institute of Race Relations

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