James Myburgh examines why dubious racial Land Audit figures were so widely circulated in the West
Early this year the African National Congress and Economic Freedom Fighters sought to motivate for a constitutional amendment to allow for land expropriation without compensation (EWC) on the basis of the results of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s recent Land Audit. This found that 72% of farms and agricultural holdings owned by individuals in South Africa were owned by whites, while only 3.5% were owned by black Africans.
After US President Donald Trump weighed in on the South African land question in a controversial Tweet in August, this statistic formed the basis for one of the factoids widely circulated in the British and American media in response. For instance, the Guardianasserted that “72% of agricultural land is in the hands of white farmers, according to the Land Audit Report, despite white people making up just 8% of the population.” The BBC’s Reality Checkclaimed that “Most of the country's farms and agricultural holdings are owned by white farmers - 72% according to government statistics. White people make up 9% of the population.”
Patrick Gaspard, former US Ambassador to South Africa under the Obama administration and now President of the Open Society Foundations, asserted in the New York Daily News that “Trump knows nothing of the effort to undo the poisonous economic legacy of apartheid that has left black people owning just 4% of farms, despite making up 78% of the population. (Whites own 72%, despite making up just 9% of the population.)”
The suggestion of those pushing this statistic in the Western media was that the ANC government had made little progress in providing redress for apartheid-era racial dispossession, and that there was now an urgent and justifiable need for “something” to be done about this. In an editorial weighing in on the issue the Financial Times set out this argument most clearly:
“According to an official audit, 72 per cent of farms and agricultural holdings in South Africa are owned by whites and 24 per cent by non-whites. Of the latter, just 4 per cent are black Africans, who make up more than three quarters of the population. These figures are controversial and probably overstate the case. They do however reflect a broad reality born of an injustice which began in 1913 with the Natives Land Act. This stripped black Africans of almost all their land, a process of dispossession entrenched subsequently by apartheid. Since the end of white minority rule in 1994, the ruling African National Congress has had only marginal success addressing this iniquity on the basis of willing sellers and buyers.”
Echoing this view, the New York Times claimed that while South Africa’s “new Constitution did provide for land reform” post-1994, “the process has moved slowly.”
This 72/4 split would mean that twenty-four years after the first democratic elections in South Africa whites owned eighteen times as much agricultural land as black Africans. This proportion, though likely horrifying to ordinary readers, should have struck more informed ones as odd. In 1994 the ratio of white to black African owned agricultural land (so excluding state and urban land) was probably about 5 to 1. Was it really possible that the process of racial land redistribution under the ANC government had proceeded so “slowly” that the ratio was now 18 to 1? If it was not possible, and it isn’t, why were these publications all running with the same inflammatory but ridiculous statistic?
To answer the last question, which is a very important one, it is first necessary to go into some detail on the actual extent of land redistribution post-1994; in the context of the ‘land question’ in South Africa viewed from both a historical and geographical perspective.
At the time the infamous 1913 Natives Land Act was passed, a few years after the establishment of the Union of South Africa, the various forms of “Native-owned” land covered some 11 million hectares (8.9%) of the total area of the new country. Overall, 15 249 246 hectares (12.5%) were occupied exclusively by “Natives”. Unoccupied Crown-lands (state-owned land) made up a further 12.5% of the extent of the country and “European”-owned and occupied farms 74%. The Commission set up in terms of the Act, and headed by Judge William Beaumont, estimated that 48.6% of the total “Native” population of 4 417 645 persons lived on “Native-owned” land and 58.7% on all “Native-occupied” land. A further 29.1% lived on European-occupied and owned (or leased) farms and 12.2% in the urban areas.
The Act itself severely restricted, but did not completely prohibit, the further inter-racial sale or rental of land. This now could only occur with the permission of the state. It also sought to restrict both the purchase of land by “Natives” outside of scheduled areas, “European” purchases of land within them, and, as significantly and cruelly, tenancy or sharecropping by “Natives” on European-owned land. It did not apply retroactively to existing title to land, and over the next two decades permission continued to be granted for black African land purchases outside the scheduled areas, if onerous requirements were met. It also arrested any further alienation of “tribal lands”, which was seen as a real threat at the time.
