As Mrs. Maria Mothupi held the official deed to her land for the first time, her face spread into a wide smile. Until she was 99 years old, she had never experienced living in her own home or in a home legally owned by her family, because she was only two years old when the 1913 Land Act banned land ownership by black people in South Africa — a law that continues to have consequences today, despite its repeal more than two decades ago.
“I can sleep well now,” she said. She knew at last that she would have an asset she could pass on to her family — something she had not previously had the legal right to do.
This unlikely happy chapter toward the end of a hard life came about thanks to the Free Market Foundation (FMF) of South Africa’s Khaya Lam (My House) Land Reform project. FMF’s pilot project focused on the Ngwathe municipal area of the Free State province, where FMF Director Eustace Davie estimates that there are about 20,000 houses for which the ownership rights have not been documented and registered.
Property rights essential for human rights
The Khaya Lam project is a living example of a truth expressed by Sir John Templeton: “Property rights are essential for human rights.” This project is unlocking freedoms that have been denied to black South Africans for more than a century. The Khaya Lam project has already provided resources to carry out the conversion of some of these properties — out of an estimated 5 to 7 million that are eligible countrywide — to freehold title ownership in the hands of beneficiaries.
The legal titling of property rights has become better understood as a means of uplifting the poor since economist Hernando de Soto published The Mystery of Capital (2000), based on decades of research by Atlas Network partner Instituto Libertad y Democracia (Peru). De Soto’s message was so clear and compelling that his ideas came to be championed across the ideological spectrum, inspiring the World Bank to launch its “Doing Business” report series and earning respect from world leaders like former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who called de Soto “the world’s greatest living economist.”
Progress toward these rights has been slow
Progress, however, has been slow. Remedying the situation requires more than just educating the intended beneficiaries about their rights. Distrust, ambiguity, and prohibitive costs have all worked together to prevent a more rapid transfer of otherwise available titles. Through bulk processing and other cost reduction measures, FMF has reduced the cost from about $378 to $122 per title deed.
Millions of black South Africans are still living with the insecurity of title they had under apartheid
“Those who have been deprived by a racially biased law of the right to own property in land in their own country for 78 years cannot possibly understand the effects that such deprivation has,” Davie said. “Black South Africans have had occupancy rights in state-owned rental housing in separate apartheid townships built especially to house them in proximity to ‘white’ towns and cities. FMF’s Khaya Lam (My House) Land Reform project was initiated because two decades after the end of apartheid, millions of black South Africans are still living with the insecurity of title they had under apartheid.”
The Ngwathe pilot project
The major purpose of the Ngwathe pilot project was to determine the most rapid and cost-efficient method of registering the rights of the homeowners and placing them in possession of title deeds that prove their rights and enable them to trade with their property legally, in any way they please. In other words, to arrive as close as possible to the ideal described by Sir John Templeton, in which “the legal system supports the right to property and [carries] little or no restrictions on selling, exchanging or dividing property.” More than 800 of the Ngwathe houses had either already been converted or were in the process of being converted by the end of October 2015, and by January 2016 FMF had 300 conversions sponsored in Cape Town and another 60 in the town of Grabouw.
“Our task is to make everyone in the country aware of how the country will change for the better if we can extinguish the effects of one of the greatest crimes of apartheid: depriving black South Africans of property rights for 78 years,” Davie said. “Calls for information are coming in from all over the country. The process has now been proven. Our challenge is to get as many people as possible involved to get the job done countrywide as rapidly as possible.”
Large-scale success with Khaya Lam would provide a counteracting force to the slide toward socialism that is currently occurring in South Africa. With increasing numbers of low-income people owning their own homes, their perspectives about the value of property rights would change dramatically.
FMF part of a larger global network advancing property rights
FMF is one of Atlas Network’s more-than-450 global partners working to restore and strengthen property rights, in accordance with Sir John Templeton’s recognition of their essential nature to human freedom and flourishing. The work that FMF has undertaken with its Khaya Lam project is so substantial that it was nominated alongside five other outstanding nominees for the prestigious $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award in 2015. The winner, Acton Institute’s Poverty, Inc. documentary about the hazards of the international development industry, was selected and presented with its award at Atlas Network’s 2015 Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner on Nov. 11–12, 2015 in New York City.
FMF’s Khaya Lam land titling project is part of a broad global movement to advance property rights and free markets. In addition to its fellow Templeton Freedom Award nominees, FMF is joined in its property rights work by such Atlas Network partners as Liberty Institute in New Delhi, India. It developed an innovative project that provides villagers with GPS devices and satellite mapping technology in order to prove their farming claims to the government and establish legal title to their own ancestral lands. This story is brought to life in a recent public television documentary, India Awakes, produced by Atlas Network partner Free to Choose Media.
In addition to satellite technology, Atlas Network think tank partners are using other innovative new techniques to make reliable land titling a reality in even the most challenging places. For example, in Honduras, where some believe uncertainty in property rights accounts for as much as 4 percent of their prohibitive loan interest rates, Atlas Network partner Fundación Eléutera has worked during the past year to help government leaders transform an ongoing and costly land titling digitalization effort by using blockchain technology, an encrypted peer-to-peer networking system. If successful, this decentralized approach could mean the end of corruption and the beginning of a mass unleashing of human potential through secure and predictably adjudicated property rights.
Think tank work on strengthening property rights is not confined to developing nations, however. One of former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s key market reforms was the privatization of public housing, one of the economic ideas that had been championed by the publications and scholars of Atlas Network partner the Institute of Economic Affairs.
“Some three million housing units have moved from public to private hands since 1979, changing the balance of ownership,” wrote the late John Blundell, Atlas Network’s past president and board member, in his intellectual biography of Thatcher. “For the first time in generations people reliant on the state to control and regulate their homes had the freedom to make their own decisions. They could paint the walls without filling in a form and repair a leaking roof without the council having to do it for them. … Ownership invested them with a dignity never experienced before.”
By protecting property rights, FMF through its Khaya Lam land titling project and these other projects by Atlas Network partners all strengthen individual liberty and prosperity.