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Do 40,000 whites own 80% of SA? The claim is incorrect

Comments 11

Land ownership in South Africa remains heavily skewed across racial lines twenty years after the end of apartheid. But is 80% of the country really in the hands of only 40,000 white families?

Researched by Anim van Wyk

In an article titled "Black First! – Land First! A revolutionary Call", published by City Press on 13 August 2015, Andile Mngxitama reiterated his 2014 claim in a slightly different way.

Mngxitama wrote: “Out of the 54 million people in South Africa 35 000 white families, including white businesses, own more than 80% of the land.” But this claim is still incorrect and not supported by available data.

Do around 40,000 white families own 80% of the land in South Africa?

It is a claim that has been widely circulated since Andile Mngxitama, a Member of Parliament and “commissar for land and agrarian revolution” with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), raised the issue in an open letter to business tycoon Richard Branson in May this year.

In Mngxitama’s letter – written after the Virgin founder purchased a 40-hectare farm near Franschhoek in the Western Cape province – Branson’s acquisition was described as “stolen land”.

‘Native majority are landless’

A farm labourer carries harvested grapes on a Western Cape wine farm in a 2006 file photograph. Photo: AFP/Gianluigi Guercia“The dominant idiom since 1652 is that of the settler, who imposed it upon the native majority through force of arms,” Mngxitama wrote. “The result of this conquest is that, about 350 years later, the native majority is landless and only about 40,000 white families own up to 80% of our land.”

Mngxitama later repeated the claim on Twitter, writing: “‪#Land101 SA is constituted by 123-million hectares. 80% of SA land owned by only 40,000 white families. SA population [about] 53-million”.

In a subsequent television debate with Cornelius Janse van Rensburg from the Afrikaans “business rights watchdog” AfriSake, the EFF’s spokeswoman in Gauteng, Mandisa Mashego, was adamant that “80% of this country’s land is deemed as agricultural land and 80% of that land is owned by 40,000 white families”. Glaring, Janse van Rensburg responded: “It’s nonsense, it’s not so.”

Can the claim be dismissed as nonsense, or is there some truth to it?

79% of SA in private hands

Mngxitama was emphatic when we spoke to him: “40,000 white families own 80% of the land. Deal with that.” He said his claim was supported by a recent state land audit, data collected by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) and research conducted bythe Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western-Cape.

Mashego did not respond to questions.

So what does the data tell us?

The state land audit, carried out by the office of South Africa’s Chief Surveyor-General and published in 2013, did indeed find that 79% of South Africa’s landmass was in private hands.

But that includes land owned by individuals, companies and trusts and all urban real estate as well as agricultural and mining land in South Africa.

Therefore, according to Mmuso Riba, the Chief Surveyor-General, “there is no basis” for the claim that whites own 80% of South Africa.

‘Land ownership deeply skewed’

A prospective buyer looks at a magazine during the Stud Game Breeders auction. Photo: AFP/Stefan HeunisOne possible source for Mashego’s claim is a dataset on land utilisation that is still used by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) despite the fact that it is more than two decades old. The data was compiled by the Development Bank of Southern Africa in 1991. (According to the department’s spokesman, Makenosi Maro, updated data will only be released towards the end of 2016.)

The 1991 dataset shows that 100,665,792 hectares – or 82.3% of South Africa’s surface area – consisted of farmland. Of this, 81.9% (or 86,186,026 hectares) was considered commercial agricultural land. The rest – situated in what were formerly “black homelands” established under the auspices of the apartheid state – remains classified as “developing agriculture”.

Prof. Cherryl Walker, professor of sociology at the University of Stellenbosch and author of Landmarked: Land Claims and Land Restitution in South Africa, prepared a fact sheet on land distribution for PLAAS last year.

According to Walker: “Land ownership is still deeply skewed along racial lines, but these figures [by the EFF] do not illuminate the current land dispensation.”

One farmer, one farming unit?

Should the EFF’s Mngxitama and Mashego be referring to 80% of farmland – and not 80% of South Africa’s landmass – it is possible that the most recent census of commercial agriculture is the primary source of their claims. It was carried out seven years ago by Stats SA.

The census found that there were slightly fewer than 40,000 farming units, defined as “one or more separate farms in the same provinces that are farmed as a single unit”.

Importantly, the census report explained: “The number of farming units… does not represent the number of farmers, as a specific farming unit can be operated by more than one farmer, and one farmer can operate more than one farming unit.”