The Beaumont Commission recommended an expansion of the scheduled areas, set out in the 1913 Act, from 7% of the land area of South Africa to 12.8% (15,7 million hectares), basically the same proportion of the land solely under “Native” occupation. As can be seen from the map below these areas were almost all located in the east of the country, in the areas of historic black African settlement.
The great bulk of the proposed “reserves” (in green) stretched along two bands - one in the north east of the country and the other below and along the eastern escarpment. The flat and relatively well watered regions of the Eastern Free State, the Highveld and the Western Transvaal were excluded. These areas, though desirable for growing crops and grazing cattle, lacked natural defences or places of refuge, and had been completely devastated during the Mfecane, the South African equivalent of Europe’s Thirty Years War. They were then opportunistically occupied and settled by the Voortrekkers following their final defeat of Mzilikazi in 1838 and the flight of the Matabele across the Limpopo River.
The actual implementation of the Land Act, outside of the Orange Free State, proceeded gradually. It was only with the 1936 Natives Land and Trust Act that a trust was established to purchase additional land to add to the scheduled areas, and the “Native” voters in the Cape were shifted onto a separate voters roll thereby allowing for the extension of the provisions of the 1913 Act to that province as well.
The effect of the 1913 and 1936 Land Acts on land ownership patterns, at least in terms of national proportions, was to freeze in place the existing status quo for eight decades, no matter how unfair or unjust. After 1948 the National Party government moved to de-colonise the country by separating it out into a white-dominated South Africa and various “independent” black African homelands. In pursuit of this utopian objective an estimated 674 000 black Africans were forcibly removed, by 1983, from property they owned as part of homeland consolidation / “black spot” removals, while another 1,1 million black tenant farmers and redundant workers were also evicted from white-owned farms in this period.
The total area of the then homelands in 1982 was sixteen million hectares or 13.1% of the total area of South Africa. This was an area that excluded the country’s main cities and towns and was meant to accommodate, in terms of the apartheid ideology of ‘separate development’, a black African population that had grown to 22,8 million people by 1983.
Forced removals were halted in February 1985 and the pass laws also scrapped that year. In February 1990 President FW de Klerk announced that the 1913 and 1936 Land Acts, as well as the Group Areas Act, would be abolished, and this was then done the following year. There was a consensus in South Africa in the early 1990s that the race-based dispossessions that had occurred during the apartheid-era were morally abhorrent, and restitution should be provided for the victims. The new African National Congress government in 1994 was further empowered to pursue its historic African nationalist agenda of transferring land from white to black ownership, but within the constraints of a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ model.
According to figures compiled by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, between 1994 and March 2018 3,5 million hectares of land have been transferred by government to beneficiaries as part of the restitution programme for racial dispossessions that occurred between 1913 and 1991. This covered not just all those who lost title to land but various other categories of claimants as well. In a further 36% of land (not urban) restitution cases the beneficiaries opted for financial compensation. This covered a further 2,7 million hectares for which restitution has been made for the wrongs of the past, bringing the total to 6,2 million hectares.
Another 4,8 million hectares have been bought by government as part of its land redistribution programme for the exclusive benefit of black South Africans, though latterly ownership of these farms has remained vested in the state. Between 1994 and 2004 the ANC government also disposed of 772 662 hectares of state-owned agricultural land to black South Africans.
This brings the total sum of land either restituted or redistributed to 11,8 million hectares (see table below). It is important to note that the extent of this process, both as a result of the way in which restitution has been interpreted as well as redistribution, has progressed far beyond the areas affected by the most egregious apartheid-era (“black spot”) forced removals.
Table 1: Area of land redistributed or restituted by government 1994 to March 2018 (hectares)
Restitution of land
3 483 269
2 700 000
6 183 269
Govt driven racial land redistribution
4 847 596
State land disposal*
5 620 222
(Private land purchases by black South Africans)
11 803 491
* Up until 2004.
