News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Tuesday July 16th 2019

Putting a lid on land reform’s Pandora’s Box

Steve Kretzmann

Land, who owns it, who has access to it, who utilises it and to what purpose, is in South Africa’s social, political and historical context, a potentially explosive issue, relating as it does to elemental aspects of security, housing, food production and cultural and historical traditions.

Patently clear is the need to address the inequities of the past in relation to land distribution and thus a land reform programme has been ongoing since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy. But agreement on how this reform is to be achieved, and the way to go about it, has been elusive.

This is partly due to the emotional nature of the issue, but is also due to the inability of the state’s land reform programme to reach it’s objectives, opening it wide for criticism by not only those who have a vested interest in seeing it fail, but also by those who are supposed to benefit.

And after 13 years of examining issues related to land and agrarian issues, the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas), situated within the University of the Western Cape’s School of Governance, is able to reveal, in depth, exactly what is wrong – and what is right – with the land reform programme.

It needs to be noted, however, that Plaas does not focus solely on agrarian issues, but is involved in the broader examination of marginalised communities. It has for instance, conducted extensive research on fishing rights and marine resources, chronic poverty and natural resources management.

But these focus areas would, to do them justice, need to be the subject of separate articles and it is land and agrarian issues which are the focus here.

And when it comes to land rights and land reform, Plaas is one of the most authoritative academic institutions in the country, if not the southern African region, on the matter.

As such is regularly called to engage with government on matters of policy on a variety of forums, but is also – as all good academic institutions should be – able to hold an adversarial position, as it is currently doing in the form of director Professor Ben Cousins acting as an expert witness for the Legal
Resources Centre in a Constitutional Court challenge to the Communal Land Rights Act being brought by the communities of Kalkfontein, Makuleke, Mayaenyane and Dixie.

In fact Plaas, by maintaining rigorous standards of scholastic and research excellence, seems to occasionally hold the unenviable position of being a relatively lone voice of reason amidst a clamour of emotionally charged viewpoints, and a press which will often happily give voice to the most sensational line.

The state of land reform

But it is a misconception to think that Plaas has “a line” or embedded view on land reform and the myriad issues surrounding it. Researchers debate and differ on various issues. However, in trawling through the enormous amount of literature the institute produces as a result of their in-depth research, common threads emerge.

One of these is that land reform in South Africa has been badly managed and badly implemented.

The institute’s latest status report on land reform, titled Land Reform in South Africa: A Status Report 2008, compiled by Edward Lahiff, who has since left the institute, begins: “After 14 years of democracy in South Africa, there is agreement across the political and social spectrum that the state’s programme of land reform is in sever difficulties.”

It notes that the programme has failed to reach almost all of its objectives, such as historical redress, redistribution of wealth and opportunities, and economic growth.

Lahiff notes that while it is not unusual for a policy to have weaknesses, and there has been much “political hand-wringing” in this regard, it is not so much its “chronic under performance” which is of “particular interest”, but that the government has persisted “for so long with an approach that enjoys so little popular support and is clearly failing to deliver on its ostensible objectives”.

One of the most easily quantifiable failures is in the area of land redistribution.

The government’s stated target is the redistribution of 30 percent of formerly white-owned land by 2014. Yet by March 2007, only about five percent of the identified estimate of 83 million hectares of white-owned land had been transferred to historically disadvantaged owners.

With only seven years to go to the deadline, the state is lagging far behind in reaching its objective.

And as Lahiff’s report notes, this amount of around four million hectares is not qualified in terms of its location or quality, “the socio-economic profile of beneficiaries” or the “quality of post-settlement support”.

Post-settlement support

The failure of many high-profile restitution projects have left the land reform programme wide open to criticism, especially by established commercial farmers and agri-businesses who see economically productive land being handed to claimants only to be mismanaged and become unproductive.

Plaas acting director Andries duToit wrote in The Star of September 1, 2008 that “a national survey found that just one of 128 land restitution projects was producing a sustainable profit”.

Lahiff writes that this failure, combined with a greater call by claimants for state assistance, has led to increased emphasis on pairing claimants with commercial operators – often the previous land owners – to create a strategic partnership to enable production on high-value agricultural land to be maintained.

This development, says Hall, has also quelled the fears of many landowners, especially in Limpopo and Mpumulanga where about 70% of the land is under claim, that they would simply be removed from land into which they may have invested large amounts of capital.

A number of initiatives have been introduced to address the challenge of post-settlement support, such as the Comprehensive Agricultural Support Programme – although

Lahiff notes in aside that, “despite its name, (it) has effectively been limited to grants for farm infrastructure” – the Micro-Agricultural Finance Initiative of South Africa (MAFISA) to provide micro-credit and “the creation of post-settlement support units within the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights.

However, despite the existence of these initiatives, Lahiff says that “many, if not most”, projects still do not receive the support they need to use the land productively.

The recent Settlement and Implementation Support (SIS) strategy has the potential to address this failure though.
Lahiff says the SIS, which was developed by the Sustainable Development Consortium (SDC) on behalf of the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights (CRLR), is “potentially the most significant initiative in this area”.

