Finally, a solution to the land question?

The Ratcatcher on how to operationalise BDay editor-in-chief Peter Bruce's plan to give every South African the right to half a ha of arable land

In his column on 16 October Business Day and Financial Mail Editor-in-Chief, Peter Bruce stated that the land was key to reducing both poverty and inequality. He wrote:

“I agree with Julius Malema and his party that land is the key to reducing poverty. And even inequality. In fact, every South African should have a right to half a hectare of arable land. They should be given it at the age of 21 and be able to work it, sell it, combine it or develop it within the confines of reasonable laws. The state can claim back reasonable costs from a citizen’s estate when they die.”

Given the imperative of confronting racialized poverty and inequality in South Africa, and the fact that this proposal came from the head of South Africa’s two most prestigious business publications, it is worth examining in more depth how this important proposal could be operationalised.

Statistics South Africa estimated the population of South Africa in mid-2014 at 54 million people (of whom 32,6 million were over 20 years of age.) The plan would thus require government to grant individual South Africans the right to 27 million hectares of arable land.

The first small problem that would confront government, in implementing this project, would be where to find this land. In terms of land capability grading South Africa has 15,1m hectares of arable land (classes 1, 2 or 3) of which 2,2m hectares has medium to high potential as arable land (classes 1 or 2). The latter is the land on which a wide array of crops can be reliably planted at a profit. As has been pointed outIf Class 3 land is used, the limitations (such as shallower soil, more risky climate etc.) mean that in most years, the yield reduction will be such that it may be difficult to sustainably make a living” from such land.

If government focused on granting a right to half a hectare of arable land in classes 1 or 2 to every South African it would be faced with a 24,8 million hectare shortfall. If they included more marginal arable land this would be reduced to a shortfall of 11,9 million hectares. Since arable land is a finite resource meeting this half-a-hectare goal would, quite obviously, require territorial expansion. Given that Namibia and Botswana are largely desert, and Lesotho is mountainous, the countries that would need to be invaded – to secure the necessary living room for the South African population – would lie in the (North) East: Swaziland, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Here certain difficulties present themselves. Invading one’s neighbours and displacing the local population – though not unheard of in recent history – may further undermine the country’s international standing following the recent Al-Bashir controversy. Given the current budget squeeze, and the need to fund the recent 0% fee increase for university students, Treasury would probably be reluctant to provide the money for even short and sharp military action.

Unfortunately then government may be forced to cut its coat according to the cloth available, and limit itself to granting rights to the arable land that actually exists within the current borders of South Africa.

Thus, 0.04 hectares (1/10th of an acre) of moderate to high potential arable land, on which it is relatively easy to grow cops, could be made available to each South African. If one includes the more difficult to farm Class 3 land 0,28 hectares (7/10ths of an acre) of arable land could be allocated to every person.

Some further obstacles would arise at this juncture, if government was to go for the second, more expansive option. Given that this project even at this diminished level requires reallocating rights to every single hectare of arable land in the country, what should one do, firstly, about the existing owners and farmers of the land? Here, implementing Malema’s proposal of expropriation without compensation would be historically inevitable.

Secondly, government would have to then survey and divide all arable land into quarter-hectare plots (or single hectare plots for the average household.) And the infrastructure such as roads would need to be built to allow for individuals and families to reach their designated parcel of land. Funds could be raised for this by selling off to the Chinese the now superfluous and inhumane machinery of mass commercial agriculture – centre pivots, combine harvesters, tractors and so on.

Thirdly, there are issues that arise from the reality that some provinces have more arable land than others. Such land is under-represented in Gauteng, the Western Cape, the Northern Cape, the Eastern Cape, and to a small extent KwaZulu-Natal and over-concentrated in the Free State, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the North West. See table below. Residents of the latter provinces would thus have to give up some of ‘their’ land to residents of the former ones.

Table: Population vs arable land by province

Potential arable land (classes 1,2,3)


ha of arable land per person available

Arable land surplus / - deficit

Eastern Cape

1 289 488

6 786 880


-610 344

Free State

2 263 775

2 786 757


1 483 686


944 767

12 914 817


-2 670 442


2 814 628

10 694 434


-179 035


2 153 308

5 630 464


577 188


3 096 299

4 229 323


1 912 396

Northern Cape


1 166 680


-326 585

North West

1 641 272

3 676 274


612 183

Western Cape

913 079

6 116 324


-799 047


15 116 616

54 001 953



A further question that arises is how employed residents of more urbanised areas would be able to make the time, and travel the distance, to work their piece of land. This would be particularly important as, by this point, the commercial farmers who have been feeding the country up until now would no longer have any arable land on which to grow crops, or to borrow money against to finance the cost of production.

In the short to medium term this would result in shortages of staple foodstuffs, as has happened in other countries which have pursued similarly grand and necessary projects of land reform. For instance, it would be something of a schlep for a family in Cape Town to have to travel every weekend to the North Eastern Free State to tend the 1 hectare plot of land they have been allocated in order to feed themselves.

It is at this point that there is the prospect of a virtuous cycle setting in. Obliterating the property rights of one section of the population, in this case crop farmers, tends to undermine them for the rest of the population as well. For reasons that remain obscure it also tends to deter foreign investment, stifle growth and stoke capital (and middle class) flight.

Apart from the decline in inequality that a reduction in urban incomes would herald, the golden-lining here is that the resultant economic decline would free up significant time for now un- or under-employed urbanites to return to work the land. The dramatic rise in food prices will also help motivate and push up the incomes of a newly resurgent peasant class.

If, as often unavoidably happens in revolutionary transitions such as this, there is a reduction of the population this would, fortunately, increase the amount of land available to every South African. It would only require the dimunition of the population by 24 million people to make Bruce’s land target of 0,5 hectares of arable land per person a reality and thereby knock out poverty and inequality in South Africa once and for all.