Gwede's solution to the land question

Andrew Donaldson on ANC’s grumpy hobbit-like chairperson's proposal of a 12 000 hectare limit on farms


GWEDE Mantashe, the ANC’s grumpy hobbit-like chairperson, this week declared the Constitution should limit farm sizes to 12 000 hectares, and that white farmers who own more than that should hand over the rest of their land to the state without compensation.

It’s not an original proposal: in his state of the nation address in February 2013, former president Jacob Zuma announced government plans to impose a land ceiling of 12 000 hectares on agricultural land. 

The big difference, of course, was that in 2013 government was willing to compensate farmers on the basis of independent land valuations, and now they simply want to steal it — although not willy-nilly, mind, but in an orderly, responsible manner so as not to induce panic and harm the economy.

And just how is that turning out for everybody?

Back then, Zuma’s announcement sparked concern about food security, given that the country has a concentrated agricultural structure, with a small core group of farmers responsible for a large chunk of commercial produce. 

More interestingly, there was some discussion as to how government had arrived  at this ceiling of 12 000 hectares. As researcher Stephen Greenberg noted at the time, this was a vast area — and possibly too high a ceiling rather than too low.

There are no doubt farmers who own more than 12 000 hectares. Some may not even be white. But it made little sense to settle on this area as a uniform ceiling — or any other, for that matter — as productive land sizes vary according to context. 

The Western Cape’s fruit orchards and wine farms, for instance, occupy relatively little land compared to the sprawling sheep farms of the arid Karoo.

“On the other hand,” Greenberg wrote, “land is hardly even a factor of production for the huge industrial poultry operations, or the enormous cattle feedlots through which more than 75% of commercial beef production passes.”

The largest feedlot in Africa, for example, is near Heidelberg, south of Johannesburg; at 2 330 hectares, Karan Beef, which accommodates some 150 000 head of cattle, is about five times the size of the average Gauteng farm, yet less than half the size of the average Northern Cape farm.

Here at the Mahogany Ridge, we suspect little or no science was involved in choosing the ceiling. Luckily, its simplistic form — twelvety, plus some zeroes — meant its sudden appearance in the pages of his speech would not demand too much from Zuma, whose challenges in this regard are commonly known.

Further difficulty with sums is, alas, not uncommon in the administration that Accused Number One ceded to his successor, and it is unlikely that students attending the state-run “school of governance” will ever face the following poser:

“Finance minister Malusi Gigaba declares the state will collect almost R506-billion in personal income taxes this year. Public services and administration minister Ayanda Dlodlo declares that public sector salaries, growing at rates higher than inflation and which consumed 35% of expenditure in 2017, will this year cost the state more than R587-billion. Rearrange deckchairs accordingly.”

But perhaps there is no need for basic economic principles. There is always money to be found. Somewhere. Not so? 

In this regard, it’s well worth reminding ourselves that Section 25 of the Constitution, that part of the Bill of Rights the ANC wants to change to allow for expropriation without compensation, is not confined to land ownership.

As attorney Bulelwa Mabasa, a land claims specialist, told BusinessTech in March, Section 25 guards against “the deprivation of property in a wider sense, such as assets, shares and movable assets and not only land. In fact, it states pointedly … that [the definition of] property is not limited to land.

Once those protections are done away with, there will, in theory at least, be no stopping Mantashe and his grubby chums from casting a covetous eye around the place and deciding what other stuff and exactly how much of it will the white folk be permitted to own. Or the Indian and coloured folk.

Don’t kid yourselves, the cynics advise, but the private pension funds will be up next once the Public Investment Corporation has been bled dry. 

It was a French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who first coined the phrase, “La propriété, c'est le vol!”, or “Property is theft!” 

That was is 1840. A quarter century later, Karl Marx would dismiss Proudhon’s assertion, declaring the French man self-delusional when it came to the nature of “true bourgeois property”.

Happily, in the 21st century, the ANC has worked its way through this philosophical murk, and successfully concluded that property is, in fact, only theft when it doesn’t belong to you.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.