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South Africa’s growing chorus for land reform

By Crystal Orderson in Greyton, Western Cape
Posted on Tuesday, 6 March 2018 14:05

Just after the newly elected top six leaders of the governing African National Congress (ANC) had held a bad-tempered meeting with outgoing President Jacob Zuma about the terms for his retirement, a very different, and perhaps more significant, meeting was organised for the following day, 5 February. This time it was just two bulls in the kraal: Zuma and King Goodwill Zwelithini. The venue was the royal palace at Ulundi, in the north of KwaZulu-Natal. Some had speculated that the Zulu king was trying to persuade Zuma to make a dignified exit without causing political havoc. Instead, says a palace insider, most of the meeting was about land. King Zwelithini called Zuma to the private meeting to reiterate his opposition to the ANC’s plans for land reform. A staunch Zulu traditionalist, Zuma was expected to defend the interests of his monarch. As one of the richest South Africans, Zwelithini chairs the Ingonyama Trust that manages about 2.8m hectares, just under a third of KwaZulu-Natal.

A week earlier, new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa had joined Zwelithini to commemorate his ancestor King Cetshwayo’s victory over the British at the Battle of Isandlwana. “I warned Mr Ramaphosa that as the governing party they must not make the mistake of taking away the land of the Zulus because all hell will break loose,” said Zwelithini, with history ringing in everyone’s ears.

ANC leaders are taking that threat seriously. The Ingonyama Trust was set up in 1994 ostensibly to prevent a war of secession over control of the Zulu lands between the government in Pretoria and the Zulu king. Traditionalists fear that deal could start to unravel under a new land tenure system.

Certainly, the role of South Africa’s ­seven royal families as guardians of swathes of farmland on behalf of their 18 million subjects is under attack. That is why Ramaphosa has met all the monarchs this year: to find a way for the ANC’s new plans for land reform to work without breaking down traditional authority.

Yet some kind of compromise with traditional rulers over land rights is anathema to the ANC’s urbanised modernising forces. They want sweeping land reform to tackle historical dispossession and boost economic empowerment through a new class of smallholder farmers. Some activists also argue there would be a democratic dividend if traditional rulers were stripped of their power over land.

Last December, the ANC national conference passed a resolution supporting the expropriation of land without compensation. It is a radical step forward, but chairman of the ANC’s economic transformation committee Enoch Godongwana and his allies insisted on caveats. Such expropriation should not threaten food security, nor damage growth and employment in the rest of the economy.

Growing pains

Nevertheless, radical ideas are on the agenda. In March, the ANC is due to hold a national conference on land to find ways to speed up the redistribution and also boost farm production and create jobs.

Much of the debate will draw on the 2017 report by the High-Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change, chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe. It offers a highly critical view of land policies and their implementation. “Land redistribution has proceeded at a slow and uneven pace over the past 22 years,” the report states. The panel also found that budgets for land redistribution have fallen sharply over the past decade.

Ruth Hall, a land expert at the University of Western Cape and one of the researchers who briefed Motlanthe’s team, says there is no need to change the constitution to redistribute land. Instead, the report “found that the biggest challenge standing in the way of land reform is not the property rights clause but the implementation of land reform policies [and] procedures, and extended, entrenched corruption in the system.” Activists want the government to clean up existing legislation, ensure land reform is transparent, increase the department of rural development and land reform’s budget and fill the large number of vacancies there.

A lack of accountability in the system means public money is being wasted and new farmers are being denied the state support they need. The Motlanthe report criticises the government for “entering into costly ventures to acquire high-value land and conclude deals with strategic partners to run commercial farms and associated processing facilities in the names of farm workers whose beneficiary trusts are invisible to public scrutiny.”

Land to the tiller

Hall wants the ANC to be bolder and start expropriations that make economic sense: “The time to pay out farmers full market price is over. Government entities expropriate land all the time. It’s nothing new. It should happen.” Managed effectively, this would concentrate minds and speed up land reform, she argues.