If the situation in 1913 is to be taken as the baseline, as the FT suggests, then 11,8m hectares is equal to 108% of “Native-owned” land at the time the Act was passed, and 77,4% of solely “Native-occupied” land. It amounts to 73,7% of all homeland (black African-owned) land in 1982. 11,8 million hectares is also not an insignificant area, at least from a European viewpoint. By comparison the total extent of Austria is 8,4 million hectares and Bulgaria, the sixteenth largest European nation out of fifty one states, 11 million hectares.
In terms of agricultural land the approximately nine million hectares of agricultural land actually redistributed or restituted is equal to about half of all agricultural land in Germany or the United Kingdom. When it comes to countries mentioned as possible models for “land reform” in South Africa it is twice the extent of agricultural land in all of Korea (North and South) and Japan, and eleven times the extent of agricultural land in Taiwan.
However when viewed from an African nationalist perspective, it is only just over a tenth of the area of South African commercial farmland recorded in 1996, and a third of the ANC’s original 1994 target of redistributing thirty percent of such land by 2014.
What is missing from both of these two perspectives, of course, is the quality of the land at issue. In Japan, Korea and Taiwan all or almost all agricultural land is high potential arable land. In South Africa the situation is completely different. In terms of the land capability grading – which uses a combination of soil quality, slope, and rainfall levels to measure the suitability of land for agriculture – only 12,4% (15m Ha) of the country is potentially arable (without irrigation), and only 1,8% (2,2 m Ha) is considered as being moderate to high potential arable land. It is something of a miracle in the circumstances that despite low and intermittent rainfall, poor quality land, and a complete lack of state support for agriculture, South Africa is the most food secure country on the African continent, thanks to the sophistication of its commercial farming class.
Most of this arable land, as well as all the relatively productive grazing land, lies in the higher rainfall eastern half of the country. The areas lying below the Great Escarpment have the highest levels of precipitation but this land is highly sloped, and so often not suitable for growing crops.
Even at the time of the transition in 1994 most white-owned commercial farmland lay in the arid west of the country, while former homeland areas largely lay in the higher rainfall east. The proportions of different categories of land capability by province, set out against the different proportions of land ownership in the mid-1990s, can be seen in the graph below:
* The restitution and redistribution figures in the graph (in blue) exclude state disposal of land as well as areas where financial compensation was accepted instead of land. They are substracted from areas of commercial farmland.
The restitution and redistribution programmes of the ANC government have focused largely on areas in the eastern half of the country. This is both where past dispossessions of black Africans predominantly occurred, both before and after 1913, and where the more desirable farmland still lies.
Redistributing the huge tracts of commercial farmland that lie across the once uninhabitable semi-desert areas of the Karoo, and its bleak surrounds, has not been a priority for government. Although this is rational and understandable on one level these vast areas are always included in national totals of "white-owned farm land" when it comes to tallying up the extent of racial land redistribution in the country. This has the effect of creating a highly distorted view of the situation as most people tend to think, quite sensibly, of “agricultural land” as well tended arable or grazing land, not semi-desert.
Any good faith assessment of land redistribution and current ownership patterns has to take into account the capability of the land, as well as simply its extent. In a report released in 2017 Agri SA tried to do just this in an analysis of agricultural land holdings by “Previously Disadvantaged Individuals” using a transactions based approach. This sought to account both for government and private purchases by “PDIs” of agricultural land and also to adjust for the quality of the land.
The report found that in the eastern provinces, with the notable exception of the Free State, a substantial share of agricultural land was now in state or black hands. This ranged from 39,1% in Gauteng to 73,5% in KZN. These are also the provinces where most of South Africa’s arable and decent grazing land is located. This meant that while only 26,7% of agricultural land by area was in black hands nationally, due largely to the Karoo factor, 46,5% of agricultural land in terms of actual “land potential” was.Source: AgriSA.
