Property owners told to “Use it or Lose it!”

Those who own a property have the right to continue owning that property, and what they do with their justly owned and acquired property is entirely their own look-out.

If you happen to be the owner of a unique piece of art, say the Mona Lisa, and you decide to set fire to it, then that is a terrible tragedy, but it is your property.  No government should ever have the right to intervene.

Apartheid in South Africa was a crime against humanity.  You can argue the reasons.  Some say that it was racial prejudice translating into attempted genocide.  Others that it was a violation of human rights of equality and justice.

My take is that Apartheid got its start with the denial of property rights; that one group of people gave themselves a greater right to property than they did to others.  This spurious belief was used to boot black South Africans off their land and replace them with politically chosen beneficiaries of “land reform”.

The new South African government, after 1994, began a tortuous process of their own “land reform” in which the original owners of land – often dispersed and with limited proof of title – would be able to receive a fair hearing and just compensation.  So far so good.

However, the new government, at pains to bring about a transformation of the economy, chose to use this process as a way of ensuring that the majority of agricultural land should be owned by black people in toto.

The government is purchasing land for this purpose and then settling people on it.  Instead of just receiving restitution for the property that was stolen from them, victorious claimants were set up as small-scale cooperative farmers.  These new farmers are not allowed to sell the land they have been given.  They have no title to it and have become no more than indentured peasant farmers; slaves at the pleasure of the state.

The government pegged their success on the financial success of these subsistence farms.  It has been an abject failure.

The people being settled on these farms are now several generations away from the original land-owning farmers.  They have no experience of agriculture, or of how technical the profession has become.  Many of them don’t even want to be there.

“More than 21 properties in the Empangeni and Eshowe districts, and reportedly many more across KZN bought by the land affairs department, lie fallow, producing only weeds, dead trees and choked sugar cane,” according to the Natal Mercury.

The response from the Minister of Agriculture, Lulu Xingwana, has been total fury.  “I have instructed my directors-general to implement, with immediate effect, the principle of use it or lose it,” Xingwana.  “Those who do not use the land must immediately be removed and the land must be given to emerging farmers and co-operatives.”

In other words, people who had their land stolen from them by one government, who decided that they weren’t deserving enough of their property, are to have their land stolen from them again by another government which has decided that they are still “not worthy”.

The first and only objective of land restitution is just recompense for people who had their property stolen.  It was a mistake forcing land as compensation on people who did not want to own land.  They should have been given money.  Whatever they chose to do with that money would have been their own choice.

Instead of accepting the restitution process for what it is, government wants a trophy.  They demand that beneficiaries of the process demonstrate their gratitude to the state by performing and delivering successful agricultural businesses.

That is an outrageous demand and entirely unacceptable.  What’s next?  Snatching private businesses from entrepreneurs who fail to employ an appropriate number of people?

Enough.  Government made the mistake of conflating two independent objectives and is now compounding their error by abusing property rights.  Farmers will always be in the minority of both businesses and land-owners.  Whether those properties are owned by black-skinned people or white-skinned people is immaterial, and should be immaterial to a liberal democracy.

The only matter of importance is whether their property was acquired without force or fraud.  Something that governments are supposed to ensure.

12 replies »

  1. Interesting that I went to a Junto on Thursday Night discussing this very same thing. Peter Lewin, a South African( professor at U-Texas, Dallas) noted the real cause of apartheid which was the poor white workers who did not want to give up their jobs and land to the blacks that were migrating southward. He said that the laws started somewhere around 1911 and were beefed up over the years. He made a contention that cannot be disproved that there were socialist agitators in the background. The rest of his talk basically coincided with what you said. He did make an interesting hypothesis that free markets cause a net reduction of racism due to competition. He cited the before and after in Rhodesia as an example. It was a very interesting and spirited talk.

    Here’s a link.

  2. Well, at some level this is like saying that a guy with a sucking chest wound died because he didn’t get treatment. That’s true, as far as it goes, but a more satisfying critique might offer at least some comment on the guy who shot him with the elephant gun.

    In this case, we can talk about property rights all we like, but there’s a guy over there with an elephant gun. Call that gun “colonialism” or “racism” or talk about manifest destiny or what have you, but let’s acknowledge that there was something a little more complicated at work than a simple failure to honor property rights.

    Also, the proposition that whoever pays for a cultural treasure has the right to destroy it because he “owns” it – that’s ideology, not fact. Put another way, that’s a proposition that is to be demonstrated, not accepted as a given.

