Land and agriculture policy: Back to the roots

Lulu Xingwana, the new Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs, faces enormous challenges. Policies to sustain a productive agricultural sector must contend with a global trade regime that is profoundly unequal and privileges the protected producers of the North. There has been little progress in levelling this playing field.

Xingwana should consider ways to integrate the policies of her two portfolios within a bold and imaginative programme of agrarian restructuring. Her predecessors failed in this regard, with fatal consequences for land reform. Land policy was premised on state intervention, agricultural policy on reducing the role of the state, and ne’er the twain did meet.

On land reform, it remains unclear whether current policies will enable the government to meet its targets. One year after the 2005 Land Summit, the sector presents a mixed picture of stagnation and progress.

Despite assurances, there has been little meaningful consultation with stakeholders and it is unclear which resolutions will be acted on. Tenure reform in communal areas appears to have ground to a halt and evictions of commercial farm dwellers continue—adding to the million or so who have lost access to land since 1994. More positively, promising new approaches to land redistribution and post-settlement support are being investigated.

The biggest challenge of all is to link land and agricultural policies in ways that transform the rural economy and create opportunities for the poor to use productive assets in the service of wealth generation.

Redistributing 30% of commercial farmland by 2014 is a daunting goal, and to date only about 4% has been transferred through all land-reform programmes combined. Although the promised review of the “willing buyer, willing seller” principle has yet to occur, some provinces are piloting an area-based approach to land reform. This involves aligning land reform, agricultural support and other programmes with the integrated development plans of municipalities. It gives the state a more proactive role in land acquisition, including the use of expropriation when negotiations break down.

This approach gives partial effect to summit recommendations and is what researchers and activists have urged for years. Missing still is a firm commitment to participatory needs assessment and planning procedures.

In relation to land restitution, the government has belatedly recognised the importance of post-settlement support for people moving back on to land, who often lack skills, capital and access to markets. A major donor-funded investigation of models for effective support is now under way, and may be extended to cover all land-reform projects.

Stories of failed land-reform projects are legion. The government is desperate to see some success, but also to maintain continuity in production in contexts such as Limpopo, where 70% of the province’s land is under claim and the economy is highly dependent on agriculture.

This informs the major thrust in rural claims at present: the search for private sector “strategic partners”. These will be brought in to manage large commercial operations on behalf of beneficiaries, who will receive a share of profits. Key concerns still to be addressed are the degree to which profits will remain after management fees have been deducted, and whether claimants will be truly empowered within such arrangements.

This approach may be appropriate for irrigated farms producing high-value export crops, but has little relevance for the bulk of land being transferred, which is more suited to rain-fed cropping, livestock and production for local markets. Here the need is for sound extension advice and training, affordable credit and effective marketing—things that most land-reform projects are still unable to access.

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