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South Africa’s land reform panel report on rocky ground

By Charlotte Mathews
Posted on Wednesday, 31 July 2019 19:19

A man herds cattle on communal land in Cato Ridge, South Africa, 28 July 2019. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

The report of South Africa’s presidential advisory panel on land reform and agriculture released at the weekend has aroused a range of responses.

Reactions range from those who consider the recommendations as mild to those who warn it will jeopardise the entire economy and the country’s food security.

What it means: Strong emotions around land redistribution policies in South Africa will prompt some changes to the current system. But a government that is trying to present itself as investor-friendly is unlikely to implement radical expropriation measures.

President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed the panel in September last year. Its task was to provide an independent opinion on expropriation without compensation, which was the subject of heated debate – led by the opposition Economic Freedom Front – over several months. The debate has highlighted the huge inequalities in wealth in SA.

SA has had a land reform programme since 1994, but it has been largely a failure. Although there have been some successes, in many cases the beneficiaries, lacking the necessary financing and skills, let the land lie idle. The programme was based on the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ principle but in practice resulted in slow acquisitions at inflated prices.

The panel’s report emphasises the need for urgent action and expresses concern about the state’s inability to implement land reform policies.

Panel priorities

It proposes identifying suitable areas for redistribution, negotiating compensation and expropriating property in specific instances. Nil compensation should be paid for, among other things, abandoned properties, land held for speculative purposes, unused land held by the state, land already occupied and used by labour tenants, and inner-city buildings with absentee landlords.

The panel also recommends drafting guidelines to identify beneficiaries and creating a Land Reform Fund to benefit small-scale black farmers. SA already has the Land Bank, but most of its funding is to large-scale commercial farmers. The panel also suggested that rights to both freehold and communal land should be recorded in a register, a land donation policy should be developed and a land tax introduced.

Historical issues

“The message of the land reform process is not to undermine the property rights of individuals but to realise the constitution’s mandate to deliver land reform as a corrective and restorative measure to historical issues,” the panel said.

The panel recommends changing South Africa’s constitution to widen the scope for expropriation without compensation but notes this is not the only tool for redistribution. It is also important that the government have the political will and ability to implement land reform policies.

Cronin’s comments

South African Communist Party committee member Jeremy Cronin said one of the strengths of the report was that it did not ignore the corruption and mismanagement that has plagued post-apartheid land reform. Cronin said the panel’s recommendations implied minor adjustments to existing property laws, simply making explicit what are already in the Bill of Rights relating to the expropriation of land in the public interest, for example, abandoned land.

However, Agri SA, a federation of agricultural organisations, said food security would be compromised if the report was adopted.

“Agri SA wish to reiterate that we are against any amendment of the Constitution and will leave no stone unturned to protect farmer’s rights,” executive director Omri van Zyl said.

Poor implementation

He said the main problems with existing land reform measures were not policy-related but due to “poor implementation, inadequate budgets and corruption”. Agri SA supported an agricultural development agency, where the private sector would lead in driving and financing land reform and the association was taking steps to establish it.

A Johannesburg-based liberal think tank, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), said the recommendations of the panel “risk triggering devastating consequences for investment and economic growth”.

IRR CEO Frans Cronje said the proposals were reckless and “economic suicide”. The report “will have implications for the whole economy as the principles inherent in expropriation without compensation spread to sectors as diverse as healthcare and financial services,” Cronje said.

Over the next two months, the panel’s report will be considered by the Inter-ministerial Committee on Land Reform, which was established to co-ordinate measures to accelerate land redistribution, provide agricultural support and address spatial inequality.

The bottom line: Land reform remains a seemingly intractable issue in the political landscape of South Africa.

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