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Haste over land rights bill not just in aid of buying votes*

Author: Aninka Claassens

Land restitution was intended to undo the boundaries of the former Bantustans, but the government seems to have ‘changed tack’ since 1994.

New laws re-entrench those boundaries and the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill ‘will be used to bolster the power of traditional leaders at the expense of those who were actually removed’. In an analysis on the Custom Contested site, Aninka Claassens, of the Centre for Law and Society at UCT, adds that in an attempt to avoid a legal challenge, the amendment Bill does not even mention its main beneficiaries – the traditional leaders – who are being encouraged to claim vast swathes of land on behalf of their communities. However, she points out that large-scale transfers to traditional leaders would undermine the tenure security guaranteed under section 25(6) of the Constitution for the most vulnerable, especially rural women. ‘Such transfers almost certainly would face challenge, case by case, if traditional leaders succeed in their claims,’ she says. Claassens adds: ‘The reality is that this Bill is not just an empty pre-election promise. It is an attempt to divert the benefits of the restitution programme away from those who were forcibly removed in the past, to traditional leaders claiming to act on their behalf.’ She notes that the department has already refused to transfer restitution land to some communal property associations for more than 10 years, even when signed settlement agreements and court orders were in place. ‘Restitution awards are being held back so that the land can be transferred to traditional institutions under proposed legislation that is still in the pipeline’. However, the government cannot get away with denying these ‘clearly articulated rights’ indefinitely. Says Claassens: ‘The combination of large numbers of new claims and a minute budget creates ideal cover for prioritising the claims of the politically well-connected, at the expense of those they consider a threat.’

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