Land redistribution needs political will

The land question is back in the headlines. After 18 years of democracy, only 7% of commercial farmland has been transferred to black South Africans through land restitution and redistribution. The deadline for the transfer of 30% of such farmland, announced in 1994 with the aim to be done by 1999, is now 2025. Slowness has been accompanied by low productivity levels on this land and a limited positive effect on rural poverty.

There is widespread agreement that land reform is in trouble. But what are the reasons and how can they be addressed? Here there is polarisation, not agreement, which is particularly acute in relation to the willing-seller, willing-buyer approach increasingly blamed for the slow pace of land transfer.

The ANC Youth League, for instance, calls for the seizure of land without compensation. Lawyers point out that the Constitution does allow the state to expropriate land for land reform. Some radicals argue that the clause requiring “just and equitable compensation” should be removed. White farmers feel threatened and suggest national food security is at risk. Economists warn that uncertain property rights constrain investment and growth.

But market-based land reform or large-scale expropriation are not the only options. Both are problematic and alternatives are needed.

It is a pity that the ANC’s policy proposals fail to set these out coherently or build on long-standing internal discussions in the department of rural development and land reform and in lively public debates. Alternatives have emerged from research and reflection on experience, but these are rarely discussed.

Politically unfeasible
Expropriation without compensation is politically unfeasible at present and the ANC is unlikely to consider it for the foreseeable future. This is partly because the ANC is a multiclass alliance that includes property-owning capitalists and a growing middle class, and partly because of fears that large-scale confiscation of property would endanger both agricultural production and capital investment.

Expropriation with compensation at less than market value is allowed by the Constitution, which specifies that a range of factors can be taken into account, including the current use of the property, its history of acquisition and use, the level of state investment and subsidy in its acquisition and improvement, and the purpose of expropriation.

In practice, however, it is unlikely that the prices paid for expropriated land would be much lower than 85% to 90% of market value. But large-scale expropriation with compensation at or below market value is not a feasible option at present. It is beyond the capacity of a weak and unskilled government department. It would lead to drawn-out court challenges and antagonise the commercial farmers the government is trying to entice as strategic partners and mentors for land-reform beneficiaries.

But in some circumstances, such as the targeted acquisition of land in a specific location, expropriation could form part of a carrot-and-stick approach to landowners. In relation to land restitution claims – as distinct from redistribution – expropriation is the most effective way to resolve disputes over compensation and settle the claim as quickly as possible. It should be implemented much more widely. A new expropriation Act in line with the Constitution is urgently needed, as indicated in ANC proposals.

If land for redistribution continues to be acquired through purchase, then the weaknesses of the willing-seller, willing-buyer approach need to be addressed. They include spatially fragmented land acquisition, a lack of attention to how support ­services will be delivered to beneficiaries, inexperienced officials approving purchases of poor quality land, collusion between land sellers and officials to purchase at higher prices than are justified, and bureaucratic delays that lead to sellers seeking alternative buyers.

Valuer general
The government must become a much more effective buyer of land. It requires the development of relevant in-house skills and expertise, including in land valuation. The establishment of the office of a “valuer general”, as proposed in the green paper, might help.

The central thrust of an alternative approach should combine proactive land acquisition with area-based planning for both transfer and post-transfer support. It would aim at concentrated land purchases in zones of opportunity and need. Acquisition would have a clear spatial focus, identifying areas where demand for land is high and good land available. Planning would include participatory processes in which demand is matched with supply and landowners are encouraged to put their land on the market at a fair price.

As ANC proposals suggest, other mechanisms to assist land acquisition could include giving the government the right of first refusal of land offered for sale and to set land ceilings, but these will work best when used selectively with area-based land reform, rather than in a blanket fashion.

Areas where proactive acquisition and concentrated land purchase have worked well include Elliot in the Eastern Cape and Besters in Kwa­Zulu-Natal, where the proportions of farmland transferred quickly reached 20% to 30% of the total. Unfortunately, land transfers in these cases have not been matched by effective support services, the other key component of effective land reform. It is another key issue not adequately addressed in ANC proposals. Also left out are the weaknesses of the current proactive land acquisition strategy, which fails to provide tenure security and is also subject to elite capture.

But for this alternative approach to work, three enabling conditions are required. In the first the government must bring in the requisite skills and expertise, not only for canny land purchasing, but also for effective spatial planning and agricultural support services.

Productive enterprises
The second is a budget large enough to transfer land on a significant scale and support its new owners in establishing productive enterprises. Land reform’s budget has never exceeded 1% of the national budget and quadrupling it is eminently affordable.

This brings us to the third and crucial condition: sufficient political will to implement large-scale land redistribution. To ensure its sustainability, it would have to form part of a wider agrarian reform strategy to reconfigure the highly skewed agrarian structure inherited from apartheid and create market opportunities for new farmers.

But does the ruling party have the will to embark on serious agrarian reform? That is the real question facing the ANC in Mangaung.

Professor Ben Cousins holds a research chair in poverty, land and agrarian studies at the University of the Western Cape

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Ben Cousins
Prof Ben Cousins' research is strategic and use-oriented, for policy-makers and civil society groups concerned with reducing poverty and inequality through redistributing assets, securing rights and democratising decision-making in rural areas.

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