Comment and Analysis

ANC land policies: Talk left, walk right?

Ben Cousins, Ruth Hall

It's good election rhetoric but the main problems dogging farm redistribution are not being addressed, say Ben Cousins and Ruth Hall.

The ANC manifesto promises to address 'the ongoing problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality' through land reform. (John McCann)

The ANC election manifesto strongly emphasises land reform, rural development and food security – not surprisingly, because the Jacob Zuma administration has claimed these to be among its top five priorities for the past five years.

The manifesto promises to address "the ongoing problems of poverty, unemployment and inequality" through land reform to achieve "far-reaching economic transformation". It's good election rhetoric, but how likely is this, given the ANC's recent track record?

None of the main problems that have dogged land reform will be addressed: poor post-settlement support and dysfunctional extension services are ignored, as are rampant evictions of farm workers.

The willing buyer, willing seller approach to land acquisition, for example, will be replaced by "just and equitable compensation".

This is not news; this decision was taken way back in 2005, and repeated each year since then. Is the state going to expropriate or threaten to do so to get land and get it more cheaply? How will land be identified? Who will get it? The manifesto does not provide answers and nor does current policy.

In communal areas, the government will "continue to improve the tenure security and administration of people", especially women. This is misleading, given that communal-tenure reform has stalled completely over the past 20 years, and rural women remain vulnerable to eviction. Traditional leadership institutions are to be given greater powers of land administration and are set to benefit from the reopening of land claims, as well as from the infamous Traditional Courts Bill.

Election manifestos are, by their nature, short on detail. The real problem is the set of policies and programmes that the ANC has developed over the past five years. These are unconvincing in their prescriptions for reducing rural poverty and worrying in their bias towards rural elites.

Our rural development and land reform policies do not tackle the underlying structure of the rural economy. They lack coherence and traction, focusing on micro-level projects rather than interventions that have impact at scale.

Government programmes aim to replicate large-scale commercial farms but without the support to black farmers that was previously given to white farmers. They are biased towards a few thousand individuals who constitute an "emerging black farmer" class and against the mass of the rural poor (a quarter of our population), despite rhetoric to the contrary.

It gets worse. The most recent set of land policies, released without publicity in July and August last year, and developed with little or no consultation with stakeholders, embody a form of state paternalism reminiscent of apartheid. They also involve unrealistic ideas about how to prevent "failure" on farms transferred through land reform.

According to last year's state land lease and disposal policy – now the guide for all redistribution of land – black people who receive land through land reform will not be allowed to own that land.

A century after the 1913 Natives Land Act, the state will hold land in trust for black citizens, who will get leases from the state until they "graduate" and "prove" they are capable of farming it productively, and will be allowed to apply to buy their farms only after 50 years of paying rent to the state.

This means achieving production levels specified in a business plan drawn up by a mentor or consultant, or a "strategic partner" (often former white farmers), with the government supervising their farming operations over decades. But small-scale farmers will never have the option to purchase – one has to be a medium or large-scale "emerging farmer" to own land.

All funding for land reform will now take the form of "recapitalisation" and development grants, also based on business plans premised on the large-farm model. This is despite overwhelming evidence that inappropriate, consultant-devised business plans, at odds with the priorities and capabilities of beneficiaries, have been a key obstacle to productive use of land reform farms.

Recent fieldwork in the Eastern Cape reveals that leaseholds on these farms are in chaos, with many leases having lapsed, preventing beneficiaries from accessing "recapitalisation" grants (or bank loans) and leaving them unclear about their future on the farms. This could well be the case in other provinces, but information on state land leasing is not made public. Officials are struggling to make sense of or implement existing policies, which were developed without their input or public consultation.

The agricultural landholding policy requires that the government designate maximum and minimum land-holding sizes in every district, and take steps to bring all farms either up to the minimum (a "floor level") or below the maximum size (a "ceiling").

District land reform committees are to determine floors and ceilings by assessing variables such as climate, soil, water, current output, commodity-specific constraints, economies of scale and capital requirements.

Holdings in excess of the ceiling will be trimmed down through purchase, expropriation or equity sharing. Although the notion of a land ceiling makes political sense, heavy taxes would be more effective in limiting large holdings, and imposing a "minimum farm size" is ludicrous and anti-poor.

Since 2009, the government's policy documents have been replete with fine-sounding phrases on the creation of "vibrant, equitable and sustainable rural communities".

Smallholder farmers and the rural poor are often named as key beneficiaries. This populist discourse masks the reality that under the Zuma administration the rural poor and small-scale farmers have not been the main beneficiaries of land redistribution; rather those who are able to comply with the government's requirement of "production discipline" are an elite, often urban, who have incomes to invest in commercial farming – rather than farm workers or the 2.5-million households farming in the communal areas of the former Bantustans.

The urban poor are becoming more angry and impatient over inadequate infrastructure and services. Rural people are also increasingly recognising the yawning gap between rhetoric and reality in relation to the ANC's land reform and rural development. Whether this translates into a drop in the ANC's rural vote remains to be seen.

Ben Cousins and Ruth Hall are at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.

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