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How to defuse South Africa’s ticking land time-bomb

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How to defuse South Africa’s ticking land time-bomb

Even 23 years after the end of apartheid in South Africa, the land reform question – a key pillar of the ANC’s political manifesto – keeps getting kicked into the long grass, perhaps because it is a complex issue. But there is a solution available that could suit all parties. By Allen Choruma

The legacy of colonialism and apartheid has come back to haunt independent South Africa like a ghost. The impact of the forced removal of black Africans from land legitimised by the colonial Natives Land Act of 1913 and the institutionalisation of racial segregation by apartheid’s notorious Group Areas Act of 1950, is still felt today.

Since the end of the apartheid era, land reform policies have had limited impact and barely altered the land ownership structure and status quo in South Africa.

Seventy-nine percent (96.5m hectares) of prime agricultural land is majority-owned by 35,000 white commercial farmers and big corporations; and a tiny fraction of black elites. In stark contrast, 15m blacks (a third of the black population) live in communal areas and occupy only 14% of land (17m hectares).

Rural South Africa is the cradle of the landless, the unemployed and the uneducated. Extreme forms of underdevelopment, poverty and impoverishment create a ripe environment for social implosion.

A robust land reform programme is needed to address legacies of the past through land redistribution and restitution and other transformative rural development programmes.

The danger of doing nothing about land reform is that the restlessness and agitation among the landless rural population and the homeless urbanites could lead, as they did in Zimbabwe, to social upheavals and spontaneous land occupations, with land seizures and land grabs leading to anarchy. The consequences, as we well know, would be disastrous.

President Jacob Zuma in his keynote address at the opening of the House of Traditional Leaders in March declared: “We must undertake a pre-colonial audit of land ownership, use and occupation pattern. Once the audit has been completed, a single law should be developed to address the issue of land redistribution without compensation. The necessary constitutional amendments would then be undertaken to effect this process.”

But if the ANC government is as radical towards land reform as it rhetorically claims, why is it that to date only 7.5% of land has been returned to indigenous black Africans, while the ANC’s target at independence was to return 30% of land by 1999?

Why is it that the allocation for land redistribution declined by 3% in the 2017-2018 budget (from R1.23 billion to R1.19 billion)? The only logical conclusion is that land reform is not a top priority for the ANC government.

Lack of a clear strategy on land reform

The ANC lacks a clear strategic thrust and policy framework coherence towards land reform, as shown by the recent conflicting public statements issued by its top leadership.

The Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Gugile Nkwinti, bluntly told reporters at a media briefing in Parliament that expropriation of land without compensation “is just an aspiration” and “this is not a policy of the ANC”.

In response, the ANC Chief Whip in Parliament, Jackson Mthembu tweeted: “Blaming the Constitution for [an] embarrassingly slow pace of land reform is both disingenuous and scapegoating” and that “section 25 of the Constitution is more of an enabler for land reform than a barrier”.

The ANC Youth League (ANCYL) president, Collen Maine has repeatedly called for compulsory acquisition of land without compensation. It is a view also shared by the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL).

During its 5th national policy conference, KwaZulu Natal, the biggest ANC province by numbers, proposed convening a national referendum to decide on constitutional amendment to pave the way for land expropriation without compensation.

But Zuma, in his closing speech at the conference, issued a statement that watered down his earlier radical outbursts when he remarked: “It may be necessary and unavoidable in exceptional situations to acquire land without compensation but this should be done within the confines of the law and within the confines of the constitution.”

Enoch Godongwana, chairman of the ANC Transformative Commission, told reporters that, while there was consensus on the need to speed up land reform, there was however no consensus over specific measures to be taken to address land reform. Various options are on the table and will be discussed at the ANC’s 54th elective conference in December.

Zuma’s back-peddling and flip- flopping on land reform could be a sign that the ANC is merely grandstanding and using radical land reform rhetoric for political outcomes ahead of the general elections in 2019.

Jumping the compensation hurdle

Successive ANC administrations since independence have come up with land reform policies which could have made a difference if there was strong political will to implement them, supported by substantial financial and technical resources. Yet little progress has come out of these new policy initiatives.

As Ben Cousins, the author of Land Reform in South Africa is Sinking: Can it Be Saved? puts it: “Land reform is necessarily complex and time-consuming. State capacity is crucial, and comprises strong leadership and management, adequate budgets, appropriate policies, sound institutional structures, efficient procedures and an effective system for monitoring and evaluation.”

The other factor that has stalled the pace of land reform in South Africa is the current legal framework buttressed by section 25 of the Constitution, which allows the state to expropriate land for public purposes, including land reform, subject to payment of just and equitable compensation. In practice this compensation is often market-linked, which then makes land expropriation for redistribution expensive.

The willing-seller, willing-buyer approach is also an obstacle to land reform as it is dependent on the goodwill of the seller (white farmer) as to whether they want to sell their land in whole or in part and at what price.

The irony is that the constitution legitimises a historical wrong and turns a blind eye to how the land appropriated from Africans was acquired in the first place – without compensation, under colonialism and apartheid.

Perhaps our weakness as black Africans is that we are timid and entertain ideas of those in authority. We allow ourselves to be bound by rules, laws and morality to an extent that we cannot hold our heads high and claim back what legitimately belongs to us – our land.

While history cannot be rewritten and neither can land be restored to the indigenous African people in the exact form and manner as it was before being expropriated, the continuation of historical injustices, inequalities, poverty and unemployment cannot be justified in South Africa under the watch of the ANC.

People who voted the ANC into power expect it to deliver all land back to them. But an extreme measure such as the wholesale expropriation of land and eviction of all white commercial farmers, along the lines of Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform (FTLR), is not only not feasible, but unlikely in itself to solve all the problems of inequality and poverty in South Africa.

The ANC is thus caught between a rock and a hard place in its quest for radical land reform in South Africa. A balanced or middle of the road approach, imperfect and unpopular as it may be, could be the best way to address the issues around land, while maintaining agricultural productivity, and economic and political stability in South Africa.

An imaginative system of taxation, levied on the amount of land under one ownership, or punitive taxation on underused or totally fallow land, would in time “naturally” decrease the size of holdings and force the selling off of parcels of land to avoid hefty taxes. It worked well in Britain after the two world wars and it can work in South Africa. 

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