  3. Jeff, oh the National Party that got so much support from the US and UK as being “anti-Communist” was very much a socialist organisation. After all, they nationalised most of the largest companies in the country, banned foreign exchange, fixed prices and set up numerous trade boards. What became Apartheid started with Jan Smuts and the Union Party long before the NP came to power in 1947.

    Sam, property rights are fundamental to Apartheid. Everything came down to one group of people wanting the property of another group of people without paying for it. They were certainly racist, and that became the lens through which they justified their theft. Arguing against racism is hard, arguing against theft is not. Either it is their property or it is not. If it is, then no matter how racist or sexist or whatever, there is no justification for theft.

    And we can spend all day attempting to define a “cultural treasure”. When the Taliban bombed the Bamiyan Buddhas, we could argue about the destruction of a cultural treasure. They declare that it is against their faith and so justify the destruction. Difficult to debate that one. However, we can certainly debate who owned the Buddhas.

    The same is true of the current debacle that China is having over the auction of the heads stolen from the Chinese Imperial Summer Palace in 1860. Whether it is moral or not should not be the issue. The issue is that a “respected” auction house is trading in stolen goods. Since everyone acknowledges that the heads are stolen, they should be returned to their owners.

    Which gets us back to the restitution at the heart of my post. Either the people concerned are receiving just compensation for their property, or they are receiving unjustified rewards merely for being black. If the former, then the state has no right to take their property away from them – no matter what they do with it! Or, if they are merely the lucky ones in a race-based lottery, then no-one should be surprised if the property is taken away from them.

    But let’s not pretend that the South African government genuinely has the interests of these people at heart.

  4. Whythawk,

    Do you think that South Africa is headed in the direction of Rhodesia, given the events unfolding right now?

  5. Money would have to come from the government, right? Land you can shoot people and take.

    The post makes complete sense to me as it stands, but I have a question (as usual): if the people being recompensed in this not-very-well-thought-out way are several generations removed from the original victims, aren’t the farmers occupying the land which was redistributed a few generations removed from the original oppressors (or beneficiaries of oppression) as well? And are they in every case direct descendants or heirs of those invaders? Does it matter? What if, say, forty years ago I had emigrated to South Africa and bought a sugar cane farm in one of these zones? Would I have been compensated for the farm I’d have had to leave under redistribution? Would my perfectly legal acquisition still be considered tainted by its provenance?

    Okay, that’s more than one question.

  6. Jeff, South Africa heading in the Rhodesia way? Nope (and that would be Zimbabwe, Rhodesia was more like Apartheid South Africa)…

    The South African economy is completely different to the agrarian Zimbabwe. Most of SA depends on industrials and manufacturing. These are high-skill, capital intense industries. So a Zimbabwean situation is unlikely to arise. However, the levels of corruption, state interference in business and influence-peddling is a lot more like Putin’s Russia. In fact, exactly like Russia.

    Ann, there are certainly plenty of examples of people who have purchased property in good faith that was originally stolen. But international law on this is pretty clear; the recipient of stolen property, even if they are unknowing, is not allowed to keep it. It must be returned to the original owners.

    The South African process works as follows: either the state must value the property and provide an equivalent value of land to claimants, or they must purchase the existing land at current market rates. Whether the government buys the land and gives it to claimants, or just gives money to claimants, government still has to come up with the cash.

    It has been a fairly sensitive process (at least in the early years) where productive farms were not unilaterally shut down and passed on to claimants (after all, many of these farms have been significantly improved and invested in). South Africa used to be a net exporter of food when the process started. We’re now a net importer and, as things have gotten more strained, they’ve become more politically volatile.

    There’s an election this year and a bunch of thugs will get in. I don’t think anyone knows what will happen after that.

  7. I have trouble with the concept of what ownership truly is. Custodian or trustee, for me, has so much more resonance.

    Certainly laws are constructed to enable each country to deal with what is now. Laws are enforced and the nations decide whether they will co-operate with the differing laws that protect the various economic systems in place.

    Contracts underpin peoples live in but increasingly usury, punitive taxes and curtailing of freedoms mean individuals will question the various contracts they live and abide by.

    Although no Communist if I had been a jew or a serf during the days of Russia’s Tsarist regime I would have fought for a different way of life and taken by force the property of another. The poverty that drove such change is understandable.

    Theft is a word very open to interpretation…


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