Land reform without property rights is mere hot air

The poor will be mired in poverty and uncertainty until guaranteed property rights. A new study from UWC (University of the Western Cape) and Rhodes University, focused on farms in the Eastern Cape, reveals that although poor families and communities have ‘access’ to state land (ie, ‘occupy’ it), because they are not granted title, they serve as nothing more than de facto security guards for the state. They are not free to use in just any way or improve the state land which they are supposed to own to gain any lasting benefit for themselves or their families. Until the true value of rightful ownership is recognised and realised, this is a quagmire that will continue to suck in the potential wealth of poor South Africans.

No one, no matter how talented or hard-working, poor or rich, can use their property to better their lives if their property rights are not absolute and legally enshrined as such. The research found that since 2011, the state has been buying land for redistribution and distributing it under various forms of lease instead of transferring ownership to the beneficiaries. Is government no longer concerned with the dignity of the individual?

The research also shines a light on the state land lease and disposal policy of Gugile Nkwinti, the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform. Since 2013, policy has made it clear that small-scale and subsistence farmers may not become land owners but must remain tenants of the state. Big land owners, though, enjoy a degree of state protection as they have an option to buy farms if they have leased land for 30-50 years. Preventing the previously disadvantaged from owning land they could purchase does not sound like real land reform.

It is highly disingenuous for politicians to talk about land reform just to score political points and yet deny poor South Africans their real, and essential, property rights. ‘Ownership’ is devoid of meaning without title, without the actual right to the property, a right protected by a proper legal framework.

Possessing a piece of land is no guarantee that the owner will eventually become wealthy; that rests on her and what she does with it. But once she has bought it, she should be fully entitled to do with it as she pleases, to farm or start a business, or lease it, or whatever else. The possibilities are endless, but she can invest in her future only if she knows that her property rights are secure.

When politicians, those in academia, media experts, and analysts, tell people that the state owes them land, should we be surprised by the anger that flares up when they realise those are empty promises? When people come to realise they do not have full title to the land they believe they own and have built a life upon, that it can be taken away from them at any time, can we expect the same empty talk about land reform to produce anything positive? Real land reform means the transfer of ownership of the land from the state to the people – an ownership that is protected through property rights, and recorded through a title deed.

Apartheid denied millions of South Africans their property rights. The legacy of Apartheid will live on as long as millions of South Africans are still denied property rights. When government ‘gives’ them land, it must give them a freehold title deed as well. It is time for government to deliver real, enriching and empowering land reform.

Chris Hattingh is a researcher at the Free Market Foundation

This article was first published in on 7 September 2017

Help FMF promote the rule of law, personal liberty, and economic freedom become an individual member / donor HERE ... become a corporate member / donor HERE