Land Tenure Bill just furthers the rot

“Study how a society uses its land,” wrote economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, “and you can come to pretty reliable conclusions as to what its future will be.” A South African can only hope that he was wrong.

Since 2007 South Africa has been a net importer of food, making food security a hot issue. Land reform, too, with “nationalisation”, is a potential firestorm awaiting exploitation by demagogues. The spark that could light this powder keg is the Land Tenure Security Bill, now before Parliament and awaiting comment.

The legislation has provoked protest from both the commercial farmers’ body, Agri-SA, and farm workers’ unions probably because it is a lightning rod for some disturbing trends in government policy. The Bill would supersede existing legislation that protects tenants on commercial farms.

It provides for the establishment of government-managed “agri-villages”, settlements where evicted workers can live, subsistence farm and await employment. Workers would need a permit to live there and permits would be governed by a nine-member Land Rights Management Board. The Bill does not say what services, if any, will be provided by municipalities for such villages.

Government is set to create another level of bureaucracy in a sector already cracking under the weight of cumbersome regulation and incompetence on the part of both the departments of rural development and agriculture.

The Bill’s implicit message is that government is admitting defeat in its bid to provide a large portion of the citizenry with a dignity independent of the state.

Farmers have long complained that in no other country in the world is there legislation forcing an employer to provide housing and social services to employees and their families. This makes employing new workers financially risky. Hence, farmers tend to pre-empt the law by increasing evictions, ensuring that government action has the opposite effect to its goals. Many rural workers find themselves in a serious predicament because of poor employment conditions as well as unfair evictions.

But government is not helping the situation. Its legislation hampers employment and its rhetoric tarnishes every farmer with the same dirty brush.

If “agri-villages” become the solution to the problem of tenant security, South Africa will face more depression in rural areas, leading to further unrest in the growing number of informal settlements around cities.

Government has to look beyond itself if the situation is to improve. Fortunately, a number of promising ideas could help.

First, it must alter both the content and tone of the Bill. Policy needs to focus on creating employment. Farm employment often leads to housing, but the order should not be reversed — for the sake of those being housed.

Second, government itself has recently lifted its moratorium on farm equity schemes, in which the state funds shared equity between owners and labour. Managed correctly, such schemes could inspire a new kind of black economic empowerment, the recipients of which would not be only the politically connected. It could also provide the missing link in land reform: the apprenticeship of a new class of black commercial farmers.

Such an apprenticeship could spur family farming. Adequately supported small-scale farming could provide a second agricultural economy, bringing dignity to thousands by using the swaths of now-vacant land, both for subsistence and for sales at market. Models for this exist in civil society networks around South Africa and the world.

Yet such proposals require that decrepit state bodies admit they are part of the problem and need to be replaced by decentralised, public-private collaborations. In this way a potential crisis could be converted into a model for development.

Chris Waldburger is a school teacher and freelance journalist based in Cape Town

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