Owning a property is not just an aspirational but also an economic issue for South Africans
The notion that property and land ownership is “an end in itself” and part of the soul of life and living, is one that retired Constitutional Court Judge Zak Yacoob “controversially disagrees with”.
Rather, people want land so they can use it. “Either that they can live on it, or work it for food, or they can use it to give themselves an income.” Addressing the recent South African Property Owners Association (Sapoa) convention in Durban on the issue of land reform, Yacoob said property had a value only because of what its owners could do with it, and how they could improve both their own and other people’s lives with it.
“I hope the government will take that into account because if it can develop housing so more people have houses they own – on a piece of land however small, it doesn’t really matter, but if in a dignified way they can call it their own – that would be wonderful.”
The land expropriation without compensation issue has become hotly contested and emotional since the motion was passed in Parliament earlier this year. Yacoob said expropriation without compensation was not a matter concerning only a few people, and that people in poorer communities and those living in the townships would also be affected by expropriation.
One only needed to look at the council houses in parts of the country like Soweto, KwaMashu, Phoenix, and Chatsworth, he said, to see that people of all races, and economic situations, took pride in home ownership. Jacoob said no occupant of any of those houses, which they can leave to their children, would want them confiscated by the state.
“The idea of all land being confiscated will be opposed by very many people.” Owning a property was not only an aspirational issue but also an economic one, said DA leader Mmusi Maimane. However, one could “almost tell” which race groups lived in particular areas and communities just by the state of infrastructure, amenities and services offered there. Maimane said in many ways South Africa today had inherited a divided society, and therefore felt that “we need to do much more to break down the spatial legacies we have inherited”.
“Our country finds itself in a very specific time and therefore property ownership becomes a very important subject for us to engage in. We have to speak about our future, we have to speak about our shared future.
“When you really understand the nature and composition of South Africa, and none more expressed than it is in property, you begin to understand that maybe, in some ways, we have not spent enough time breaking down the legacies we inherited.”
He said South Africa could largely be described as two countries: one a nation of insiders and a the other nation of outsiders: The insiders get to own property, enjoy the amenities, and go to “decent schools” while “too many” have to live outside of that, Maimane said.
“We have to ask: What choices do we need to make about our tomorrow and how do we ensure we take profound reformed decisions today. “If we understand our challenges we can begin to be bold about some of the reforms we need to make.”
Speaking from experience having spent his childhood in Soweto under the Group Areas Act, Maimane said for his parents, and his parents’ parents, the right to own property was something that could not be obtained. He and his family were given permission by the apartheid government to live in the house they occupied, and this residence was on a long-term lease.
The land belonged to the state, which ultimately meant one could not liquidise that asset nor invest in it. However, the establishment of the democratic government in 1994 and subsequent passing of the constitution, in which private property rights were entrenched in section 25, was paramount for his family.
“My family was then able to own that property, and it was through the ownership of that property that my family was able to go to the bank and ask it to lend them money to send me to an educational institution. As an outcome of that I am grateful to be standing here today, still studying further after two Masters’ degrees, thanks to the fact that, finally, my parents were able to own property in South Africa.”
Yacoob said he hoped government had a concrete plan to develop housing rights “completely and appropriately”, and ensure that more African people start to own land.
“In the end we can make sure that even mineral rights are fairly distributed so property is used for the benefit of the property owner, for the benefit of the property occupier, and for the public benefit. “Hopefully we will get there one day,” said Yacoob.
To this end, safeguarding the constitution was a principal that must agreed on, Maimane said. “I do not think our constitution is a problem when we deal with this pressing question of land reform. I think our constitution is aptly capacitated for us to achieve meaningful land reform and address our historical injustices.”