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November 21, 2011

Housing, not land, is the key issue in South Africa

by John FW Morgan

Professors Gutto and Teffo (“Deconstructing the land question”, November 6 and 13) are avid advocates of reintroducing an indigenous African concept of common ownership of land and find what they describe as the “colonial” legal system’s concept of private ownership of land “very strange”.

The legal concept of private ownership of land reaches back into antiquity and can only be described as “colonial” in that it was the colonial powers that introduced the concept into South Africa.

Although some indigenous societies still maintain the concept that land cannot be privately owned, this is an exception and in most democratically ruled countries land, just like companies and businesses, is usually available for private ownership.

Of course, many European countries also originally had a concept of common land but this gradually died out as more modern farming methods were introduced, particularly during the Industrial Revolution.

In England it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that common land was finally abolished almost everywhere, aided by acts of parliament.

South Africa’s constitution and legal system are based on proven concepts in other developed or developing countries and not on indigenous concepts, so it would be strange if land were to be singled out for special treatment.

Indeed, abolishing private ownership of land would in no way help solve one of the major problems of the country, which is the extreme and still growing gap between rich and poor.

The imbalances in land ownership between black and white simply reflect the fact that, in broad terms, the whites are rich and the blacks poor.

In all developing countries, the poor masses tend to leave the countryside for the towns in the hope of finding better-paid employment, as also happened in Europe during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. This generally leads to overcrowding, slums and crime in the urban areas.

At the same time, the rural areas have to supply food for the growing urban population and this can only be done by employing more efficient farming methods and operating larger farms on a commercial basis.

Redistributing farmland in small areas to black farmers will neither benefit the individual farmers nor the country, which needs to be as self-sufficient as possible so far as food production is concerned.

There is a popular myth in the country that property ownership is essential for self-respect and well-being. It may, therefore, come as a shock for many to learn that in such wealthy countries as Germany, France and the Netherlands only 43 percent, 52 percent and 55 percent of the population respectively own property.

The remainder are tenants.

Quite apart from this, even in developed countries, land ownership is very unequal. For example, in England just 1 percent of the population own about 70 percent of all land.

It is, nevertheless, not on the agenda of any of the major political parties to change this state of affairs for the simple reason that land or property ownership in itself is not the key to a reasonable standard of living.

The most important thing for the poor in South Africa is not owning land or buildings but having a secure roof over their heads and not having to fear eviction.

Much progress has been made on this front in recent years, although a visit to many of the new low-cost housing areas would be a shock for most white people, as the houses are not only very small, rudimentary and often badly built, but the new housing areas are already overcrowded and showing every sign of developing into the slums of the future.

The problem of the severe imbalances in wealth in the country can only be solved long term by far higher standards of education and better employment prospects.

The huge deficits in these two areas are not, however, solely the fault of the government but result from the huge explosion in the population in recent years. Between 1950 and 2010 the population of South Africa increased by over 250 percent, from just under 14 million to just under 50 million. By comparison, the equivalent figures for some other (non-African) countries are 20 percent in the UK, 28 percent in Sweden, 32 percent in France and about 100 percent in the US.

It’s only thanks to efficient farming in South Africa that this population explosion did not lead to mass starvation. How dangerous it would now be to put this at risk by large-scale redistribution of agricultural land. A quick glance across the border to Zimbabwe tells its own story.

The two articles by professors Gutto and Teffo make it clear that they believe the land should be returned to what they regard as its rightful owners, namely “natives and/or aborigines”.

I assume this to mean that only those with the right pigmentation and presumably this also includes the descendants of those tribes that entered South Africa from the north and dispossessed the original occupiers, the San.

Of course this leads to the question, who are the rightful owners of the land?

There is no satisfactory answer to this question, since most land all over the world was long ago taken away by force from the original occupiers, as humans spread out across the world in one wave after another. The world would descend into chaos if all land occupied today by the descendants of people who took land by force from others had to return it to the descendants of the first settlers. However, despite the fact that Gutto and Teffo’s reasoning is philosophically flawed, I can well understand the frustration of black South Africans that most land is owned by whites.

Perhaps there would be more agitation in England to change ownership patterns if the 1 percent that owned 70 percent of all land had different skin pigmentation.

At the same time, if all South Africans were well-off, not too many people would be worried about an imbalance in land ownership.

Unfortunately, in the present situation it is only too easy to obtain support for wholesale land redistribution, and perhaps even changes in the right to own land privately, by promoting these ideas with flawed arguments.

More could be achieved by providing more and better housing for the poor and homeless than spending millions on land redistribution.

Additional money for housing could perhaps come from a small levy on the capital value of land, similar to the charge put on West German land after World War II to provide compensation to those Germans who lost their property in the eastern German territories that were given to Germany’s neighbours.

For space reasons I will refrain from commenting in detail on the many ideologically slanted views in both articles, such as what the authors describe as the “mythical” willing seller, winning buyer concept for compensation (a globally well-established and widely used value concept) , the majority of land not being owned by the “natives” (how long does one have to live somewhere to be a native?) or the invitation to “Africans” (presumably once more of only one particular skin colour) “to participate in the creation of a… new world order” that is Afrocentric (no doubt particularly attractive to the Chinese and Indians).


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