Decoding South Africa’s original sin

THERE is a narrative that goes something like this, “in the beginning the whites stole the land.” Since all land acquired during periods of colonial conquest must be the result of criminality, it follows those possessing land today, are criminals. The accusations of theft by leftists against farmers are biblical in nature. An original sin, that has turned into a commonly used slur and epithet against all persons deemed in South Africa to be white.

Thus whether or not you happen to be one of some 400 000 white persons living in poverty, often in squatter camps, the same logic applies. The same goes for working class Afrikaners and English-speakers renting homes, also excluded in one sense, from a non-stop discourse streaming over television screens and talk-shows, which literally views the dominant ethnic groups in the country as the rightful heirs to all land in the sub-continent, and anyone not part of this majority group, as a less-deserving, other tribe.

In this fashion, first nations such as the Khoisan (a collective term for sub-groups such as the Griqua) are excluded from an intellectual debate cast over the new media, often flying on twitter, whose goal is the overthrow of the constitutional dispensation and its replacement by a custodianship system similar to the apartheid-era Bantustans in which petty chiefs ruled over a tenant population. The confluence of leftist ideology within racial rhetoric and ethnic overtones is almost never remarked upon by non-racialists in the ruling party.

Africans, meaning those with a preponderance of African ancestry, whose origin is central Africa and not the sub-continent, nor Europe for that matter, are excused by such news pundits, from the same moral and ethical framework used to criticize former advocates of white supremacy. In this way, a black person is never a racist as such and may be excused from deploying racism — sometimes awkwardly referred to at best, as ‘anti-racist racism’.

If whites stole the land, then they should all be grateful at being willing parties to future land confiscation policies, the details of which are currently being articulated by the ruling party and other allied groups. In such a way of thinking, not only is “land expropriation without compensation” a done deal, but righting an historical wrong, a tragic injustice, is more important than food security, financial stability and a reliable system of land tenure based upon the preservation of ownership and title-deeds.

How does one ‘unscramble the omelette’ of decades in which a property market based upon private ownership, and the buying and selling of land has existed, and has been the status quo endorsed by national government? How do we correct for almost three decades of democratic rule and also three centuries of colonialism, the tragic 1913 Land Act, while re-engaging stalled land reform projects from the previous administration?

The  controversial parliamentary resolution on land reform has been referred by President Ramaphosa to a special committee for consideration and the government is planning a land reform roadshow which intends to canvass public opinion in all the nation’s provinces. A similar international roadshow already underway, is having a tough time winning over investors. A 75% parliamentary majority is required to amend the property clause in the Constitution.



Shared ownership: a way up the property ladder?

HOME ownership in South Africa is turning into a hot potato in the runup to the 2014 elections. This after demands by various political parties for state control of private property in the country. Indications are the ruling party’s Reconstruction and Development Plan which aimed to provide every citizen with a decent home, despite its initial successes, has failed largely due to lack of co-ownership incentives. Could shared ownership of property offer a way up the property ladder for ordinary South Africans?

First, let’s take a closer look at the problem. Owning a sub-standard, badly built home has its disadvantages, worse still are the problems faced by those living in informal settlements, those still on waiting lists for housing solutions that seems unobtainable, even after twenty years of ANC rule.

Although a number of social housing schemes have arisen, each claiming to provide gap housing for the poor with banks offering loans to those lucky enough to have full-time employment, and the government’s housing subsidy aiming to bridge the finance gap, this subsidy programme is aimed mostly at key workers with good credit records. The traditional housing market, geared towards the black middle class may be booming with new projects rolling out, but these schemes like the Maboneng precinct in Johannesburg, do not solve the problem of low-cost and affordable housing for the nation’s poor.

In South Africa red tape and bureaucracy prevails with a centralised “Social Housing Regulatory Authority” which aims to regulate social housing schemes. The mandate of the authority is not to assist home ownership per se but rather to regulate and finance the development of rental accommodation. The State housing agency’s website for instance says “we stimulate rental housing through investment, we stabilise rental housing through regulation.” The result is anything but stable.

For starters there is no real focus on ending dependency upon the state and creating incentives beyond a subsidy for home ownership by private individuals, and the schemes touted by the agency essentially represent the needs of banks and developers.

The government-lead programmes, despite their high-minded altruism, are aimed at the interests of capital markets and not the needs of citizens, for instance “social housing is a rental or co-operative housing option which requires institutionalised management…”  The emphasis on “institutionalised management” and  return on investment (ROI) speaks to the bond market and not home-owners. This can be seen in the manner in which social housing projects are turning into get rich quick schemes for investors who already have money.

The National Association of Social Housing Oganisations for instance, which claims to be an independent association of 18 ‘well-established social housing institutions (SHIs) across South Africa” offers its members some form of ownership by mobilising “the collective buying and market power of our members to reduce costs of products and services and increase returns on investment,”  in the process, the needs of the end user, the person who wishes to occupy a property and who may then also want to rent to own, or transact ownership by others means, to part rent and part own, is lost.