Last week I participated (as did Newsi editor Sharon Salomon) in a webinar on the fraught concept of ‘fake news’. It was an interesting exchange, with no shortage of disagreement among the panellists and audience – except to the extent that we were all of a mind that ‘fake news’ was a bad thing.

As one of our number put it, it matters to those who value democracy and healthy societies, and for those who care about their and their loved ones’ place in them. This is correct. A distorted information base not only makes proper debate impossible but is often deliberately fostered in order to promote societal division.

What to do about it is less apparent, whether at our event or among thinkers in the wider society. Intuitively, a standard answer is that we should turn to trusted, respected sources for our information. Trust the Department of Health before your neighbourhood WhatsApp group. But, as one member of the audience asked, what is to be done when it is those sources that are compromised? Or when it is they who are perpetuating falsehoods?

This is a live issue. On August 11, a week before the webinar, the South African Human Rights Commission tweeted a message about land reform: ‘The Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform has identified that Africans own an average of 4% of the land and whites still own 72%, according to the 2017 Land Audit. #ECMalnutrition.’

The SAHRC is an institution established in terms of South Africa’s constitution, enjoined to promote human rights in South Africa. It is expected to protect those of individuals where they have been threatened or abused, and to champion respect for human rights across society. As a tagline on its website puts it, ‘Towards a Culture of Human Rights’.

Among its specific, constitutionally-mandated duties is ‘conducting research’. If this means anything substantive, it is an acknowledgement that accurate information is intrinsically linked to any meaningful guarantee of human rights.

Yet in this instance, the Commission is indulging in falsehoods. They are not the first to do so, and one notes with concern that this claim has been repeatedly debunked, including by myself in a number of contributions over the years.

First off, the Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform is an institution specific to the Eastern Cape. Presumably what the tweet was referring to was the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform which published the Audit (since 2019, the department has incorporated agriculture and has been known as the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development).

More importantly, the claim about the racial breakdown of land ownership in South Africa is incorrect.

The land audit put the total extent of land in South Africa at some 121,924,881 hectares. Of this, it listed around 37,800,986 hectares is being held by individuals as privately owned, registered, freehold land. It is the proportion of this land (around a third of the country’s total) that is the source of information used in the tweet.

The Land Audit found that of the land registered at the Deeds Office, under freehold title and owned by private individuals, Africans own 1,314,873 hectares (4%), Coloured people 5,371,383 hectares (15%), Indians 2,031,790 hectares (5%) and whites 26,663,144 hectares (72%). Those classified as ‘other’ held 1,271,562 hectares (3%) and co-ownership arrangements accounted for another 425,537 (1%).

The audit reported that a total of 114,223,276 hectares are under ownership registered at the Deeds Office. This accounts for about 94% of the total. The remainder, a little over 6%, or 7,701,605 ha, is unregistered state trust land, mostly in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.

Land in private hands – privately owned, secured by title deeds – comes in at 93,956,125 hectares, some 77% of the total area of the country. Private land holdings are divided, in their hectarage, between individuals (39%), trusts (31%), companies (25%), community-based organisations (4%) and co-ownership arrangements (1%).

The registered landholdings of private individuals are also the only type of landholding for which racial data can apparently be obtained – the fact that it was not possible to confirm the racial identity of over two thirds of South African landholding may well be the most important finding of the audit.

Three things are interesting to note: firstly, since African people were for much of South Africa’s history excluded from freehold property ownership, and the land to which they have had access was generally not owned as freehold property. Secondly, much if not most land reform awards have been to trusts, and are thus not captured in the statistics for individual ownership. Thirdly, it has for over a decade been government policy in respect of redistribution NOT to pass ownership to beneficiaries, but rather to retain the land in state hands.

Together, these factors have the effect of minimising the extent of African landholding, and obscuring the role of policy, past and present, in excluding African people from fully enjoying property rights.

We at the Institute of Race Relations put out a public statement calling attention to the falsity of the Commission’s claim. That the Commission is at least aware of and sensitive towards online comment is evident from a response it makes to trolls in this thread claiming it is controlled by Zimbabweans. Yet, its bogus assertion about land ownership remains up.

Fake news, as I noted in my presentation, is really about narrative. Not so much about distorting this or that fact than about pushing a broader understanding of things. This may be intentional, but the same effect can be achieved even where no malign motive is in play.

Perhaps narrative is on the Commission’s mind. As my colleague Hermann Pretorius put it: ‘The Portfolio Committee on Public Works and Infrastructure is set to vote on the Expropriation Bill on 14 September. It is difficult to ignore the troubling possibility that the SAHRC – a constitutionally mandated, independent Chapter 9 institution – is engaging in political theatrics in aid of the governing party’s dangerous and wrong-headed pursuit of weakening property rights in South Africa.’

This is, after all, the same institution that has declared that it deals with complaints of human rights abuses differently depending on the racial dynamics involved. A strange position indeed for an institution tasked with defending the inherent entitlements of all people.

The IRR has indicated that it will take legal advice on the Commission’s actions. But it’s distressing that it’s come to this, and a warning that those respected and trusted sources may have agendas of their own.

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Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think tank promoting individual and societal freedom. Readers are invited to support the IRR by sending...

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