Can the numbers in the 2017 land audit be trusted?

Gabriel Crouse says the figures in the report are internally inconsistent, and not reflective of actual reality

Apparently it was W.E.B du Bois who said “When you have mastered numbers you will in fact no longer be reading numbers -- anymore than you read words when reading books -- you will be reading meanings.”

As noted elsewhere on Politicsweb the numbers in the 2017 State Land Audit report released in February this year have been used extensively to motivate Expropriation Without Compensation of white owned land. In the EFF motion to amend Section 25 of the constitution the Audit is cited as the source for the claim “that black people own less than 2% of rural land, and less than 7% of urban land”.

In the debate on the resolution Gugile Nkwinti, Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform (RDLR) from 2009 until earlier this year, stated that the land audit gives “context to the resolution by the CIC of the EFF. That Audit report reflects the following ownership patterns across races. Whites own 26,6 million hectares, which is 72% of the total 37 million hectares of farms and agricultural holdings by individual landowners; followed by Coloureds at 15%, Indians at 5% and Africans at a lousy 4%.”

President Ramaphosa also used these numbers more poetically in the National Assembly saying that “the Land Audit Report indicates that white people in our country still own around 72% of the farms owned by individuals; Coloured people in our country own 15%; and Indians 5% and Africans -- who constitute the majority of the people who live in this beautiful land -- only own 4%."

Three questions arise in search of meaning.

Can the Audit’s Numbers be Trusted?

The Audit’s third paragraph begins as follows:

The Land Audit also shows that individuals, companies, and trusts own 89,523,044 ha or 90% of the 114,223,276 ha land. Individuals own 37,800,986 ha or 39% of this total land; followed by trusts at 29,291,857 ha or 31%; companies at 23,199,904 or 25%;

But the numbers above for “Individuals”, “trusts” and “companies” in the second sentence do not sum to the total indicated in the first sentence. I invite you to check for yourself[1]. I’ll bet there’s a very simple way to clear this up and I would expect the State auditors to do that.

In Section D: Sectional Title Ownership the following text appears: About 90% or 1,019 ha of sectional title units are foreign owned in GP, KZN and EC.

The table above this text indicates that in those provinces foreigners do own 1,019 Ha but that only makes 15% of sectional title units in those provinces, not 90%. In total foreigners own 10% of sectional titles by extent across the country. Again, there must be a simple explanation for this little mistake. Wouldn’t you like the State auditors to explain that to the country?

These are just two examples from the beginning and middle of the audit. There are more numbers that don’t add up, though curiously the “mistakes” dry up in non-contentious parts of the report. If you see a number in the Audit you cannot be sure it adds up with other numbers in the Audit.

A separate question is whether numbers in the Audit lineup with facts from the great beyond, aka reality (see here). Here’s a separate highlight that boggles my mind.

In the Audit’s Annex there is a breakdown by province for “Transformed Areas” supplied by data from the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). The communications head of RDLR told me that “Transformed Areas” described in the Audit refers to land that has been “converted to non-agricultural uses through urban and mining developments”. The “Transformed Areas” total is different to the total urban area from the quote above, which is just what anyone would expect. The total urban land should be less than total transformed areas since the latter also includes mining developments (and perhaps other industry).

But according to the new Audit there is more urban land in South Africa than there is urban land + mining developments. To be precise, according to the State Land Audit with its DAFF Annex:

Urban Land and Mining Land + 58,469 Ha = Urban Land[2].

So either mining land takes up negative space in the country or the Audit’s urban land figures have been inflated.

The Audit does not offer a breakdown of total urban erven by province. It does, however, provide a breakdown of individually owned urban land by province. According to this table almost half of white-owned urban land is in the Northern Cape. The portion of white South Africans living in the Northern Cape is less than 1% but they have half white-owned urban land. Tell me another one, but first let me catch my breath.

Are the Audit’s numbers presented and used equitably?

The Audit’s executive summary claims that white people own 72% of some total of SA land. In Ramaphosa’s speech he was clear about the fact that this is 72% of individually owned rural land. But in the Audit’s summary it is written that the base for this percentage calculation is “the total farms and agricultural holdings”. Is it?

The short answer is no. This “total” excludes the State, trusts and companies to name a few. If you take total land and subtract inland water and transformed areas and calculate white owned rural land from that actual total base you find that white people own 22.5%.

