Business Day column: Land-reform ‘lie’ keeps Verwoerdian tenure alive

04 September 2017
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IF YOU tell a big lie and keep repeating it, people will eventually believe it,” observed Adolf Hitler’s propagandist, Joseph Goebbels. Three of SA’s big lies are that “land reform” means redistributing white farms; that “willing buyer, willing seller” redistribution has failed; and that people who support that principle oppose restitution of land misappropriated under apartheid.

The obsessive debate about how many farms to transfer from whites to blacks is like the spotlight used in theatres to divert attention from what is really happening on the stage bathed in dull blue light, where stage hands moving props are invisible to the audience. The farmland debate is diverting attention from much more serious aspects of land reform, which unwittingly perpetuates rather than reverses one of apartheid’s vilest features, Verwoerdian tenure and privation for blacks. The false dichotomy of a fault line separating virtuous reformers from villainous reactionaries is a spotlight on a diversion.

It depicts advocates of property rights as opponents of restitution, whereas the most elementary principle of property rights is restitution of misappropriated property. The second most obvious principle is reversing skewed apartheid distribution equitably. Our raging land reform debate is about neither.

The cheapest, easiest and least controversial form of restitution and redistribution is being ignored and concealed by the spotlight focused on white farms, which are worth much less than urban land.

They are also much less sought after by most black people, who prefer urbanised housing and jobs to third-world subsistence farming.

In the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, for example, land seized in the 1960s has not been restored, despite the fact that it can be done without costly conflict-provoking redistribution.

Across the country in townships, locations, settlements and tribal villages, millions of black people are denied full ownership of the plots they already occupy as Verwoerdian vassals of the state.

The big lie that redistributing farms would reverse apartheid’s land legacy is compounded by the lie that the “willing buyer, willing seller” policy has failed.

On the contrary, it has never been tried. Willing sellers are everywhere; farms are routinely offered for sale and sold. The problem is that the government is not among the willing buyers.

Instead of ignoring failed officials in the blue light of bureaucracy, a blinding spotlight illuminates supposedly recalcitrant farmers.

To blame landowners is the same as consumers blaming Pick n Pay for not delivering groceries that they never ordered.

The real question is why government officials are not buying enough land. They are free to buy all the land constantly offered for sale through estate agents and in the media. If they cannot read advertisements and call estate agents, I will do it for them and buy all the land they want. They neither need to abandon their “willing buyer, willing seller“policy nor do to white farmers what apartheid did to black farmers, which was to use politically appointed valuers to undercompensate victims.

Farms are a tiny proportion of land in terms of what matters, which is not area, but value, quantity and type.

Pointing a racist finger at a shrinking number of farmers leaves three fingers pointing back at the government as the inheritor of apartheid loot.

It can easily convert land already held by millions of black people to unqualified ownership and give every landless household its own plot by using a mere 10% of its superfluous land.

The notion that blacks should perpetually be peasant farmers is a Bantustan policy in new clothes; it should have died with apartheid.

Most people in prosperous countries live in cities on land that they own or rent.

If we are serious about land reform and prosperity for victims of apartheid, we should switch the spotlight on farmers off and turn the stage lights on to shine brightly on all South Africans.

Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation.

This article was first published in Business Day on 6 February 2013


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