South Africa

Daily Maverick 168

In the rough: Golf courses may be SA’s most wasteful luxury

Aerial view of the Lost City Golf Course with a view of The Palace and Sun Vacation Club. (Photo: supplied)

Why do municipalities subsidise golf by leasing land to golf clubs at insanely low rates?

First published on Daily Maverick 168

How much would it cost to rent 70.4 hectares of land in Stellenbosch, in the beautiful Cape winelands? If the rent was market-related, it should run to hundreds of thousands of rand a year. But up until 2011, the Stellenbosch Golf Club was paying R1,000 a year to the local municipality for the use of a tract of land that size.

Rondebosch Golf Club, which fills the equivalent of 45 rugby fields of public land, was until recently on a lease of R1,000 a year too. King David Mowbray Golf Club, across the road: ditto.

And this isn’t just the case in the Western Cape. Nelspruit Golf Club in Mpumalanga was found in 2018 to be paying R10 rental per month on a municipal lease valid for 99 years. In 2017, the Port Elizabeth Golf Club was reported to be paying R20 per year in land rental fees to the municipality.

All over the country, in other words, golf clubs are sitting on public land and paying a pittance for the privilege. It’s no exaggeration to say that South African municipalities in effect subsidising the playing of golf – which in a 2018 report was found to be the most popular pastime for SA’s super-rich.

I first became aware of these crazily favourable leases through the work of Cape Town-based advocacy group Ndifuna Ukwazi. The NGO launched a campaign in 2019 to have the land used by Rondebosch Golf Club reallocated for affordable housing when the club’s lease came up for renewal.

Ndifuna Ukwazi focused its activism on Cape Town, but I was intrigued enough to start investigating golf course leases in the rest of the country.

What I quickly realised, however, was that this information is extremely hard to come by. In 2018, an Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP asked the minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) in Parliament to supply the number of South African municipalities leasing land to golf courses, and to provide the details of the relevant leases.

Cogta replied that the information “is not readily available in the department”, and would have to be gathered from all nine provinces individually. I contacted Cogta last year to ask whether the information had yet been collated; it had not. I checked in again while making the most recent episode of Don’t Shoot The Messenger on this topic. The information was still unavailable – and the details of leases mentioned above have only come to light either through Ndifuna Ukwazi’s advocacy, or from sporadic media reports.

The question of why municipalities would be willing to give away vast parcels of land so cheaply for use by an elite sport is equally difficult to obtain a straight answer to. Ndifuna Ukwazi director Mandisa Shandu says many of these leasing arrangements have their origins in colonial or apartheid city planning, and that in some cases historical records may not even exist.

It is noteworthy, however, that many of these leases appear to have been nailed down for decades in advance in the early to mid-1990s, during the transition to democracy. Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane said in 2017 that her office’s investigations had found that in some instances just before the ANC took power, former municipal officers had locked golf course land into 99-year leaseholds to prevent the land being from used for housing and other purposes.

But at a time when the government is coming under increasing pressure to identify and release well-located land for redistribution, why have greater efforts not been made to reform these leases? That issue, too, is mysterious. But when the matter of golf’s protected status has arisen in other countries – notably, the USA – one answer proposed has to do with the profile of those who play golf: often, though not exclusively, the rich and the powerful.

The tradition of golf as the favoured sport of politicians is as true for South Africa as for many other nations. A parliamentary golf day and a presidential golf day are fixtures on the annual calendar. When US President Donald Trump and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sat next to each other at lunch at the United Nations in 2017, what did they discuss? Golf courses, said Ramaphosa; and golfing great Gary Player.

Cheap municipal leases are not the only reason why golf courses deserve to be in the spotlight. Their water use is another major issue in an increasingly water-stressed country. Rand Water estimates the amount of water needed by the average South African golf course to be about 36 million litres a month: enough to ensure a basic water supply to 6,000 households.

Defenders of golf point to its economic utility. Golf RSA CEO Grant Hepburn says that golf contributes R49-billion to the fiscus annually, of which R350-million is derived from golf tourism. Hepburn estimates that South African golf courses employ about 40,000 people annually.

There are also South African golf courses that serve as public commonages akin to a park, in which walkers and dogs are allowed free access. This use seems more defensible than the courses that admit entry only to members paying thousands of rands in fees each year. But even given these factors, the question deserves to be seriously posed: can the protected status of golf courses in our urban environments be justified in South Africa in 2020? DM168

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All Comments 8

  • I take it Rebecca is not a golfer.
    What a great idea though to rip up established green spaces and convert them into high-density, low-cost, or perhaps informal housing. Shouldn’t affect the overall property values in the affected municipalities at all.
    Which in turn will allow the government another 26 years to not find a solution to the land issue.

  • So firstly, fair disclosure I live on a golf estate. What people need to remember is that the clubs don’t lease land with developed golf courses. The clubs developed that open land and in many cases 50 and even a 100 years ago. there are a fairer set of questions rather than what would a developer pay to rent 50Ha of urban land. What would councils do with that land? Fill up their urban edge with more roads and houses and malls? I don’t know how to open up broad use of public land that is now a golf course. They could make golf more accessible, they could probably make walking and running there possible. What is certain : the state of these public lands beats the living hell out of the condition of what public use land our councils do have. Giving councils another 50Ha to also not look after is not going to help the land. Another minor problem is how to breach contracts and repay the clubs for the improvements.