Surely it is remarkable that when I was learning to count to three white people owned 87% of the country; now officially down to 22.5% (or even lower if you count arid land less than fertile land, see here for details). To be sure, the Audit indicates black ownership of rural land is totally out of line with that group’s share of the population (excluding communally owned land as the Audit does) so where does this silenced majority live? A question the Audit does not being to address.

In the case of urban land the Audit’s usage has been distorting too. The EWC motion notes black people own 7% of urban land. White individuals own 11% of urban land calculated from the same base, though the Audit reports white ownership at 49% by calculating from a narrower base. Counting GP, MP, LP, NW, KZN, EC, FS black individuals own twice as much urban land as white individuals. You would never know this only hearing “black people own 7% of urban land”.

Again, the most incredible aspect of the Audit is in regards to state intervention. There is only one mention of “state land” in conjunction with a number: the extent of unregistered state-owned land. The audit then subtracts this figure and uses the remainder as a baseline for “total land” in later calculations further obscuring the State’s role in land ownership. There is no breakdown of state land by province, by type (rural vs. urban) or by user (government department, traditionally run communal land, municipalities etc).

Besides individuals and the State the bulk of SA land is owned by companies, trusts and community based organizations. The Audit reports: The same individuals own most of these companies, trusts and CBOs.

This claim is not backed up by any data in the report. Nor is any explanation provided of what the “same individuals” means, though the racial implication is clear. It is a floating article of faith in an Audit whose function is to separate facts from guesses and whose impetus is to change the Constitution. In this context such an article of faith is properly called prejudice.

Can We do Without a Land Audit?

The State Land Audit’s numbers are inconsistent with one another. They are inconsistent with broader reality. They are presented in misleading ways in and beyond the Audit using different bases to calculate white ownership and black ownership (again more here on this). The Audit bothered to establish the racial ownership patterns (whether accurately or not) of small portions of rural and urban land. Its justification for not looking into the rest is prejudicial. Across this as well as the 2013/2014 warmup Audit, State Land Auditors obscure figures on State owned land.

As far as possible, therefore, we must do without it. And yet we all need to know: who owns how much land and where? What has happened since 1994? Before we do anything drastic it would be nice to have at least one clear and credible State Land Audit. Nice and also necessary.

It has been too easily forgiven or forgotten: the State aimed to ban land ownership or dispossess foreigners repeatedly in the last few years. Now it aims to do that to (some kind of) white citizens. If white citizens were the land hoarders surely the Audit’s obfuscation and chicanery would be unnecessary?

But maybe it’s just me, maybe I don’t think right. The previous land Audit forward noted that the absence of evidence on foreign ownership was just the thing needed to go forward with dispossessing foreigners. The RDLR DG wrote:

We are unable to identify foreign ownership because the system does not provide for that analysis. Through our Policy on Land Owned by Foreigners (PLOF) we aim to revise the regime governing land ownership by foreign nationals. In this way we will be laying proper foundations...

If you think that is crazier than a poor young South African checking up on the hugely expensive State Audit with a borrowed calculator then you will also start wandering. Why does the state repeatedly go after unpopular groups’ land, why is evidence the last thing it needs to do this, and why does the state keep evidence on its own holdings all to itself?

Maybe, just maybe the numbers that mean most are these. According to a team of academics -- Royston, Cousins, Kingwill and Hornby -- 30 million South African people live outside the titling system. According to this private research at least 23.5 million South African people live on urban and rural State owned land. 5 million in RDP houses they do not own at all; another 1.5 million in RDP houses with outdated or inaccurate title; 17 million in Communal Areas owned by the State and its proxies[3].

This land is not privately owned so there is little motive to invest in it and improve it in residential or agricultural terms. This half of the country do not own the places they live so they cannot raise credit or sell off and move to greener pastures. These numbers indicate that the real land hoarder in SA is the State. It would rather count on race-baiting than take account of its own role in immiserating half of the country. Half the country do not own the ground they sleep over because the State would rather keep all that to itself.


[1] In case you don’t have a calculator to hand. The sum of the figures provided is 90,292,747 Ha. The first sentence total is off from the second sentence figures by 769,703 Ha. That is about the size of an average individually owned farm...plus another 3770 more average individually owned farms.

[2] Transformed Areas 3,139,291 Ha + 58,469 Ha = 3,197,760 Ha of “Erven in urban areas”.

[3] Ben Cousins explained in an email to me that “Very few of the roughly 17 or 18 million people in communal areas hold their land in the form of registered title deeds...the land that their homes (and fields and grazing etc) are on is mostly registered as state land.”