Given the numbers set out above how did government’s Land Audit come up with the 4% figure for black African agricultural land ownership? To begin with these racial percentages referred to individual land ownership only. As was pointed out at the time this type of land ownership covered only a third of the country, according to the Land Audit’s own numbers. This meant that the 24 million hectares allegedly directly owned by white individuals made up all of 21,9% of the extent of the country. Moreover, half of this individually white-owned land was located in the Northern and Western Cape alone and around two-thirds in low-rainfall low-capability areas in the west.
Furthermore, this measurement removed all state and former homeland land from the baseline given that such land is not individually owned. It then, again by definition, also excluded the entirety of the government’s post-1994 land redistribution and restitution efforts in relation to agricultural land.
This is because, with some exceptions, the nine million hectares of land physically restituted or redistributed post-1994 was either transferred to communities, or taken into state possession. This measure also obviously did not count the 2,7 million hectares where financial compensation was accepted in lieu of land restitution. (In addition many private land purchases by black South Africans post-1990, including by senior ANC politicians, were made through companies, trusts, or closed-corporations.) None of these different categories of land ownership / purchases would have been reflected in the Land Audit as “black African owned” as this counted individually owned land only.
The claim then that “Whites still owned 72% of agricultural land, and black Africans only 4%” was based upon a highly misleading measure. It was employed by the ANC and EFF precisely because it greatly minimised the apparent extent of black African agricultural land ownership, while magnifying the extent of white ownership. It was then cynically used by these racial ideologues to agitate for a constitutional amendment to allow for EWC.
This all raises the question as to why leading British and American publications such as the Guardian, the BBC, the Financial Times, the New York Times and others also chose to run with this particular factoid in August 2018? The basic problem with this data had been pointed out by Politicsweb and the Institute of Race Relations months previously. Why go with the implausible 4% figure for black African agricultural land ownership in South Africa in preference, for example, to Agri SA’s numbers?
This was clearly not done out of ignorance. The Financial Times for one knew perfectly well that the racial land ownership figures it was citing were dubious (hence the addition of the weasely qualifier “controversial”), as this had already been pointed out to them, but it spouted them out anyway. It is also not that Agri SA was regarded as an unreliable source. A press release by that organisation repeating flawed SAPS figures on the number of farm murders last year was treated as deeply authoritative by the very same publications.
To understand what is going on here there is some historical background that is relevant.
There has been a long tradition of certain Western intellectuals identifying completely both with the cause of black African nationalism, and against the continent’s racial minorities. Five years before Idi Amin expelled the Asians from Uganda a young Paul Theroux published an essay - "Hating the Asians" - noting that the vulnerable position of this minority in East Africa was "the result of a collaboration, most likely unthought-out and maybe even unconscious, between outsiders and insiders; almost a conspiracy of Africans and their European apologists, who would very much like to see Africa succeed, even at the expense of a pogrom, a thorough purge of these immigrant peoples."
The tendency described by Theroux did not extend, at that time, to leading liberal publications such as the New York Times or the Guardian. Their reporting and commentary on the “Asian question” in East Africa, and Amin’s “solution” of it, remained recognisably liberal and humane. Subsequently however this ideological tendency has, for reasons that lie outside of the scope of this article, grown ever-more hegemonic within elite Western opinion.
The dispossession of the mostly white commercial farming class in Zimbabwe post-2000 was thus widely if quietly applauded. As Fergal Keane observed in an article for the Spectator in 2002 “People who will happily campaign for human rights in East Timor or the Middle East start to behave like the most rabid social Darwinists when you mention Zimbabwe’s whites. ‘Africa is a tough place and they were on top for a long time. It’s their turn to be dominated now,’ a friend I’d previously regarded as a liberal told me.”
There has subsequently been a systematic effort by such Western intellectuals not just to downplay the devastating effects of those land seizures in Zimbabwe, on black and white alike, but to argue that they were actually beneficial. Although this viewpoint is not a completely sane one, to put it mildly, it has acquired serious purchase within Western academia and has also been widely disseminated by publications such as the Guardian, Bloomberg and the New York Times.
