Land discourse being used as smoke and mirrors

Land discourse being used as smoke and mirrors

The land debate, as hackneyed as it is, is being used by both the EFF and the ANC as a proxy fix to whitewash various crises that face the poor black majority in the country. In this article I’ll examine four basic reasons why “the land” by itself will neither restore dignity nor be a catalyst for the advancement for the poor black majority.

The government spends more on VIP protection than land reform:

In the 2018/19 national budget, R2.6 billion was allocated to land reform, something which UWC professor Ruth Hall describes as the acquisition and redistribution of land and a way to secure land rights for people.

Earmarked for VIP protection services is R2.9 billion. This may seem like an arbitrary comparison, but land reform is being touted not only as a mechanism to restore dignity to the formerly dispossessed but also as a panacea to kick start poor urban and rural South Africans towards a path of prosperity. The budget, however, does not reflect the inflated importance government ascribes to land reform, but, rather makes one think government views its own safety and security matters are more deserving.

Why, then, does the issue of land get so much ink in our newspapers and airtime on radio and television?

Claimants prefer cash over land

The KZN Land Claims Commissioner’s office reported that in 2016, of the 110 land claims government settled, R423.9 million of R670.7 million spent consisted of financial compensation. In May 2017, in his parliamentary budget speech, Minister of Land and Rural Development, Gugile Nkwinti, raised concerns about claimants preferring cash over land. Chief Land Claims Commissioner, Nomfundo Gobodo, a month later, also expressed serious concern over this. The Institute of Race Relations pegs cash claimants at around 90%.

Clearly, neither the budget nor land claimants see land as the panacea or the awaited restoration of dignity it is being made out to be. And there are many reasons why claimants prefer cash.

Claimants want education, advancement and an urban life

According to the National Development Plan, 70% of South Africans will live in urban areas by 2030. This out migration from rural areas to cities is a global trend. Claimants, whether in rural or urban areas, are often poor and hard pressed for cash, more so in cities where the cost of living is significantly higher than rural areas. Just like anybody else, the poor are in cities in search of better job opportunities and a better education for their children. Many of them do not want to return to rural areas (perceived stagnation). Besides the land reform process being so inefficient that many claimants do not have faith in it, often resettling where the land is and having enough to make it productive requires a large capital outlay. To many, land is merely a piece of dirt that has no real value in the modern world outside of any speculative value (like land in Clifton for example) and it requires capital to make it productive. Another important point is land use policy within cities. I live in Cape Town and have seen the desperation that accompanies land grabs, where the poor often build substandard housing on sand banks. Take a drive along Baden street and you see this for yourself.

Land itself will not restore dignity

That land itself will not restore dignity, is an important point to make. In other words, simply receiving land is not enough because plenty of people live on land in informal settlements but have to endure the indignities of living in squalor, at times next to their faeces while their children live near waste water. More specifically it needs to be said that the question of land has been tied to farmland and an Agrarian economic push rather than land use policy and settlement in cities and the expansion of infrastructure on said land. It has to be asked what our president really means when he sees land as something that imbues dignity to black people and it has to be asked why those people in rural Eastern Cape leave vast tracts of land behind if it carries within it their dignity?

What is more important is to redress the cumulative effects of denying South Africans of colour property rights. These cumulative effects are found in the racialised wealth and income gaps we have in this country. Property is a basic cornerstone of wealth building wherever you go in the world, especially for those who are or want to get into the middle class. Undignified is the urban poor living in cramped informal settlements, potential breeding grounds for disease and crime, and without any employment opportunities to enable them to, not only better themselves, but their communities as well. Getting “the land” is not going to magically imbue them with dignity because the poor know better than anyone else, that cash (income and wealth) is far more important than unproductive patches of dirt in areas away from urban centres.

Land is just a fanciful curtain behind which government is trying to hide its systemic failures and its inability to redress the cumulative effects of Apartheid and land dispossession.

Do not fall for the rhetoric.

Sindile Vabaza is an avid writer and aspiring economist.
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