  • An interesting articled with some good points, and several technical issues not considered. There is no doubt that some cities have too many golf courses, too close to each other. Some golf courses also became too uneconomical to run – too few members wiling to pay the high fees – vis King David near CT airport which closed down. But there are many golf courses that provide hidden benefits. One that is not mentioned is that many urban courses receive their water supply from the closest waste water treatment works (WWTW). Yes – there are some that take water from other sources, eg rivers, groundwater, dams, etc. But those using treated effluent are in some way acting as a receiver, thereby assisting end disposal of in many cases ‘partially’ treated effluent from the WWTW. Whilst it could be argued that the effluent should be treated further for domestic reuse, although a valid argument, it comes at a cost – which would be to the end user, ie residents. So there arises a trade-off in costs. Another issue is that some golf courses are also preservers of indigenous vegetation types and provide green lungs within the city landscape, plus refuge for wildlife. One must though distinguish between privately owned and municipal leased golf courses when assessing the status quo. In Cape Town we have Wingfield, Youngsfield, Swartklip – Macassar (Denel) and Lenteguer, plus Ysterplaat, all military or ex-military owned/used land. This is government land within the city that should also be considered for appropriate development. Not being a golfer (and when I tried, a very poor one) these points are made to provide a balanced argument – some have benefits, and some maybe not. However, these need to be looked at equally and objectively. A rapid review status quo study on golf estate development in the Western Cape was undertaken in 2004-05 with guidelines published in December 2005. This would be a good starting point to establish some principles. https://www.westerncape.gov.za/Text/2005/12/gcgepf&pe_guidelinesfindec05.pdf

  • An interesting article that omits a few rather important variables. With the gradual decline in our economy and emigration of affluent South Africans, many of whom were golfers, a large proportion of golf clubs on municipal leased properties are struggling to stay afloat. (Despite the low lease costs) Golf clubs situated in residential estates are subsidized by their residents. On these estates, the golf course increases the municipal valuation of these homes, so it feeds back into the rates revenue. As mentioned by Ritchie Morris many golf courses rely totally on treated waste-water. Given the rapid rise in poverty and unemployment, it would be interesting to establish three important factors that should influence economic decision making:
    1. The total percentage of all property rates paid by golfers nationally.
    2. The total percentage of golfers who are business owners and employers of others?
    3. How many people are employed directly via the golf industry AND by the businesses owned by golfers? (This will run into hundreds of thousands of people more than the 40,000 employed by the industry)
    Then based on that information, and bearing in mind our political and economic uncertainty, make a call on how many more employers and ratepayers we should encourage to depart our shores. That should produce a very interesting economic model. I understand that pro-poor policies are fashionable, but without employers everyone is poor.

  • It’s sad to realise that perhaps the previous regeme was just as corrupt as this one, but knew how to keep it hidden better.

    I’m tired at pretending to be shocked at political shenanigans. Nothing will be done, no perpetrators will be brought to justice, ministers will be reshuffled and the dismal cycle will continue.

  • The environmental value of a golf course is substantial. It is too easy to bash golf clubs as the reserves of the rich. If they are on municipal land they should be made accessible to all the rate payers and in many instances this is already happening so they represent an amenity provided by the council for its rates payers. There surely must be other land available for development in all metro areas. The green lung provided by the golf course is essential in any city landscape. Sadly golf has assumed a mantra of exclusiveness and snobbery but this can be addressed where the course is on municipal land. There are few pursuits more enjoyable and entertaining then a round of golf and more people should partake of it. Another squalid development is not a fair swap for a golf course.

  • Why do you want to drag the good things down? Rather aspire to lift up and join the good. The reason we have such a housing issue is due to people moving to a city without first making sure they have work and a place to stay. This lack of foresight leads to the urban decay we see. Many of those (not all, mind you) living in poverty in the city had a perfectly good rural home where they could grow their own food, raise livestock, etc. This they abandoned with the false hope of a ‘better’ life in the city.

  • Interesting info on the source of some golfing spaces. I would like to see a comprehensive view of the pros and cons with an emphasis on natural biodiversity (towards compensating the losses due to urbanisation- these are big spaces and ‘nature friendly’ should be a priority, encouraged by a ratings agency). Golf courses are mostly green deserts, over maintained with herbicides etc. Some are now moving to correct this. I was told in the UK some golf clubs are actively working to bring badgers back to their grounds. I feel at this time in history we owe nature a huge helping hand.
    A knee-jerk comment about the priveledged wealthy should also be balanced:
    1) Many of our very wealthy are great philanthropists, giving very generously to disadvantaged communities and other needs. Possibly some of these desicions are made at “19th hole”?
    2) Club income contributes to our national tax income.
    3) Many golf clubs are already in the process of opening their grounds to cyclists, runners and walkers, prompted by the loss of members who are enjoying new sports (I guess this will evolve, some safety measures should be managed).
    I do wish DM and other media would encourage journalists to include both good and bad in their articles. It is good to expose what seems unfair but what is the alternative? I have noted the massive increase in high density housing with no recreational parks (yes I know the problems with our few parks.. but no parks is not the answer). By encouraging discussion as DM does, we may just manage to find the Win:Win formulae for our many issues. I remember reading about a New York program to encourage positive change – was it the “I Love New York” campaign?
    Sigh… we have a lot to change.