The Economic Freedom Fighter's (EFF) 2019 election campaign now in full swing — yes, really. EFF leader Julius Malema's appearance earlier this month at the Newcastle magistrates court, and the mini rally outside after the court's postponement, was precisely that — an election campaign rally. If you have barely been able to catch your breath since the local government elections, sorry.
"We will take our land no matter how. It's becoming unavoidable, it's becoming inevitable," Malema said outside of the magistrate's court. He pointedly blamed the ANC for protecting white landowners. "They have been swimming in a pool of privilege; they have been enjoying themselves because they always owned our land. We the rightful owners, our peace was disturbed by the white man's arrival here," he said.
It may not have been the intention of AfriForum when they first laid the charges against the EFF leader for contravening the Riotous Assemblies Act, but they have given Julius Malema the perfect set of talking points for his next election campaign cycle. Malema and the EFF (as well as an increasing number of individuals and civil organisations) stand on the one side. AfriForum (Afrikaner nationalism) are sided against them on the other side, alongside the African National Congress, and doubtlessly the Democratic Alliance (DA) too when it comments on the case.
The EFF have effectively announced its 2019 campaigning platform and from now land dominate the news cycle in the run up to the elections as every party is forced to respond. (Hint: There is no ignoring the EFF. They have an uncanny ability to press our collective buttons.)
But what to make of the land issue and more importantly, the EFF's policies on the topic?
But as much as the land reform conversation is heavily biased towards rural land, the fact is South Africa is a rapidly urbanising country.
It is trite to state that the ANC's land reform programme has failed. Land ownership patterns, both rural and urban, are still skewed racially. Rural commercial land especially, is still held by a very small pool of white landowners. But as much as the land reform conversation is heavily biased towards rural land, the fact is South Africa is a rapidly urbanising country, with more than 64% of the population living in urban areas. That figure will be 71% by 2030, according to United Nations.
Fact: We need to start talking about urban land reform in far greater detail beyond sweeping statements if we're going to get anywhere.
In the cities, the issue is largely that of transferring title deeds to previously disadvantaged people, many of whom live in subsidised or RDP housing. Others live on property they were prevented from owning by the apartheid government and have yet to receive the titles to. The grindingly slow pace of title-deed transfers became a stick with which the DA could beat the ANC in Johannesburg. The incoming DA mayor Herman Mashaba made a big show of handing out deeds in Soweto a month after coming into power.
However the assumption that the transfer of property rights to urban dwellers will unlock billions in potential capital is being tested. The 2008 township households study found that "title deeds make little economic difference to household wealth," according to the Financial Mail. The harsh fact of capitalism is that having a title deed doesn't automatically mean that bank managers are falling over themselves to lend you money to fund your children's education or small business. Meanwhile the Centre for Affordable Housing in Africa found that people living in subsidised housing had made some investments to upgrade their properties. The overwhelming majority funding the projects out of their own pockets, and less than 10% of these properties were used to secure funding.
An EFF government would in effect never 'give' any land to black people. It would merely give them permission to use it.
For the EFF's interpretation of the Freedom Charter's maxim, that the land shall be shared amongst all, to work it would have the effect of transferring all land ownership rights to the state. Its land policy states: "The state should, through its legislative capacity transfer all land to the state, which will administer and use land for sustainable-development purposes. This transfer should happen without compensation, and should apply to all South Africans, black and white." Thus the state would hold and administer all land rights on behalf of the people, and would disburse land-use licences on their behalf. This a remarkable departure from the DA and ANC land policies (both of which ultimately assume the über-importance of individual property rights) in that it goes beyond the patrimony of the current government policy, which seeks to manage the process of transferring property rights away from one group to another. An EFF government would in effect never 'give' any land to black people. It would merely give them permission to use it.
The EFF assumes that the large majority of black people and other groups disadvantaged by apartheid and are thus the focus of redress legislation would be happy to cede their rights to individual land ownership to the state. This could very well be true in rural and tribal areas, where you might find that the majority of people would be accustomed to the patronage of traditional leaders. However, it would be unwise to assume this of South Africa's urban centres, where individual property rights have been the basis for all other social relations.
For South Africans to break from the discriminatory and unfair policies of the past, and to achieve the best possible future for all the people, is it really necessary for all current land owners to cede all their rights to the state, and for all people to cede this right in the future, forever?
This is not to say that an insistence on the individual property right is the only way to fulfil the vision of the Freedom Charter. The status of social tenure as a viable model of understanding land ownership, for example, is gaining international traction as more countries experiment with it. In any case, property rights are inseparable from other forms of socioeconomic power, meaning that the ability to own, transfer and otherwise profit from land is inextricably tied to power hierarchies. (It shouldn't surprise anybody to learn that race aside, men overwhelmingly are the landowners in South Africa.)
This is a debate that the EFF should not avoid — for South Africans to break from the discriminatory and unfair policies of the past, and to achieve the best possible future for all people, is it really necessary for all current land owners to cede all their rights to the state, and for all people to cede this right in the future, forever? While the state has an enormous role to play in reforming land ownership — and will continue to do so for many years to come — how does this system of complete control ensure that the state will always act in the interests of the public in general, and the poor in particular? It would be extremely foolish of the people to merely trust that the state will always act in their best interests without any real mechanism to check or temper its power. History stands witness to this fact.