11 February 2018 06:27
Dewald Van Rensburg
Johannesburg – The government’s new land audit report, which City Press exclusively reported on last week, makes recommendations that bear no relationship whatsoever to the findings of the audit itself.
Land researchers are calling it bizarre and lacking in any real analysis.
This seems to be why the report was rejected by Cabinet in June last year and sent back to the rural development and land reform department for “definitive proposals”.
The recommendations made in the November 2017 version revealed by City Press, and subsequently made public by the department last week, are the same as in the rejected June version, the department confirmed to City Press via email this week.
Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti said, in an answer to parliamentary questions in September, that the report would probably be made public at the end of October.
Asked why the report had not been made public, the department simply responded that it has now been made public – after City Press’ report.
One possible reason the department has sat on the land audit results and struggled to give Cabinet “definitive proposals” is that the results are incredibly inconclusive.
The land audit has been years in the making but sheds very little light on who owns South Africa.
Only 31% of land owned by natural individuals (as opposed to companies, trusts and the state) can be accorded a race or gender.
“The big trend in the past 25 years has been the growth in corporate ownership. We have increasingly corporatised land ownership in South Africa,” said Ruth Hall, professor at the University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian studies.
The audit results confirm disproportionate land ownership by white people but in no way establishes the extent of this.
“That means this audit really tells us nothing.”
The audit has to be understood in the context of Nkwinti’s attempts to pass his Regulation of Agricultural Holdings Bill, said Hall.
The draft bill went to Parliament early last year and aims to require land purchasers to self-declare their race and nationality, introduce land “ceilings” prohibiting single owners from owning very large farms and ban foreigners from buying land.
The audit report’s limited findings actually seem to invalidate one of those aims.
The audit seems to show that foreign ownership is not at all the major problem it is made out to be, with foreign individuals owning about 1% of land.
“There is no evidence to show that there is a problem [with foreign ownership],” said Hall.
A major problem with the audit is that it makes no distinction between types of land or land uses.
That means a nearly worthless piece of rocky desert in the middle of nowhere is treated the same as the centre of Sandton, Johannesburg, or prime agricultural land.
This presents a real problem because Northern Cape is by far the largest province and it distorts the national figures.
Despite the limitations caused by corporate and trust ownership of land, even the figures the audit does provide are open to doubt.
“There has been a massive failure to record de facto ownership of land,” said Hall.
“Thirty percent of the population live in the old bantustans where land records are in shambles.”
A major source of black property ownership has been the transfer of RDP houses, but the actual transfer of deeds that the audit could measure has often not occurred.
Most of the audit report’s recommendation section is copied, twice, from a UN document from 1996 that was drafted to advise ex-Soviet countries on land administration.
This is a “slightly bizarre” authority to copy, said Hall.
“It is unclear how the audit and the recommendations relate to each other,” said Hall.
The audit report makes three recommendations.
One is to create a new land administration commission that will essentially do most of the things the department is already supposed to do, including collecting and keeping information on land ownership.
“The government seems obsessed with creating new institutions,” said Hall. This is already the department’s job, she said. “The department is failing with 25% of its posts vacant,” said Hall.
Another recommendation is a new land reform fund to be funded by a land value tax.
The report cites another strange authority for this – a blog post from 2014 by a UK economist talking about land speculation in London.
“It is really important to raise the land tax,” said Hall.
“Land reform is clearly underfunded, but the primary job of a land value tax is to stop speculation … If speculation and land hoarding are the problem, then the tax might make sense.”
An initial assessment of the audit report by Derick Fay, associate professor at the University of Boston, points out how none of the recommendations seems to be based on the audit.
Fay has co-edited two books on land in South Africa.
“The article cited to justify the land value tax is a page and a half largely speculative blog post, with no substantive research cited backing it up,” he said in an email to colleagues in South Africa.
“There is some merit to the argument but it is hardly something to base national policy on,” he said.
“The proposed functions of the land administration commission are drawn verbatim from a UN document written for Eastern Europe more than 20 years ago and make no reference to South African conditions,” Fay said.
“My hunch is that the recommendations specific to South Africa were a foregone conclusion, to be added on regardless of the audit’s contents.”