Lies, damned lies, and politically-advantageous statistics!
This claim pops up on social media often, usually in close proximity to arguments about "state capture" and "white monopoly capital" (thanks, Bell Pottinger). Unfortunately, it's not true.
For starters, no statistics exist that could support such a claim. There is no record, government or otherwise, that accurately correlates the ethnicity of the individuals that hold rights to land parcels in South Africa.
It's not even that the number is wrong, it's that this number does not exist.
The closest we can get to the truth on this is by looking at the limited information released by the Surveyor General. Here's an example:
The state, by way of various government organs, owns at least 17 061 882 hectares of land in South Africa, the surveyor general said on Thursday, accounting for 14% of the surface area of the country.
Another 8.36-million hectares, or 7%, is officially unaccounted for, although much of it is expected to be accounted for as government-owned once the paperwork is in place.
Since 1994, the Republic of South Africa has been in the hands of the ANC - a majority-black party that operates at all levels - National, Provincial and Local. It's fair to say that any land under the ownership of a majority-black government, is logically not owned by whites.
Already, this debunks the surface claim. If the state owns 21% of the land, then there's a theoretical maximum of 79% that could be owned privately. Even if every square meter of private land in South Africa was owned by a white person, that doesn't get us to 90%.
There's another angle we can look at (home ownership), but before I get there, I want to spend a little bit of time on the Surveyor General numbers, just to highlight how difficult it is to arrive at any accurate answers here.
According to the Surveyor General's report on March 31, 2011, the ownership of land parcels in South Africa broke down like so:
- Total of 5'972'949 parcels across South Africa,
- 1'155'508 (19.34%) National State Land
- 4'817'441 (80.6%) of Private Land
Those numbers come from the Deeds Registration System, which is managed by Home Affairs. It got tricky when they tried matching those parcels back to their geo-spatial data, which actually indicates where a parcel of land exists.
In the 2011 report, they were unable to match 1'016'390 parcels of land (24% of State, and 16% of Private). So even though they have deed records, they couldn't accurately correlate them to the physical property those deeds represented.
In practice, this could mean anything - that they had bad data, or that there were outdated deeds in the system, describing parcels that didn't exist. The maddening thing is, the report doesn't contain more information on what the issues were. In addition, these surveys are not conducted frequently - even less frequently than the national Census, it would appear.
In reality, looking at owned parcels they could correlate in 2011, it breaks down like so:
- Total of 5'972'949 parcels across South Africa,
- 889'962 (14.90%) National State Land
- 4'066'597 (68.09%) of Private Land
- 1'016'390 (17.01%) parcels we're not entirely sure about
That's 68% of Private Land where the Deeds in the Registry actually line up with the spatial data on the ground. For those deeds, we can confidently point to their landmass on the ground, and declare who owns it.
So what is Private Land, and who does it belong to?
All land parcels registered in the name of natural persons, private companies and trusts were classified as "Private".
Here's where it gets complicated.
As a natural person, you have an ethnicity. You don't, however, have a strong identifier for it. If you don't write down your ethnicity on a form somewhere (eg, when buying property), and that information is not stored in a central database, there's no way to correlate Private Land ownership with an ethnicity.
For juristic persons (Private Companies and Trusts) it gets even fuzzier - they do not have ethnicities. At best, you could look at the % shareholding for each entity, by the ethnicity of the shareholder - then use that proportion to divide any land holdings to get a hectares-per-ethnicity number.
But you can't do that, for several reasons:
- Private companies (registered on CIPC) do not need to provide ethnicity information
- Private companies can have foreign shareholders
- Private companies can be held by other private companies, confusing the percentages even further
- Data on which juristic persons own which parcels is proprietary to those entites
In a word, it's impossible to accurately determine this information. On that basis, the "90%" claim is debunked: There's no way anyone who advances that claim could ever get the data to back it up.
So now, housing. While it's not strictly land, owning a house does include owning the land it stands on, and there are a finite, manageable number of residential properties in South Africa.
This does not include land zoned for agricultural, commercial or industrial reasons, but I would argue this is the bit of land that matters most. This is the land that families will build their houses and homes on.
According to this report in Fin24: "Home ownership in SA: Facts tell different story" dated 22 February 2016, the value of owner-occupied houses in SA broke down like so:
- African: 52%
- White: 35%
- Coloured: 7%
- Asian: 6%
Just over half the rand value of all residential property in South Africa is in African hands, as well as the majority of households. As of 22 February 2016, there were 15.6 million households in South Africa, of which white families only constituted 10%.
In simple terms: Whites own and live in fewer, more valuable houses - but Africans own the majority in both rand value and number of households.
That Fin24 article goes into some more details, and is worth checking out. Nowhere in there though, is there anything to substantiate the claim that whites own 90% of the land. The article concludes like this:
Schussler admits that whites as a group are very small in the overall population and are still over-represented as owner-occupiers, but they certainly are no longer the majority owners and they do not own 80% of the land.
In summary, I hope two points are clear:
First: nobody can make any accurate claims about which ethnicity holds the most land. The data to back that up simply does not exist.
Second: the true story since 1994, between state-funded RDP housing and the growth of the black middle class (standing at 6 million+ people), is that more black South Africans are living dignified lives than ever before. This is a resounding success that should be celebrated more often, but strangely, is not.
Why? My opinion: That would be bad politics. For as long as the narrative exists that whites own everything, control everything, and have somehow "stolen" and "settled" South Africa, politicians can use that narrative to further divide the nation.