A must read: land is not the key to economic justice

A must read: land is not the key to economic justice

by Terence Corrigan
Published in Dailyfriend on 11 September 2020

Parts of the article have been highlighted by NEASA's Media Department.

In a column last week in Business Day, Carol Paton framed South Africa’s future in terms of the country’s fractious land politics. Referring to the recent spate of land invasions and municipalities’ responses to this – not least the recent judgment of the Western Cape High Court limiting the removal of illegal structures – she asserted that political parties’ prospects would be linked to the extent to which they could find solutions to contestation around land.

‘If anyone ever doubted the fight for land is at the heart of the fight for economic justice,’ she wrote, ‘then by now they must surely have changed their mind.’

The notion that land is the central economic issue confronting the country is not uncommon. It has been endlessly repeated over the past few years. But Paton’s argument deserves attention because she alludes to land primarily as a tangible socio-economic resource rather than a symbolically important asset.

Paton links land to the concept of ‘economic justice’. If the term is intended to serve as an aspiration and a guide to policy and social action, its meaning must be clearly understood. Even though it is doubtful that it means the same to everyone who uses it, it should not be too controversial to view it (at a minimum) as making it possible for the millions living in poverty to have a reasonable and practicable chance to find a way out.

How does ‘the land question’ feature here? Certainly, land is necessary for particular types of economic activity, notably agriculture. And it is perhaps for this reason that land reform has come to be touted as a central part of the country’s development. Provide land, and all else will follow.

This, however, is belied by the failure of so many of South Africa’s land reform endeavours. Providing land is arguably the least troublesome element of the programme. Turning land reform beneficiaries into farmers, however, is an altogether more difficult proposition. Without financing, decent mentorship, infrastructure and access to markets, land reform stands little chance of success. Indeed, proposals for peasant farming (‘one household, one hectare’) not only underestimate the extent to which South Africa has lost its peasantry, but are a recipe for a poverty trap.

An urbanising country

South Africa is in any event an urbanising country. Around two thirds of the population already live in urban areas, and urbanisation will only grow in future; working the land has a diminishing attractiveness. Agriculture contributes a mere 2% of GDP, although in value chains and export earnings it has an outsized importance. If commercial farming is disrupted there will be serious consequences. Opinion surveys do not point to extensive pressure for farmland; in 2018, an IRR poll showed that only 2% of South Africans wanted expedited land reform to be a priority for the government.  

This is not to say that land reform has nothing to offer, nor that small-scale farming has no place. But it is prudent to be realistic about their potential to help deliver prosperity or economic justice. They are simply not a solution for the country’s ailments.

Land features more powerfully in recent events – and in Paton’s analysis – as it relates to urban centres. This is where the real ‘land hunger’ is.

But this too must be properly understood. Pressure for urban land is a function of the need to find a place to live that provides a route to participation in the urban economy and society – jobs and services, in other words. Although in South Africa this is compounded by the ludicrous spatial patterns that segregation and apartheid planning demanded, the overall problem is common to every country undergoing an urban transition.

The challenge is whether the receiving cities are able to generate the opportunities and administrative systems to cater for the expanding populations.

Urbanisation – as it occurred in Europe and North America in the 19th century and Asia in the 20th (a process that remains incomplete) – produces plenty of stresses of its own. In the absence of vibrant economies and competent management, these stresses can become debilitating. Cities turn from sites of hope for the countries’ poor, to zones of very visible exclusion.


This is in essence South Africa’s problem. With an economy that has barely grown in the past decade, and with unemployment at over 30% at its last official count, an orderly integration into the urban economy is denied to millions of people. Land invasions, which are often organised by criminal rings, are an outcome.

Yet the breakdown of law caused by land invasions and the threat to property rights only serves to undermine the prospects for the economic growth that is the only real long-term hope of resolving the poverty issue. Indeed, as Anthea Jeffery has argued previously on the Daily Friend, the recent court decision on evictions may compound this problem by providing some additional support for land invasions.

Meanwhile, as has been seen in Protea Glen and Lenasia, invasions are likely to breed resentment and confrontation with established residents, whose homes represent their primary investment.

What is to be done? Land is a potent flashpoint in South Africa. Having regard for the country’s history, it would be surprising if this were not the case. But if the country is serious about achieving some form of economic justice, it is critical that the barriers to inclusion should be clearly and soberly understood. One of these is to acknowledge that it is less the availability and provision of land, than the capacity to manage transition and urbanisation that is at issue.

No easy answers

There are certainly no easy answers. But finding those answers is not helped by the heavily ideological character of the country’s politics. Policy that prioritises the circulation of wealth among a relative elite, rewards political loyalty above competence and fantasises about resurrecting a poor peasantry can only aggravate South Africa’s existing problems.

Equitable access to land is an important component in resolving South Africa’s malaise and pursuing economic justice, but likely not the one with the greatest impact. We must be aware of this – and always be wary of mistaking a political metaphor for a socio-economic solution.