The SDC describes it as a “joint programme of government, spearheaded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Affairs in partnership with organised land reform beneficiaries, private sector role-players and NGOs… to provide comprehensive support services to ensure sustainable land reform projects and the fulfilment of broader constitutional obligations’.

With the proposed acceleration of land transfer in order to meet the 2014 targets, the issue of post-settlement support is ever more urgent and it remains to be seen what positive intervention the SIS is capable of achieving.

Agrarian economy

The issues raised in Plaas’s land report, of which the lack of post-settlement support is just a small part, includes shortcomings in regard to farm dweller tenure reform, the lack of progress on communal tenure reform and unresolved debates on the nature of the land reform programme.

This led du Toit to comment in The Star that “it is time to think more creatively and searchingly about the future of our farmlands”.
Du Toit argues that agrarian reform goes beyond simply addressing the ‘land question’.

The “core problem”, he says, is the disjuncture between land reforms’ aim of equity and social sustainability, and an agricultural policy which is at present geared toward the promotion of large-scale commercial agriculture.

This has resulted in the emergence of two radically different responses.

The most common approach, which he says informs the thinking behind the Land and Agrarian Reform Project (Larp), is to resolve the tension between social equity and commercial farming by “providing better resources to a smaller group of black farmers who actually have a chance at making it”.

However, he argues that this ignores millions of poor and marginalised people and amounts to “narrow black empowerment” which uses billions of rands of public money to benefit a small, already relatively empowered group.

Apart from not resolving the questions which led to a land reform programme in the first place, it “would perpetuate the exclusion of the mass of poor rural people – and would sow the seeds of long term political instability”.

The alternative approach questions the viability of the current commercial agricultural model and advocates the subdivision of large tracts of redistributed land – something the state has refused to contemplate – particularly in the former homelands, and supporting more intensive small-scale agriculture.

As du Toit succinctly puts it: “While proponents of the first approach argue for getting a group of viable farmers on the commercial bus, the second view point raises critical questions about the design of the bus itself.”

This more radical approach is supported by the questions increasingly being asked of the “social and environmental sustainability of mainstream agriculture”.

One of the findings of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Intergovernmental Plenary Session held in Johannesburg in April this year, was that current mainstream commercial agriculture as it presently exists is becoming increasingly problematic.

The Executive Summary of the IAASTD’s Synthesis Report states: [g]iven the new challenges we confront today, there is increasing recognition within formal S&T (Science and Technology) organizations that the current AKST (Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology) model requires revision. Business as usual is no longer an option.

To look at it another way, Hall refers to a paper written by her Plaas colleague Dr. Michael Haliber, which unpacks some of the numbers.

According to his research, South Africa has a declining number of about 45,000 commercial farming units increasingly held by corporate entities rather than individuals. In their employ are a decreasing number of farm workers, about 700,000 at present. But there are about three million people living on farms.

Then there is in the region of 4,5 million “so-called subsistence farmers or part-time farmers” living in the former homelands.

Simply put, aligning land reform with an agricultural policy that prioritises mainstream commercial agriculture leaves these millions of people out of the picture, clearly a socially, and politically, unsustainable approach.

The solution

Add food security to the equation and there clearly are no easy answers, but a start would be a critical examination by government of the problems contained within the current land reform policy, and rethinking agrarian economy over the long term.

What a restructured agrarian economy would look like “is a finding in itself”, says Hall, but she notes that there has been some progressive statements in this regard, with the Minister of Agriculture Lulama Xingwana increasingly talking about agrarian reform and an ‘agrarian revolution’.

And Lahiff notes that “strong political support for a new approach to land reform emerged from the ANC’s National Conference in Polokwane in December 2007, which passed a comprehensive and far-reaching resolution on rural development, land reform and agrarian change”.

Hall calls the Polokwane resolution “the most interesting thing to happen recently from a policy perspective”.

She says for the first time the ruling party started to look beyond the simple redistribution of land as a solution in itself, “and beyond even giving land and agricultural support as a solution”.

However, she also says Luthuli house has been frozen since the Polokwane conference, probably due to the separation of powers between the party and the Presidency that resulted from Zuma’s election as president of the ANC.

We may have to wait until after the 2009 elections for any real policy shifts to come into effect.
In the meantime, what is needed is a long-term view of different policy trajectories.

“You need to look at in the long term what is going to be happening if current trends continue: the number of farm workers will continue to decline, the number of people who are farming part time is growing rapidly and the number of people farming full time in the communal areas has declined.

“What will this look like in 20 years if we were not to intervene at all, or if we were to have a programme that invests x amount in trying to promote smallholder agriculture?

It is vital that government actively engages in the critical examination of its policies, because, as du Toit writes, what is at stake is not just South Africa’s land reform programme, “but also our long term ability to ensure food security, political stability and environmental sustainability”.

But when the dust has cleared after the 2009 elections and the government has stopped gazing at its navel, we can be sure that Plaas will be there to present relevant, succinct and coherent arguments to policy makers at the highest level.

We can only hope they will listen.

Tags: farming, land

Leave a Reply