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Taking land reform forward. Optimism misplaced?

9 November 2009
shack final gif

Source: DRDLR 2009

With the new emphasis on rural development on the political agenda, rural communities keenly await a rural development programme that will create another countryside for them and future generations — one with jobs and a vibrant economy, equitable services delivery, access to land and support for food security and agriculture. In February this year the then Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel allocated R3-billion for increasing South Africa’s agricultural output, supporting small-scale farmers and raising rural incomes in 2009/10, describing these as key elements of the country’s rural development strategy. It then became part of the presidential priorities under the Zuma administration. With this, one might think, the rural development foundation was laid and government could focus on successful implementation.
But perhaps this optimism is a bit misplaced. On 13 – 14 October 2009 the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) hosted the Stakeholders conference on Rural Development in Pretoria. Overcome with a sense of déjà vu images of the Land Summit in 2005 flared up as a group of fellow conference-goers and I sat huddled in a small business centre at the hotel where we stayed, revisioning clear rural development messages from civil society, identifying key concerns from current and past experiences and again dusting off the key resolutions from the Summit including abandoning the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ approach.

On the one hand, there were grounds for hope and excitement and optimism to be part of a process to frame a new roadmap for rural development. This conference kick-started a process for the development of a Green Paper on Rural Development and Land Reform. For the sector it was an opportunity to think big and revision rural areas – a fresh rethinking of land reform as part of broader agrarian transformation and to discuss both aspects in the context of stimulating rural development. It was also a significant moment for civil society. A fragile and fragmented civil society came together with a renewed willingness to develop a common civil society voice in support of a realistic and achievable plan for rural development.

However, a few red lights started flickering when the two-day discussion started. While we were all ready to grab rural development by the horns the Department appeared to a certain extent overwhelmed and – one might even say – directionless, right at the moment when we were all looking to it for leadership in beginning a process of developing a vision for our rural areas. There was little sense of the future we were reaching for. Nor was there a sense of the past: as a World Bank visitor pointed out, there were no points on the agenda with insights into international experiences and perspectives on rural development and the department did not give a reflection of lessons from the past, etc. The whole process started off in a vacuum… and a telling picture of a mud hut and a satellite dish at the end of the DRDLR’s presentation on their concept of comprehensive rural development, at the opening of the conference. I was quietly wondering at that point if the picture captured the DRDLR’s vision for rural areas?

In one of the commissions on Agriculture and Land (which happened without Water Affairs or Agriculture officials present…) the commission facilitator (who happens to be in the DRDLR policy unit) asked at the start of the commission discussion, ‘What shall we talk about first? [Shall we talk about] land, or [shall we talk about] agriculture?’. That just said it all: after all these years, it appears land reform is still seen as essentially a different issue from agricultural production. The conceptual divide between the Departments of Land Reform and Agriculture that bedeviled agrarian reform in the first fifteen years after liberation is still in place. In fact, it appears to have deepened.
Many questions followed and were echoed throughout the two day meeting:

What is the Department’s vision for rural development? What will happen to land reform? Is this mandate far too ambitious for the DRDLR? Is it realistic to expect and task a very under-resourced and under-capacitated department; which failed by their own admission to deliver on their mandate to transfer only 30% of agricultural land in South Africa over the last 15 years, to do what a whole government is supposed to deliver?

And why, as a colleague at the meeting said are we so obsessed with documents and papers (in reference to the rush to get the Green Paper finalised) when none of these means actual delivery or makes any difference to rural people’s lives? Why are we rushing through such an important policy process, when we came to realise from past experiences that policy that is not well thought through might have unintended consequences? The Department wanted comments by 30 October (it’s not clear comments on what); a draft (not clear what draft) will go to the Minister by 30 November; to be tabled in Cabinet in February 2011; provincial consultations and focus groups will happen (after the fact) between April and June – and after a few other channels and processing, finalising a White Paper between August – October 2011. Yet there is no clear vision and rural development is lacking the leadership in the form of a well equipped and well resourced institutional vehicle. This signals alarmingly that we haven’t learned anything from the painful mistakes we have made in many rural people’s lives in land reform throughout the last 15 years.
Land reform can make a significant and fundamental difference to rural people lives and the department (and more so government as a whole) is at a juncture to go back to the basics:

  • To start with a new vision that will consider what kind of land reform and agriculture is needed that will contribute to rural development of the South African countryside;
  • To develop principles for land and agriculture reform;
  • Create new strategies that will frame rural development and land reform objectives and;
  • Decide where rural development should be housed, with clarified roles for all the relevant departments at national, provincial and local level and clarity on what role the DRDLR should or could play

Let the powers that be start afresh. Therefore set targets aside for now (they didn’t serve us well in the last 15 years of land reform) and assess what is possible and what we want to achieve with rural development, what resources are needed and what can be done with the current resources. We should not repeat the ISRDS (Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Strategy) mistakes of the past…

In 2014 we are 20 years into our democracy – a democracy not experienced equally by all, and particularly not by a very large, very poor rural population. Let’s make democracy real for rural people and take small, manageable rural development steps with an effective and achievable land reform plan towards a far different and far better countryside for the rural poor.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 January 2010 8:39 pm

    Looking at that “telling picture of a mud hut and a satellite dish at the end of the (Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s) presentation on their concept of comprehensive rural development” at the opening of the Stakeholders conference on Rural Development in Pretoria on 13 – 14 October 2009, one cannot but only be very hopeful that – in spite of the glaring “directionless” and the notoriously deliberate delaying tactics in attending to the ‘agrarian question’ – the patience and the perseverance of those ‘out there’ still held down to struggle for survival under the legacy of colonial and apartheid greed and injustice will hopefully last long enough to soon see the prevailing ‘vision for rural areas’ being replaced by a reform policy that will both be simply and genuinely radical and sustainable.

  2. Rural resident permalink
    18 January 2010 8:37 pm

    My burning desire is to have all properties in the villages having values to unlock wealth in them for village people to put up as collateral for their development like any property owner in South Africa. People in villages have plots in their backyards waiting for grants for food security yet if that plot is valued one can get a loan to develop and produce.

  3. Andries du Toit permalink*
    10 November 2009 4:26 pm

    Interesting points, Karin! It would indeed be worrying if that image were really to encapsulate the DRDLR’s vision of rural development.

    It’s interesting to contrast the unintended and coincidental ways in which that image (the sattelite dish) and our blog masthead(the wind pump) reflect and echo one another.

    The PLAAS masthead is not just a typical Southern African rural icon: it evokes the past realities of production in an arid countryside — a classic image of the ‘boer op sy plaas’… but it also invokes a possible future. The pump could be standing on a smallholding, and while it evokes the past it also suggests, I think, a future of appropriate technology and alternative energy. Above all, it suggests a rural countryside in which agriculture is still central.

    In contrast to that, the satellite dish. Perhaps it is meant to evoke a certain image of progress. But what it really speaks to is of an image of rural development dominated not by agriculture, but by the delivery of services and technology. It suggests a rural population defined, not by production, but by consumption. And we will just have to hold thumbs that the actually have electricity. I don’t see a solar panel. Will the inhabitants of the hut have the money they need to pay for the electricity to watch Bafana Bafana on the World Cup next year? Oh, wait, that’s assuming that Eskom can deliver electricity after all…

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