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Let’s transform the debate on land reform

19 July 2011

This piece draws from PLAAS research evidence as well as opinions of PLAAS researchers voiced in informal discussions. The author takes sole responsibility for any disclaimers.

The future of South Africa’s countryside remains a hot topic for public debate. In anticipation of the release of the long-awaited Green Paper on Land Reform, which has been stuck in an opaque policy process for years, the focus of the political debate has rested on the question of ‘how to get the land’.

While Julius Malema’s calls for nationalisation of mines and land expropriation without compensation have reverberated throughout the country, the key questions that should guide a wider vision for agrarian reform on which a sensible land reform programme is to be based are not being addressed.

These key questions are:

  1. what do we want land reform for;
  2. how and for who do we want it; and
  3. with what land rights will we secure the ownership and tenure of those benefiting from land reform?

If the leaked version of the Green Paper on land reform that was circulating in 2010 is anything to go by the first two questions have hardly been considered in this key policy document.

The current model of land redistribution has over time resulted in more money being concentrated among fewer beneficiaries –apparently due to perception that inadequate grants were responsible for poor project performance. The Pro-active Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS) currently in place does not give any guidance as to which set of potential land reform beneficiaries (large numbers of very poor people who need secure rights for settlement and small-plot food production, smallholders producing for local markets, aspirant commercial farmers or established and urban-based business people) should be prioritised. This has allowed the PLAS programme to lend itself to narrow elite capture as officials allocate farms to those judged to already have the skills and capital to keep existing farming operations going, at the cost of poverty reduction, equity and broad-based empowerment. Evidence from PLAAS research shows that where large commercial farmers were established the impact on livelihoods appears neutral.

Available estimates on the basis of DRDLR Monitoring & Evaluation data reveal that between 2001/02 and 2005/06 the average number of households benefiting from land reform per year was 3,900, and in the period 2006/07-2008/09 that number had diminished to 2,000 households per year, despite expenditure in excess of R1 billion.
The leaked Green Paper certainly has not proposed how this very expensive, narrowly targeted form of BEE for the elite will be transformed to benefit a large number of poor people who are using land in the former homeland areas, and in ‘commercial’ farmland areas, for their livelihoods.

And although Minister Nkwinti insists that 90% of the land reform projects his department has established have failed, new directions on how to transform the existing model to not deliver more of the same at a faster rate, but rather to achieve different results that do impact on poverty reduction and labour absorption, especially in the former homeland areas, have not been proposed. The continued emphasis on ‘graduation, i.e. turning small-scale farmers into large-scale commercial farmers, instead has been counterproductive in terms of maximising the creation of livelihoods of those already farming at a small-scale.

In his reply to the doubts raised about the merits of nationalisation by ‘analysts, big-business and ‘communists’’ Malema is unclear about what is seen to be ‘successful land usage and agriculture for the land that will be expropriated’. Is successful land usage and agriculture necessarily what is conceptualized as commercial ventures operating at a large-scale, with intensive, industrialized methods, and connected to globalised value chains?

It is not only Malema who remains vague about what exactly is the ‘public interest, and public purpose’ for which the State should confiscate land.

Although the political rhetoric since the 2008 ANC conference in Polokwane has indicated a clear departure from the Mbeki-era prioritisation of emerging commercial farmers for land reform and agricultural support, and a re-energised drive to find ways to support small scale farmers and ‘the rural poor’ in both the former homelands and in commercial farming areas, this vagueness of purpose has perpetuated in policy documents and debates.

Since the Department for Land Reform and Rural Development last year decided to split rural development and land reform as a focus for two separate green papers, there was some hope that this would lead to much needed debate on how to connect agriculture and redistribution policy. But on the basis of what Minister Nkwinti shared through the media very little of the focus of the land reform component appears to have changed.

The Green Paper on Land Reform, which has now been signed and sent to Cabinet after what can only be called purely formalistic consultation of the public, does however give some attention to the question of ownership and tenure rights.

As the Minister has confirmed in various media statements a three-tiered tenure approach is introduced, consisting of:

  1. Private land with regulatory limitations of freehold title in relation to sensitive land: “communal, coastal, heritage, rural, agricultural, environmentally sensitive, security-sensitive and border land”. The leaked Green Paper proposes for purposes of equitable redistribution land quantity restrictions or ‘land ceilings’; and the right of first refusal for the state to be imposed on both SA and non-SA nationals;
  2. State land, which is distinct from public land and described as: “Land previously acquired by community but held in trust by the state: compulsory adjudication prior to surveying of outer boundaries”.  All use rights will be allocated via leasehold and the Minister will have authority to grant rights for use and development;
  3. Foreign ownership with precarious tenure, proposing that all new land acquisitions by non-nationals to be in the form of leaseholds and that all freehold titles by non-nationals on sensitive and controlled land to be converted to leasehold.

In the public debate the third tier proposal has received a lot of attention (e.g. Tougher land laws coming); obviously due to the perceived impact such precarious tenure would have on foreign investment. But the implications of the second tier on the availability of land for the overwhelming majority of people who are using land for different purposes including farming on a small or medium scale, is far greater. In fact, the proposal for a leasehold system for all beneficiaries of land reform with use rights granted by the discretion of the Minister on the basis of how they use the land and whether they reach a certain level of productivity reproduces the bifurcation of land access and ownership that existed under apartheid.

The dominant narrative that frames the ‘use it or lose it’ principle underlying this notion views viable land use to be restricted to commercial farming with high levels of production, contributing to national food security through formal value chains that are plugged into global markets.

The class and the production agenda’s that can be deduced from this narrative are quite obvious, but they are not the only discourse on the intended outcome of agrarian reform in South Africa. Indeed, these competing narratives are a key contradiction cutting to the heart of tensions within the ruling tripartite alliance and its attempts to reconcile the interests of the landless, workers, emerging capitalists, landowners and investors.

The failure of post-apartheid South Africa to address the pressing challenges facing both land reform and the rural economy more generally may be due to inadequate policies and implementation, but essentially it indicates an intense political struggle.

That the reality is much more complicated than finding compelling ways to get the land may be obvious. But how does South Africa move beyond the stuckness of the land reform process by confronting the key issues head on? A reframing of the issues for a truly progressive public debate requires an understanding of the powerful interests that are vested into the current deadlock.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 17 March 2012 5:58 am

    I am just adding a url for a relevant article posted in Al Jazeera about mining, tribes, and land sin the Philippines.
    I will be staying tuned, subscribed to emails, am North American Indian tribal member who lands were stolen in New York (Mohawk).
    Russell Imrie

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