It’s Time to Reappraise Our Concept of Property

For South Africans to make substantial and lasting progress in making the ideals of the Constitution a reality, it’s necessary to recognise past injustice, reappraise the conception of ownership and property, and accept the consequences of constitutional change. These were the words of the Constitutional Court of South Africa in a judgement delivered by Froneman J in case of Daniels v Scribante and Another (2017 ZACC 13).

In this case Mrs Daniels occupied a dwelling on the landowner’s property in terms of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act No 62 of 1997 (ESTA). The landowner accepted that the state of the dwelling was degrading and not fit for a human, but the landowner nonetheless wanted to stop Mrs Daniels from the leveling the floors, paving an outside area, and installing running water, a wash basin, a second window and a ceiling. All the improvements were going to be done by Mrs Daniels at her own cost.

The court had to decide if the landowner could stop Mrs Daniels from making improvements to the dwelling to make it habitable.

The Court’s Main Judgement

The court rejected the landowner’s argument that even though Mrs Daniels had the right to live in the dwelling on their property, she did not have the right to improve the property to make it fit for human habitation. In the courts main judgement Madlanga J said that the landowner placed an overly narrow interpretation the wording of the law, ignoring the laws purpose. He said that the law is about more than just a roof over your head, and that the right to occupy a dwelling can’t be separated from other fundamental human rights, like the right to human dignity. Mrs Daniels right to occupy the dwelling (her security of tenure) includes habitability. Habitability includes the right to make improvements. If there was no right to make the improvements, then the dwellings habitability is removed, destroying an occupier’s security of tenure.

The court also rejected the landowner’s second argument that if Mrs Daniels was allowed to improve the property, then the landowner might be forced to repay these costs if she was ever evicted, in effect meaning that the landowner was being forced to fund the improvements. The landowner argued that this would be a positive obligation, but that the Bill of Rights doesn’t impose a positive duty on a landowner to ensure that an occupier lives in conditions fit for human habitation.

Importantly, the court dismissed this second argument saying that the Bill of Rights can’t be interpreted as never being able to impose positive duties on private persons. ESTA already imposes a positive duty – a duty to accommodate another person on your land. What’s needed is a weighing of all the relevant factors, and the positive nature of the obligation is only one factor considered.

Mrs Daniels’ right to human dignity and security of tenure must be weighed against the potential that a landowner may have to compensate her if she was ever evicted. The court noted that under our common law a landowner already may have to compensate tenants or occupiers on their departure under certain circumstances.

Madlanga J ordered that Mrs Daniels has the right to improve the dwelling after consulting with the landowner regarding the times that her contractors will need access to the farm.

The Court’s Rejection of Property Absolutism

The landowner’s defense was based on the concept of property absolutism, which places the property rights of an owner above all else. In a separate concurring judgement Froneman J said that it is time for South Africans to reappraise the concept of property, and to reject property absolutism.

Froneman J said that this concept arose in Europe at a time when they underwent a real socio-political struggle against feudal oppression. In the European struggle property absolutism played an important role to ensure individual freedom, but just because the concept played an important role in developing western capitalism, it doesn’t mean that the concept should continue to exist under the South African constitutional dispensation.

The concept of property absolutism didn’t play a role in determining the current land distribution in South Africa. On the contrary, land distribution was determined by a series of laws that were calculated to deprive black people of land and to create a population of wage slaves – people who couldn’t be self-sufficient and who would have to depend on employment at white owned farms and mines for survival.

Froneman J dismissed the argument that absolute protection of property rights is necessary because of modern market benefits, pointing out that this argument is an attempt to slow down or frustrate constitutional change. He said that these extra-judicial arguments, based on economic efficiency, hide their theoretical assumptions and then leap to a conclusion that the economy will suffer from any change that upsets the existing protection and distribution of property. He warned against being blind to the limits of market based exchanges.

Froneman J rejected the argument that the protection of existing property is currently needed in South Africa in order to ensure personal and economic freedom.

This judgement doesn’t in itself alter the legal dispensation, but going forward it should be used to re-evaluate the strict concept of property, and the commonly held assumption that the rights of landowners will always trump the rights of other people in our democratic society.

Indeed, it is time to accept the consequences of constitutional change.


This work by Clinton Pavlovic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The unedited featured photograph by Katie Barrett was published under a Creative Commons Zero Licence.