The census also did not reflect the racial composition of farm owners, nor the surface area of the farming units.

Small farms likely excluded

An ostrich looks through the fence of a tourist ostrich farm near the South African city of Oudtshoorn. Photo: AFP/Rodger BoschThere is another caveat. For a farming unit to be included in the census it had to be registered for Value Added Tax (VAT). In South Africa it is compulsory to register for VAT when a business’s turnover reaches a certain threshold. In the census year the bar was set at R300,000 over a twelve month period.

Peter O’Halloran, who writes on tax matters for Farmer’s Weekly, says this would have excluded smallholdings surrounding the major cities and farms that are too small to make them economically viable.

“Commercial farms might number 40,000 or so according to the census, but in terms of land owners who own farms, this number could be much higher. VAT registration and compliance is highly onerous and the small operator will shy away from that.

“My take is that the smaller farmers and recreational farmers make up the majority of farmland owners in South Africa.”

Unions join the fray

Of the farming units registered for VAT in 2007, only 39,966 were identified as “active” at the time of the census and included. The majority of farming units (33,249) were owned by individuals, with 2,167 belonging to companies, 2,259 to close corporations and 874 described as “family-owned”.

How many are owned by black or white farmers? It is difficult to say for certain.

A Black Economic Empowerment (AgriBEE) scorecard – that measures elements such as black ownership and skills development – has been introduced for the agricultural sector. But the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) said in its latest survey report it is “very difficult to measure the BEE compliance of the agricultural sector as whole, as so few enterprises have determined their score, never mind obtained accredited scorecards”.

Black or white?

South Africa's deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is an active game farmer and recently raked  in over $2.6-million dollars for three of his white-flanked impala at an auction. Photo:AFP/Stefan HeunisFrustrated by pressure from legislators and politicians, agricultural unions have carried out land audits of their own. To date, two have been completed.

The KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu) did not publicly release their audit so it cannot be independently assessed. Its CEO, Sandy la Marque, forwarded Africa Check a copy of a presentation which put white ownership at 15.4% of the province’s surface area with the ownership of a further 23.11% listed as “unknown”.

Agri Free State had their audit assessed by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), a university based research network. They found that only 2.96% of commercial agricultural land in the province was black-owned. Another 10% could not be fully accounted for.

(Note: This is the case, for example, where land is owned by trusts or companies and it becomes virtually impossible to define ownership as either white of black. Free State Agri refers to the Anglo American Corporation, which has a BEE rating, but not necessarily an AgriBEE rating and is listed on foreign stock exchanges, but has significant domestic shareholding.)

To complicate matters further, both unions’ counts of state-owned land are at odds with the state land audit.

The Surveyor-General said his office would refine their audit in time. At this stage they are surveying and registering land owned by the state. This includes a great number of schools, health facilities, police stations, vast tracks of land in the Eastern Cape and a significant chunk of the Kruger National Park – all of which were not previously recorded as state land.

Conclusion: The claim is incorrect

Claims that 40,000 white families own either 80% of South Africa, or 80% of the country’s farmland, are incorrect and not supported by the available data.

Although a state land audit has shown that 79% of South Africa is privately owned, this includes land owned by individuals, companies and trusts, and includes all urban real estate and agricultural and mining land in South Africa. This would include land owned by both black and white South Africans.

It is also unlikely that the number of commercial farming units captured in the 2007 census – slightly less than 40,000 – reflects the true status of all commercial agricultural land in South Africa.

Certainly huge disparities remain and land ownership continues to be heavily skewed across racial lines twenty years after the end of apartheid.

But none of the datasets support the claims made by Mngxitama and Mashego. Given the inherent sensitivity of the land debate and the importance of land reform in South Africa, it is vital that debate around the issue and policy decisions is informed by accurate, current data.

