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Can the National Reference Groups on land reform turn the tide of poor delivery?

21 February 2012

Shortly after the release of the Green Paper on Land Reform in September 2011 the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) Mr Gugile Nkwinti established the National Reference Group (NAREG) as a forum to contribute to policy development. In line with proposals in the Green Paper, six working group task teams were established on: Land Management Commission, Land Rights Management Board — which overlaps with provisions in the unresolved Land Tenure Security Bill of 2010, Office of the Valuer-General, Three-Tier Tenure System, Communal Tenure and Legislative Amendments.

Dialogue muddled by lack of clarity

These themed working groups, coordinated by Mr Sunday Ogunronbi, are part of a stake-holder consultation process and are meant to discuss proposals on policy, strategy and legislation including tenure security policy and legislation. In November 2011, the Working Group on the Land Rights Management Board chaired by Acting Deputy Director General, Mr Vela Mngwengwe, met with a small group of land reform beneficiaries and organised agriculture. The meeting conceded that a broader civil society outfit should be included in discussions. A second meeting, held on 19 January 2012, included a range of stakeholder participants: land reform beneficiary structures (provincial representatives), organised agriculture (Agri-SA, NAFU, TAU, Agri-business Chamber), NGOs and DRDLR officials (no one from the DRDLR policy unit was present at the meeting).

The meeting started in a vacuum, with a visible sense of visible uncertainty about what to expect, aggravated by unavailability of minutes from the first meeting and terms of reference to guide deliberations of the restructured group regarding the process it should undertake, the outcomes it should achieve and the timeframe in which the dialogue should be concluded. The meeting agenda was only made available half-an-hour after the meeting was due to start.

While the process of consolidating Green Paper submissions would only be completed by the end of February, it was unclear:

  • how input from stakeholders would be taken further in the policy process;
  • if stakeholder participants were meant to present their submissions on establishing the Green Paper’s proposed new institutions; or
  • in what way a separate process of scrutinising, collating and consolidating existing submissions would inform the working group’s discussions.

Too few details about the Land Rights Management Board for constructive discussion

According to the DRDLR the main aim of this working group is to further develop the proposed Land Rights Management Board (a body of professional expertise and skills appointed by the Minister) together with local management committees (representatives of farm-workers and dwellers, commercial farmers, relevant municipal councils, government departments). The Green Paper proposes that, with powers conferred by the Minister, the Land Rights Management Board will now replace the department’s governing role in managing leasehold tenure on state and public land. It seems that the Green Paper intends the Land Rights Management Board and the Land Management Commission would take on the task of addressing tenure security — and yet, there is also a Draft Land Tenure Security Bill (made public in December 2010) about which the Green Paper is silent.

Stakeholder participants at the meeting could not comment in any detail on the Land Rights Management Board as the Green Paper does not spell out the functions and range of powers such a board will have. The meeting co-ordinators were also unclear as to whether the Land Rights Management Board was already a fait accompli, or whether stakeholder submissions, questioning the existence of such a board, would be taken into account. In the absence of clarity about how these issues will be dealt with, speculation runs rife about the Draft Land Tenure Security Bill having been quietly dropped because it is too politically charged.

In this regard, Chair Vela Mngwengwe pointed out:

The honest truth is no work is being done to take the Land Tenure Security Bill forward. There is a clear intention to take the process forward in the Green Paper. So what ends up in the Green paper will inform the Bill.

This suggests that the current Draft Land Tenure Security Bill has been set aside or derailed from its journey through parliament until the policy on land reform has been concluded.

Irrespective of where this process is now or what form the process will take — Minister Nkwinti will present amendments to the Green Paper to Cabinet as soon as May 2012. Whether or not discussions from the working group will feed into this ministerial draft to be presented in May — neither the meeting organisers, nor the participants can answer!

How can the Department and NAREG rescue the land reform programme?

It is gravely concerning that the Department continues the practice of non-debated policy shifts, repeatedly fails to present coherent positions in public and parliament, and fails to use its opportunities to thoroughly assess and debate all aspects of land reform or solicit fresh perspectives in an inclusive platform that will allow efficient policy dialogues.

We have 17 years of very little land reform behind us. A well-designed public engagement to help design and deliver effective land policy is desperately needed to turn the tide on land reform. If this policy process is to go forward in a constructive way the Department of Land Reform and Rural Development must clarify and aim to reach common agreement between all stakeholders on:

  • Are the working groups are ad-hoc structures?
  • What are the terms of reference?
  • Who should be part of the working group?
  • What is the purpose of the meetings?
  • What do we discuss in the absence of the public recommendations on the Green Paper?
  • What outcomes do we expect?
  • What are the timeframes for expected outcomes?

While there was no distinct commitment from the working group chair that clarity would be provided, he did agree to provide terms of reference before the next (as yet unscheduled) working group meeting.  Once these matters are clarified, we look forward to actively engaging in the public participation process.

As civil society we cannot afford to take a ‘watch and see’ approach. How will it take land reform forward if both sides are undecided and unresponsive? What new approaches should be explored to influence and shape policy in the absence of clarity about process and policy? Should civil society take the lead in developing and maintaining meaningful engagements? Can or should civil society take on the role of building real networks to develop on-going strategic engagement in national land reform policies in a way that reflects and highlights their key stake in policy development?

The current policy quagmire is very frustrating; a clear agenda and process, is absolutely essential to gaining renewed energy and forward momentum on land reform. Without clarity, Minister Nkwinti’s revised Green Paper to be presented to Cabinet in May will be another lost opportunity. The NAREG process cannot take land reform along a new path without guidance and unless these issues are rapidly resolved, the Department may well be on its way to yet another year of minimal delivery on the land reform programme.

Let’s hope the government does indeed act on Minister Nkwinti’s statement in Business Report this weekend that ‘urgent measures [will] be put in place to assist these work streams‘.

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