South Africa

Land Policy and Taxation in Transition
Joan Youngman, November 1, 1997

The shift to a multi-racial government in South Africa is as pronounced and dramatic a transition as that of the new independent states of Central and Eastern Europe. In the past five years, South Africa has adopted a new constitution, elected a new government, redrawn state and municipal boundaries, and undertaken basic reform of its legal and political system. Land policy is central to this transformation, for “since the 1913 Natives Land Act, rights to own, rent or even share-crop land in South Africa depended upon a person’s race classification.” (1) Among the major land-related issues currently under scrutiny are property tax reform, restitution of land rights, and improvements in tenure security and access to landholding.

Land and Property Taxation

South African real property taxes take a number of forms, including “site rating,” a tax on unimproved value alone; “flat rating” on land and structures uniformly; and “composite ratings,” which tax land and improvements at different rates. Multiplicity and change are the norm, as Cape Town has recently decided to adopt site rating, Durban is considering replacement of its composite rating system with site rating, and Pretoria has introduced a temporary tax on improvements to supplement its site rating system.

The property tax in South Africa is not at present applied to rural land, although its potential extension to non-urban areas is the subject of intense debate. It is in the cities, however, that the struggle to transform the country will succeed or fail. In 1995, the urban sector accounted for about 65 percent of South Africa’s population and more than 80 percent of its GDP. Property taxes are an important source of revenue for cities to meet the cost of providing services within their newly redrawn boundaries.

These new boundaries are another index of the pace and variety of change in South Africa. Efforts to consolidate wealthy residential and commercial areas with impoverished townships and settlements have taken different forms in different regions. The central business districts of Johannesburg and Durban have been divided among several taxing jurisdictions that extend beyond their city limits. By contrast, the most of Cape Town’s business and residential regions were combined this summer with a set of neighboring townships in a new administrative region. It consists of 19 former administrations consolidated into 7, involving a transfer of more than 10,000 municipal staff and many assets. These measures have extremely important political and fiscal implications, bringing together as they do residential areas with living standards equal to or even surpassing European norms and settlements without electricity, paved roads or running water.

From a land policy perspective, perhaps the most dramatic legacy of past racial policies is the imbalance between white and non-white landownership. Under apartheid, 87 percent of the country’s land was reserved for white residents, who in 1995 constituted only 13 percent of South Africa’s population. Under these circumstances, property taxation takes on special importance as a potential means for expanding access to the land market. Roy Bahl and Johannes Linn have written:

[A]n equity argument may be at the heart of the matter: urban land prices are frequently so high that low-income groups cannot afford to purchase land…. To the extent that the revenue from property taxes is capitalized into lower current land values (since the tax reduces the expected future private yield on the land), it partially expropriates landownership rights from the present owner and also constitutes a loan to future owners, who can now acquire the land at a lower price but will have to pay property taxes in the future. If low-income groups cannot buy land because they lack liquidity and access to capital markets, property taxation may be one of the policy instruments to improve their access to landownership. (2)

Tax Collections and Tax Revolts

The government faces the challenge of reversing a “culture of nonpayment” for municipal services among township residents. During the apartheid era, the African National Congress (ANC) encouraged its supporters to refuse payment of water and utility charges as a means of contesting the legitimacy of the state-sponsored black local authorities. The resulting arrears were a major financial burden on all levels of government. Now the ANC seeks to promote voluntary payment for these same services, and as well as payment of real property taxes by those who now are able to hold title to their property.

Ironically, one tax protest that received wide publicity took the form of a property tax revolt in one of the nation’s wealthiest white residential areas, the Sandton suburb of Johannesburg. When property tax rates doubled and tripled there in 1996, many local property owners withheld payment in protest. This situation illustrates one of the most paradoxical aspects of the fiscal challenge to the new South Africa: the need to redress the enormous imbalance in resources across racial groups while commanding support from white citizens who feel over-taxed.

On the one hand, the disparities in needs and resources are overwhelming. Households falling below the official poverty level include only 0.7 percent of the white population, but 65 percent of the black population. At the same time, many white taxpayers feel overburdened by taxes-income tax rates, for example, can reach 45 percent on earnings over $22,000-and resentful of nonpayment by some township residents. In Alexandra, a black township inside Sandton, last year’s tax collection rate was only 3 percent. Any effort to meet the pressing fiscal needs of the new South Africa must take into account the vastly different perceptions of contribution and entitlement across its diverse population.

Perspectives on Future Directions

In July, a conference at the University of South Africa in Pretoria brought together governmental officials, policy analysts, academics and international experts to consider local government design and fiscal capacity. Brief overviews of two of the more than 30 presentations at that conference give a sense of the range of issues debated there, from concrete points of physical engineering to theoretical questions of intergovernmental fiscal relations.

At the most basic level, the definition of revenue needs depends on a prior decision as to the scope of local services to which all citizens are entitled. Given that large township areas have grown up without standard infrastructure, what goals should the government set for provision of water, electricity and roads?

Peter Vaz of the official Financial and Fiscal Commission outlined an approach to the monumental task of estimating the cost of providing the minimum services that each citizen can expect. The South African constitution enumerates 27 guaranteed rights, including the right to equality, to human dignity, to life, to freedom of expression, to a healthy environment, to housing, to health care services, to sufficient food, water and social security, to education, to information. The Commission is considering attempts to identify three levels of services-basic, intermediate and full provision. It is also looking at the cost of extending six services to urban and rural areas: water, sewerage, solid waste, roads, stormwater, electricity. For example, the basic level of water provision might be a communal standpipe, the intermediate level a yard tap, and full provision a house connection. The capital cost of each service package then provides a first estimate of the revenue necessary to meet the guarantees relevant to local government activities.

The broadest fiscal questions concern the allocation of taxes and functions among levels of governments. Rudolph Penner of the Barents Group stated that his general support for decentralization in transition economies was tempered in the case of South Africa. The model of voters as consumers choosing a set of local services in exchange for payment of local taxes is not necessarily applicable or desirable in this context. The strong ideological background to politics in South Africa means that voters are not primarily making a local electoral choice on the basis of economic policy. Moreover, the history of apartheid makes self-selected homogeneous groupings unacceptable if they lead to segregation by income class or race. Penner concluded that fiscal decentralization in South Africa must be of a more restrained variety than might be appropriate elsewhere.

These considerations serve only to highlight the sweeping reconsideration of all public institutions and their mandates that has accompanied the initiation of a new era in South African history. Improvements in land policy and taxation may play a significant role in assisting this immense task of national self-transformation.

Joan Youngman is a senior fellow of the Lincoln Institute, where she directs the Program on the Taxation of Land and Buildings. She and Martim Smolka, senior fellow for Latin America Programs, served on the faculty of the July conference at the University of South Africa.


1. South African Department of Land Affairs, Our Land: Green Paper on South African Land Policy (1996), p. 9.

2. Roy W. Bahl and Johannes F. Linn, Urban Public Finance in Developing Countries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 168.

What are the names of South Africa’s official languages?

A recent newspaper trivia puzzle gives a startling perspective on the enormity of the political, legal and cultural changes experienced by South Africa since 1993, and the difficulty foreign observers face in grasping the scope of these transformations.

The original answer to the question about official languages was given as English and Afrikaans. One week later, a correction noted that South Africa’s major tribal languages should also be included. So the full answer lists ten official languages:




Northern Sotho (Sepedi)

Southern Sotho (Sesotho)



Tswana (Setswana)

Venda, Xhosa