Edited by Julian Rademeyer

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Comment on this report

Comments 11
  1. By GaryK

    Great and timeous article. We should not manipulate the facts (as they are known) to support emotive arguments designed for campaign effect. We have to enter the dialogue off an informed basis. So let’s drop the “whites own 80%” and let’s agree that whites own disproportionately more land than any other racial group in SA – “whites own more/ the most” if you wish.
    That situation is unethical and untenable. Is there any person in SA who believes we can build a sustainable future off that basis? That is where we need to focus our attention. Its also untenable to imply that whites own everything and that the only obvious solution is that whites must own nothing. As the article indicates land ownership is hugely complex, nor do we have the tools to measure it accurately. Using incomplete data that is 7-10 years old cannot be the base for any informed dialogue.
    Whilst “give back our land”, is obviously a popularist cry, it resonates with EVERY South African, who would argue against dispossession as a fair means of acquisition? The slogan is however devoid of any pragmatic understanding of what restoring land to the original owners entails. How to establish who the original owners were when there are no records? How to establish who inherits that right once original ownership is established (who are the descendants and how to determine proportions)? And more eg. How long before people can sell their land? What if they don’t want to farm? But the pragmatic must guide the obvious, we cannot build a country off the basis of unresolved white privilege, nor can we build a country off slogans. We have work to do.

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  2. By Garth

    Land ownership is a big issue and there is no doubt that land ownership should be something that EVERY South African can aspire to and achieve.

    But the numbers don’t make sense; it depends on what one considers as “land” – are we talking about only commercial farms or are we talking about available land?

    The link below takes you to an article that takes the stats and makes a lot more sense of them (don’t read the rhetoric – look at the numbers and listen to the reasoning):

    http://www.politicsweb.co.za/news-and-analysis/malema-piketty-and-the-land-in-black-hands

    The actual numbers are then far different.

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  3. By MrK

    ” Claims that 40,000 white families own either 80% of South Africa, or 80% of the country’s farmland, are incorrect and not supported by the available data. ”

    OK, so who does own the land? It is one thing to show that the 80% number is not precise, it is another to claim that this is proof of ill intent on behalf of the EFF.

    So after this long article – who does own the land? It is not a question I have seen addressed in this article.

    You say 86% of SA is farmland, and 82% of that farmland is white owned?

    ” According to Walker: “Land ownership is still deeply skewed along racial lines, but these figures [by the EFF] do not illuminate the current land dispensation.” ”

    So what is the current land dispensation, and what is her source?

    ” Although a state land audit has shown that 79% of South Africa is privately owned, this includes land owned by individuals, companies and trusts, and includes all urban real estate and agricultural and mining land in South Africa. This would include land owned by both black and white South Africans. ”

    So could you quantify that ownership?

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    • By Africa Check

      It’s certainly frustrating not being able to say exactly who owns what, MrK. It’s a problem that government, political parties and agricultural unions are grappling with, as highlighted in this report. We’ll watch out for the second state land audit, as well as the updated land use dataset, to fill out our knowledge.

      The point being, however, is that you can’t grab a statistic from the air and present it as fact. The complex debate about land ownership in South Africa needs to reflect the complexity of our present knowledge.

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      • By MrK

        So let’s not grab a statistic out of the air. What exactly is land ownership in South Africa – it’s not in the article.

        This was the situation in Rhodesia, which at 43% of the country was designated whites only, or ‘European Areas’, was less racially divided than South Africa under apartheid.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_reform_in_Zimbabwe#/media/File:Rhodesialand.png

        Notice that 43% of the country was assigned to at most 5% of the population. And that of the other 57%, about half was taken out of use as Game Parks.

        In South Africa, the state owns about 14% of the land.

        http://www.bdlive.co.za/business/agriculture/2013/03/25/state-owns-14-of-land-in-sa

        (BD LIVE) State ‘owns 14% of land in SA’
        by Hopewell Radebe, March 25 2013, 07:33

        “THE government owns about 14% of all land holdings in South Africa, according to the provisional results of a land audit conducted by the office of the chief surveyor-general, Mmuso Riba, in the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.

        The estimate of land under state control comes three years after Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti initiated a land audit following questions by agricultural bodies, many pertaining to the state’s land reform priorities.”

        So who owns the other 86%?

        I do understand that quite a few family farms have been taken over by corporations, the same as in the US and Canada. (Source: Moeletsi Mbeki, 01:30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTr3vAAO4UQ )

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  4. By Rudi

    Re: the two comments above. This article acknowledges that land distribution remains “skewed,” but it is not in fact “80% white.” That is the total extent of the article’s claims. For you to then go on and claim that the facts are irrelevant is extremely dishonest. Either that, or you have failed a very basic reading comprehension exercise.

