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Why South Africa’s land reform agenda is stuck

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the South African Land Act, which restricted black people from buying or occupying land except as employees of white people. The Act gave white people ownership of 87 percent of land, leaving the black majority to settle in the remaining 13 percent.

Although the law was replaced by a policy of land restitution when the African National Congress (ANC) government came to power more than 19 years ago, South Africa is still struggling to reverse the Act’s impact. There have been problems and controversies with both policy and implementation of the land reform agenda, which uses redistribution, restitution and tenure reform to make the much-needed changes.

IRIN takes a look at some of the problems that have slowed reform.

Willing buyer, willing seller

The government’s restitution policy has taken a “willing buyer, willing seller” approach, as opposed to the expropriation route adopted by neighbouring Zimbabwe, which resulted in political, social and economic instability.

The South African government has been paying market value for the disputed land before it is handed over to the original owners, who were dispossessed during apartheid.

But the government admits the process has siphoned off its resources and delayed the reform process considerably. It had been paying twice as much for land restitution as it was for distribution.

Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti told parliament recently that from 1994 to 31 January 2013 the government spent over US$1.2 billion buying 4.1 million hectares of land for redistribution, while spending over $1.6 billion on 1.4 million hectares for restitution.

“The small, white landed class has benefitted R10.8 billion [over $1 billion] from land acquired, while the 71,292 working class claimants benefited R6 billion [about $600 million],” said the minister. Nkwinti also indicated that “claimants have chosen financial compensation over land restoration. This is a reflection of poverty, unemployment and income want”.

Critics on the left argue it also reflects the lack of a coherent strategy to enhance food security, aid poor urban populations living on marginal land, aid the predominantly black rural population, and support emerging black small and commercial farmers. Government detractors on the right have called land reform a ticking time bomb that could turn South Africa into Zimbabwe.

In response to criticism, the government has introduced several new initiatives in recent months, such as the Property Valuations Bill, the Expropriation Bill and the Restitution Amendment Bill]. But the new legislation has only stirred up more debate.

Just and equitable compensation

To shorten the time taken to finalize claims and to reduce the amount of money spent, the government said earlier this year it is dropping the “willing buyer, willing seller” principle, pursuing instead a “just and equitable” principle for compensation, which is set out in the constitution.

The constitution allows for expropriating property “even in cases where the owners of that property are unwilling to part with the property… if the expropriation is aimed at redistributing land to address the effects of widespread colonial and apartheid-era land dispossession “, writes legal expert Pierre de Vos, who teaches law at the University of Cape Town.

But the constitution says a “just and equitable” compensation must be paid for the property expropriated; it says nothing about paying market value. The proposed Valuations Bill will create an Office of the Valuer-General to develop criteria for determining what just value and compensation are.

De Vos says the proposed bills will provide the government with a new approach to accelerate land reform. He also suggested that setting up a valuations court could guard against corruption and help keep the process valid.

The government has also proposed amendments to the 1994 Restitution of Land Rights Act, which would re-open the processing of restitution claims for people who missed the 31 December 1998 deadline.

But Ruth Hall, a senior researcher with the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), writes that the bill might delay the process of restitution by another two decades. It also requires claimants to prove that they will use the land productively.

“It is astonishing that such conditionality is being proposed; existing (mostly white) landowners do not have to prove that they can use their land productively in order to keep hold of it,” Hall wrote.

“Land restitution is a very complex issue, and it straddles over various departments. We are doing as much as we can, and now we are all working together to try and speed up the process,” said Palesa Mokomele, spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

Lack of good data

But there is not enough “reliable and detailed empirical data on small-scale farming in South Africa, and in particular on farming by land-reform beneficiaries,” said Ben Cousins, senior professor at PLAAS.

According to the government, between 1994 and the end of March 2013, 4,860 farms have been transferred to black people and communities through the redistribution programme, totalling over 4 million hectares. Almost a quarter of a million people have benefitted through land reform, including over 50,000 women, 32,000 youth and 674 people with disabilities.

Yet is unclear whether the transfer recipients have retained the farms. There is no national registry of farmers in the country, but pilot studies have shown that many new black farmers may have given up on their farms. There is currently no tangible way to determine whether the transfer of land to black hands has been successful or transformed the lives of the needy.

Additionally, much of the policy literature in South Africa tends to overlook class dynamics, using terms such as “smallholder” and “small-scale” farmer, which ignore differences within these broad categories, Cousins said in a paper. There is a failure to acknowledge how these differences will impact the effectiveness of agricultural support.

Many researchers tend to lump black farmers into groups – a large group comprising “subsistence or semi-subsistence” farming households and a smaller group of “commercially oriented, ‘semi-commercial’ or ‘emerging commercial’ smallholders,” wrote Cousins.

The government has said that “black commercial farmers” are the main beneficiaries of its land redistribution programme. But as Donna Hornby, a PhD student at PLAAS points out, the government’s definition of what constitutes a black commercial farmer is not very clear.

Financial support

In 2004, the government launched the comprehensive agricultural support programme (CASP), which was meant to help black farmers.

“CASP accounts for a large share of the agricultural support budget but, despite dramatic increases in this budget over the years, it is supporting progressively fewer people. [Our analysis shows] the available funds are being diverted to relatively few capital-intensive projects, leaving most black farming households with zero, or nearly zero, support of any kind,” Hall wrote in a paper co-authored with Michael Aliber, another PLAAS senior researcher.

The “subsistence-oriented households” do not get any support; in fact, they have to rely on social grants to keep themselves out of poverty, according to numerous studies by PLAAS.

In her research of a land reform project in KwaZulu-Natal Province, Hornby found that even when black farmers did receive support, “farm income gains go mainly to 20 percent of the households who own most of the cattle, and the total income from farming does not exceed the total income from social grants.”

Aliber and Hall suggest that the government “provide generic support and infrastructure” where small farmers are concentrated.

Relying on the private sector

The government, meanwhile, has been advocating more reliance on the private sector to provide support to small emerging commercial farmers. Mandla Buthelezi is one farmer who has benefited from the private sector; he and several other black small-scale farmers in KwaZulu-Natal recently landed a deal to supply potatoes and other vegetables to the food processing giant McCain Foods Limited.

Buthelezi and the others struck this deal themselves, but the government has been involved in public-private partnerships benefiting other farmers, most of whom are black. One such partnership involved growing maize to supply the beer maker SABMiller.

But Cousins points out that this kind of support is not always sustainable and only benefits a limited number of people. “It cannot replace government support – the government needs to spend on agriculture,” he told IRIN.

The government’s spending is still short of the required 10 percent of GDP African governments agreed in 2003 to invest in agriculture to address food insecurity on the continent.

Source IRIN

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