Almost everyone agrees that change is urgent. Inequities in South Africa’s land holdings are among the most extreme in the world, worse than Zimbabwe’s before Robert Mugabe’s government launched the fast-track land resettlement programme in 2000. According to an audit by the Agri SA lobby, white farmers own almost three-quarters of South Africa’s agricultural land. Two decades ago, white farmers controlled about 85% of the land.

Agriculture creates jobs, especially in the countryside, and in 2016 primary agricultural production was worth R263.2bn ($22bn). Under the current weak economic conditions, the ANC led by Ramaphosa is reluctant to do anything to undermine farm productivity. But serious land reform is a top political imperative, whoever runs the ANC.

It is also treacherous terrain. On the one hand are many fearful and avaricious white farmers resisting even gradual change, and on the other activist groups such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Black First Land First calling for mass expropriations.

Over the past two years, the radical EFF has won kudos with its vocal opposition to Zuma’s presidency and its set-piece confrontations in parliament. It may have to work harder to score points against Ramaphosa, outside his ties with white-owned conglomerates. Outbidding the ANC on land reform could help the EFF.

For activists such as Sizani Ngubane, a member of the Rural Women’s Movement, land reform should not only improve living standards in the countryside but change the balance of power. Ngubane works in KwaZulu-Natal and her organisation has been campaigning against horrific rights abuses there: “Indigenous people are treated like slaves on farms”. But she also wants land reform to serve as a counterweight to the power of traditional leaders, most of whom refuse to allocate land to women in their own right. In many cases, the land is registered under the name of a male relative. Some traditional leaders are also abusing their position as managers of land on behalf of their communities by failing to consult them before striking deals with mining companies, says Ngubane.

From promise to pragmatism

However, she says she does not expect that the ANC government will suddenly get radical on land policy: “I find it difficult to believe that they are going to achieve their goal of expropriation without compensation in the near future. This could be just one of their campaigning strategies to win the elections in 2019.”

Professor Ben Cousins, another land specialist at the University of the Western Cape, argues that expropriation without compensation could face various legal hurdles: “It’s going to be difficult to implement as a legally binding measure. What criteria do you use? Where do you stand under the law?”

There seems to be at least two views on the expropriation policy within the ANC, says Cousins: “There is a view that is opposed to it and they would like to see some compensation […]. Another faction wants to push it through not as a practical issue but as a way to out the EFF in its place.”

Addressing thousands of supporters, newly elected ANC president Ramaphosa said in East London in January that the country will launch “an agricultural revolution”. He was talking about great boosts to production and food security. But what does this mean in practice and for the dreams of the landless millions?

Rampahosa’s talk was exciting, but there is a deafening silence from the department of rural development and land reform, which is meant to manage the redistribution programme. It is coming under growing fire. “Those waiting for land will be disappointed […]. People who are tasked to deliver land, like the department, are in disarray,” according to Cousins. “There is no reason why land reform should be so slow. It’s an incompetent minister and people who run it.”

The Rural Women’s Movement’s Ngubane adds: “Government is just not committed to land reform. They have bought farms and up till now have not transferred the land into the names of the communities.”

Since the vote for the expropriation policy at the conference, officials have released more details about the process. ANC secretary general and outgoing Free State premier Ace Magashule says the party is finalising the modalities of land expropriation and other “mechanisms to affect land reform and redistribution”. The new policy, he adds, would have to ensure “food security, greater agricultural output and attract investment in the sector”.

At the party’s special lekgotla (meeting) in January, Jessie Duarte, the ANC’s deputy secretary general, said the ANC government will impose “strict conditions for how the beneficiaries use the land for farming and to make food security a priority. The government will ensure support for emerging and current farmers.”

South Africa is a regional giant in farming and food processing, so there are big strategic reasons to make the policy work as effectively as possibly while trying to correct historic and current injustices. Commercial farmers, who like to cite the crash in production triggered by land reform in Zimbabwe, are nervous about disruptions. Michelle Mokone, an economist for the Grain SA lobby group, tells The Africa Report that government policies must ensure the sustainability of the grain sector. “[The problem] is the uncertainty of how the policy will be implemented and the implications of it. [The agricultural sector] is a big contributor to the economy, and we cannot end up like Zimbabwe.”