Turning to South Africa, agitation for a constitutional amendment to allow for EWC has been led for years by Julius Malema, both as ANC Youth League President and then leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters. He is on record as saying that the ultimate goal is the complete dispossession of the white minority. As he put it in a speech in late 2016 “Victory will only be victory if the land is restored in the hands of rightful owners. And rightful owners unashamedly is black people. No white person is a rightful owner of the land here in South Africa and in the whole of the African continent. This is our continent, it belongs to us.”
Within the ANC itself this cause was successfully taken up, ahead of the party’s December 2017 national conference, by the kleptocratic grouping in the party campaigning for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to succeed Jacob Zuma as party and then state president. It was intended both as a means of diverting attention from their own massive looting of the state – then being laid bare in the independent press - and to enable them to proceed onwards towards plundering the wealth held in the private sector as well. The intention was that the historic mission of the ANC of “returning the wealth to the people” would finally be fulfilled in a festive and popular orgy of massive looting and economic destruction.
The drive for this constitutional amendment has thus come from the most racialist and nasty elements within our society. The Land Audit was cooked up as an intrinsic part of the process and in preparation for its implementation. President Cyril Ramaphosa has thus far gone along with it either out of political weakness and/or a lack of opposing ideological conviction. The cost to government of just considering this policy – in terms of lost confidence, investment and revenue – has already far outweighed any conceivable “savings” down the road. If the constitution is indeed amended, and the ultra-racialists and kleptocrats succeed in pushing Ramaphosa off the ANC horse, the results are going to be catastrophic for South Africa.
In the circumstances probably the least unexpected aspect of South Africa’s lurch towards EWC is the sympathetic response it has received from elite opinion in Britain and America. The prevailing sentiment is that white farmers will be getting their belated and deserved comeuppance not just for apartheid but for all the crimes, atrocities and injustices committed during four-and-a-half centuries of European world conquest.
Crimes beget more crimes, is the attitude, and the dispossession of the whites of South Africa is a necessary sacrifice to atone for all the wrongs of colonialism. If South Africa’s food security is destroyed in the process and millions of black children grow up malnourished and stunted as a result, and sub-Saharan Africa’s development is set back yet another generation, then so be it.
That leading British and American intellectuals, of such great intelligence and elevated virtue, could and would hold such bracing views about another country, so distant from their own, is of course neither surprising nor unprecedented. As George Orwell noted this kind of “transferred nationalism” makes it possible for an intellectual to be “much more nationalistic — more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest — than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge.” It was also, he wrote, “like the use of scapegoats… a way of attaining salvation without altering one's conduct.”
The great complication for such Western intellectuals of this “Social Darwinist” disposition is that what they are instinctively supporting in South Africa is completely alien to the principles and values on which their own highly functional, successful and humane societies are built, and to which they must still pay public obeisance. To get around this there is an elaborate “dance of the veils” in reporting and commentary on the situation in South Africa. This involves, among other things, leading their audience to believe that they are supporting one thing (redress for past wrongs), while they are actually willing something else entirely (an imminent act of racial persecution).
The problem with pretending that EWC in South Africa today is about the former is that the government has pursued policies of restitution and redistribution, paid for by South African taxpayers, for over two decades. Almost all original land claims have been settled, in a process heavily tilted towards claimants, and in addition huge tracts of agricultural land have been bought up for the purposes of redistribution as well. The priority now from a rational “land reform” perspective is ensuring the millions of hectares of agricultural land in black and state hands now lying fallow for various reasons can be and are used productively.
This then is the explanation for the use of the dodgy Land Audit numbers, in preference to all other measures. The misleading racial statistics from that study were so eagerly circulated and cited not despite but because of their falsity. The flaws in the study were, in other words, their most appealing feature. Using this measure 12 million hectares of restituted or redistributed land could be magically made to disappear, as well as all former homeland land. It was then possible to argue, as the FT and New York Times did, that the ANC has only had “marginal success” in addressing past-inequities and the process had “moved very slowly”.
The message could then be sent that harsher measures were required to ensure racial justice, prompt, severe and inflexible.