/ 15 March 2019

Search for ways to stop the land slide

Unreformed: Redistribution
Unreformed: Redistribution, restitution and tenure, the three pillars of land reform, have failed to redress the inequalities created by colonial and apartheid governments. (Paul Botes)


Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the German physicist, satirist, and Anglophile, said the most dangerous untruths are truths moderately distorted. This homily aptly describes the discussion about land in South Africa today. There are as many opinions about the purpose, the method of implementation and who should benefit from land reform as there are wrinkles on an elephant’s back.

These views are reflected not only in the diversity of visions that have been put forward, but also in the heated and emotionally charged rhetoric that passes for debate on the issue. This was no less true at the recent land redistribution conference held at the University of the Western Cape, jointly organised by UWC, the University of Fort Hare and Rhodes University’s sociology department.

In an attempt to bring some rationality to the debate, the organisers treated delegates to three commissioned position papers on possible ways out of the present impasse.

The confusion about the correct way to address the land question was set out clearly at the beginning of the conference by Ruth Hall, of the South African Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas) at UWC. Since 1994, the three pillars of the land reform process — redistribution, restitution and tenure — have been marked by confusion and policy changes, none of which have been implemented in a manner that convinces that the government is serious about the issue.

This is true from the declining share of the budget allocated to agrarian reform, reflected once again in the 2019-2020 budget, to the absence of administrative competency and political will at all levels.

It would not be an exaggeration to say, especially if the large number of farmworkers who have been evicted from commercial farms is included, that landlessness has increased since the ANC took over in 1994. The redistribution programme, for example, has gone through three distinct stages in the past 23 years.

Land redistribution started with the Settlement/Land Acquisition Grant (Slag) under the then minister of land affairs, Derek Hanekom, and the Nelson Mandela government. Here at least, inspired by the Redistribution and Development Programme, the target of redistribution was clear. It was to address the inequality of land-holding and the shocking poverty that characterised the country as a result of the colonial and apartheid legacy, and was aimed directly at the landless rural poor.

Hanekom was succeeded by Thoko Didiza. Under her watch, the land affairs department launched the Land Reform for Agricultural Development (LRAD) programme. Once the erstwhile moribund department of agriculture was incorporated into the land affairs department, the focus was firmly on boosting access of a few aspirant black farmers into the ranks of white commercial farming.

With the election of Jacob Zuma to the presidency, land reform entered what Hall characterised as “capture and confusion”. Introduced by the then land affairs minister, Lulama Xingwana, in 2006 and refined by her successor, Gugile Nkwinti, from 2009, a third change of direction, overlapping with LRAD for a few years, was introduced. Known as the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy,its purpose was ostensibly to enable the state to play a more proactive role in the selection of beneficiaries and more productive agricultural land (in nodal areas and agricultural corridors) with the intent of speeding up land redistribution.

All three approaches were stymied by a combination of factors, such as high land prices, inappropriate beneficiary selection, limited access to supplementary finance, little post-settlement support, and administrative incompetence on the part of the department. There was no attempt to integrate land reform into local government spatial planning.

This plethora of overlapping policy initiatives has either not been implemented or implemented in a half-hearted manner, which has left land acquired by the state — sometimes at budget-breaking cost — open to elite capture and exploitation by big business.

To answer the question: Where to now for land reform? the organisers of the conference commissioned three position papers.

Stellenbosch professors Nick Vink and Johan Kirsten, coming from a market-led land redistribution approach that minimised the role of the state, argued for a multistakeholder district/local land management committee in each area. Its purpose would be to develop a local vision for agriculture, identifying 20% of land under its jurisdiction for redistribution. It would approve beneficiaries according to agreed criteria and initiate projects, ensuring appropriate support for their successful implementation.

Vink and Kirsten pointed out that state-driven land reform has been a failure, diverted by elite capture, and that the productive potential of most transferred land has been destroyed. The unresolved land question requires an enhanced national development plan and “fast-track” redistribution. To achieve this it is necessary to:

  • Establish a land reform fund and enable investment in land reform bonds;
  • Incentivise voluntary contributions of land with empowerment recognition;
  • Transfer state-owned land; and
  • Expropriate farms in financial distress or owned by absentee landlords, and unused tax-indebted land.

Taking a contrary position, Mazibuko Jara of Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda, a rural movement in the Eastern Cape, argued that the state should be the main institution to acquire land with purchases, expropriation, donations and release of available public land. In his view it is necessary to conduct a review of all pre-transition long-term leases over public land (for example, municipal commonage), and for the state to recognise the rights of people who have occupied land.

New institutional capacities need to be built in the state to plan and provide support. A key policy tool in this process is the municipal integrated development plans (particularly at district level) combined with area-based planning for land and agrarian reform. Another aspect is the mapping of all registered claims for land restitution, as well as the mapping and review of all leases on public land to private users. The mapping of existing agricultural production by land-hungry people, farms in debt and under-used land was emphasised.

At the heart of this approach is the development of a solidarity economy within which land redistribution should contribute to four outcomes: historical redress, wealth (asset) redistribution, decent livelihoods and improved local economies. The focus of land reform should be unequivocally on the rural poor.

The third position paper, by Michael Aliber of Fort Hare University, proposed that redistribution should be focused largely on smallholder land redistribution. He argued that most people who require land need it for housing and small-scale subsistence production in peri-urban areas and therefore these “settlement-oriented beneficiaries” should make up 75% of those receiving attention from the state.

This would allow people to have access to multiple livelihood opportunities in semirural and urban contexts. Their eligibility, similar to the urban housing subsidies, should be means-tested. There should be a reprioritising of municipal commonage for small-scale livestock farming.

The second category Aliber highlighted is small-scale farmers, who should make up 20% of the total land redistribution spend. To qualify for this programme, farming experience is required. Extension services should include assistance in reaching agricultural value chains to market their produce. Jara also emphasised this aspect.

Finally, large-scale farmers should make up 5% of beneficiaries and be in a position to make a substantial own contribution.

All three authors agree that land reform requires decentralised, simplified area-based planning driven by a spatial logic and that it should largely be focused on the poor and landless. But a 2012 Phuhlisani report commissioned by the department of rural development and land reform found that formal approval of the area-based planning appeared to be the major stumbling block in the process.

According to the report, the department is dependent on municipal planning and approval processes to enable the area-based planning to be recognised as a sector plan within the integrated development plan.

Area-based plans for rural development and land reform are not a legislated output of the integrated development plan. Without guidelines or regulations in terms of the Municipal Systems Act, or alternative regulation binding on all spheres of government, this is likely to remain a major hurdle to negotiate.

The department of rural development and land reform’s latest annual report (2016-2017) states that it hopes to achieve this integration by 2020. The parlous state of local government is well known. Apart from a shortage of skills, resources and political will, district and local governments are ambivalent about integrating area-based rural development and land reform plans.

Andries du Toit, the director of Plaas, suggests that the Aliber option has the most chance of succeeding, given current realities. He points out that it presents fairly modest, clearly achievable policies that would work to support existing livelihood strategies, help to ameliorate commodification and create some kind of basis for inclusive growth.

Monty J Roodt is a professor of sociology at Rhodes University