White fright

Other lobby groups are also unsure about the future of the sector. Commercial farmers are likely to redouble their lobbying efforts as the government goes ahead with its expropriation policy, especially if any of them are targeted. AgriSA says “populist” policies could weaken agricultural output and the ability to attract new investment. “Policy certainty is number one for investment, and this is the ultimate uncertainty,” says Agri SA’s legal and policy adviser Annelize Crosby.

The government, she argues, should not “pretend it is going to solve all the problems if they are going to tamper with the property clause – it’s actually dangerous for everyone.”

Jaco Schoeman, an Eastern Cape farmer and chairman of the lobby Afrikanerbond, says his organisation is deeply disappointed in Ramaphosa. Before the expropriation policy, Afrikanerbond thought it was on the brink of “finding a solution within the farming sector, but all the noises are creating anxiety and fear.” Schoeman points to a lack of imagination. He argues that the big landowners have a responsibility to share, and many have land they are not using for farming which could be parcelled out for the landless.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the government’s policies, good or bad, is that the administrative system is in many cases breaking down. Several thousand restitution claims lodged before 1998 await resolution and the solutions to 20,000 resolved claims have not been implemented. New claims lodged since 2014 already number around 150,000 and could rise to 400,000. These managerial weaknesses, says the Rural Women’s Movement’s Ngubane, are hitting communities meant to be the beneficiaries of government land purchases.

The University of Western Cape’s Hall says about 70% of land claims in provinces such as Limpopo are still outstanding. At the current rate of progress, it would take about 141 years to resolve the backlog of land claims. “The ANC has placed itself in a corner. They must first deal with the outstanding land claims,” says Hall. “The Motlanthe panel suggests that land claims should be transparent and get local councils at the district level to be part of the process.”

For the land specialist Cousins, building a much stronger cohort of small-scale farmers will meet targets for equity and boost production: “The key beneficiaries should rather be the 200,000 market-­oriented, black smallholder farmers who produce crops and livestock for sale.”

With stronger demands coming from the ANC, commercial farmers in South Africa insist – somewhat desperately – that land reform is not a zero-sum game. Theo de Jager, president of the World Farmers’ Organisation and a farmer in Limpopo, says the ANC’s 2012 conference in Mangaung had a workable solution to the land question: “[It] calls on a partnership between government and the sector. There are about 100 such projects where the rural poor are trained. It’s a partnership with big commercial farmers, but the state has never invested in this 50/50 model.”

Soul erosion

The land question in South Africa goes way beyond finding the most efficient forms of economic organisation, according to Hall. “Land represents identity to black people,” but it has not been a political priority for the ANC so far. “[It] will be very important for the ANC to demonstrate that the party is serious about land reform.”

Big farming is giving Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt at the moment. “He understands business and is a farmer and a key player in the National Development Plan, which we support,” says Agri SA’s Crosby.

At least the threat of expropriation is triggering commercial farmers and agribusiness to innovate: “There are proposals from us and the banking sector [to] create [a] positive policy environment so that people are willing to invest,” says Crosby. “The world is running out of food – we can be the food basket for Africa.”

In few other areas of public policy are the polarities between idealism and materialism more evident. On one hand, there is the spiritual connection between a people and their land, and ways to strengthen a community by the restitution of what has been stolen. On the other, there are plans for multibillion-­dollar­ ­investments that could launch South Africa into the international premier league of food producers.

Somehow, Ramaphosa will have to navigate that landscape. And a message from Black First Land First campaigner Zanele Lwana might help: “My family is landless. I grew up in Khayelitsha in Cape Town. I trained as a teacher. I would like a piece of land to farm. We do not endorse the expropriation of land for private use. Land must be owned communally. Give everyone a piece of land to farm.”

This article appeared in The Africa Report’s March 2018 issue

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