    Land is not equitably distributed, and everyone in this discussion acknowledges this as a problem and wants something done about it. However, the EFF is lying when they use the incorrect figure of 80%. If you are trying to dispute the article above, then essentially, you are saying that lies are OK so long as they are in the service of some ideology that you personally agree with. In other words, you are either apologists for liars, or you are yourself liars. I am not saying this to be insulting. It is a fact.

    If you want to discuss this issue without using the false claim that 80% of land belongs to whites, then go ahead. We can discuss the various proposals for land redistribution on their own merits. That’s a discussion that needs to happen and the EFF is not wrong about the fact that a lot of economically vulnerable people are landless. But given how essential this discussion is, it can’t be done on the basis of lies. If any lasting solution is to be uncovered here, it must have its feet planted on the ground. It must be rooted in facts, not in the half-truths and distortions of ideologues. It’s the same problem I have with calling farm murders a “genocide,” when it’s no such thing. Even if you have good reason to be upset and to want something done, you delegitimize your own cause when you use dishonest statistics to back up your position. Let the facts speak for themselves and if you are speaking the truth, you won’t need to make up nonsense to support your views.

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  5. By Ensie

    What bothers me is that researches like this are not always holistic. It only reflects a part of the truth. Why not include the statistics on the farms that have been given (not sold) to new farmers who have not been educated / equipped / taught beforehand how to farm for the sake of all the people in this country to have enough food in the future? If you would give me a farm today I will not be able to make a farming success of it simply because I am not a farmer in my blood, neither am I trained or equipped in order to be a successful farmer.
    If the “re-distribution of land commission” will realize that “upliftment” NEVER comes before education (and accountability) and make a rule to give the future beneficiaries of land in SA at least 5 years of agricultural / farming training (according to the type of farms they are about to receive), we will not empower people, but impoverise our whole country within the next few years!
    In Malawi the government does exactly this… they educate the farmers-to-be and then give them land and if they do not work that land within a year, they simply take it away and give it to someone else that is willing to learn and work.
    At the moment my problem is that the government is not (according to me) thinking of the whole country (nation), neither of our future food reproducing in this “land claim” process…
    Hope I am wrong, but the fruits of the current process can be seen in Limpopo and other places where multi-million Rand farms are demolished, the citrus trees dead, the tractors broken, the irrigation system broken, the houses damaged, etc..

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  6. By Samantha Chiko

    These are the kinds of articles that make Zimbabwe’s land reform program more justified. Do you really think semantics about variations in percentage points make a difference. The fact is there are people in South Africa farming on land stolen from the natives. Regardless of what percentages are wrong, the land must be returned to the rightful owners for them to do what they please with it

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    • By Rocket Scientist

      We worked that land and made it what it is today. The farms that have been taken over by the people who say we stole their land, these farms were not productive in the first place!!
      We made it productive…..you go right ahead and take what you say was yours and we will see if it will continue to be a food source because you do not have the wisdom to make it productive…..so Samantha…..let them take the farms….when they are all non productive…..then yes….we will become another Zimbabwe with nothing to eat because all the farms that were sustaining the country will no longer be producing food! My opinion is……….. wait and see what will happen…..you will be holding your hands out to other Western countries……..just like Zimbabwe holds their hands out to South Africa for …..handouts!
      The farmers in Zimbabwe were feeding the country and now that their productive farms have been taken by the Zim people…..they’ve gone to rack & ruins. They are destitute pieces of land that don’t sustain anyone! Think about it Samantha. If they do what they please with the farms simply because they are black then that’s fine….then farm them and eradicate hunger in your country but unfortunately this is not the way of the big mouths that want everything for nothing! Go figure!

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    • By Gil

      the debate of native vs. non-native is irrelevant and stupid. Human beings are not possessing land because they were born on the land, but because they took it. That is how the history of the world goes. If you claim that a farm owned by a white family should not belong to them because 300 years ago there was no white man in this part of the world, then black people who own land in New York City should give back their land to American Indians. This is non sense. We must not take land from their owner: we must work on reducing inequality and empowering black people with education, health and proper life conditions. Owning a land is so not important! Now if you are a white farmer in SA how do you help those who suffer?

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  7. By Charles

    “But that includes land owned by individuals, companies and trusts and all urban real estate as well as agricultural and mining land in South Africa”

    But who owns the companies and trusts? More importantly, who controls them? The essence of the point by EFF is that beneficial ownership and control (i.e. possession) of land is skewed in favour of whites, and your article does not disprove this.

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