Land rights for the poor

2008-09-24 00:00

Working for 30 years on land rights issues does not make one an expert in land reform. This has been our experience in South Africa anyway. Every day brings new and interesting twisted lessons for us on how to make land reform work — for anyone. Given the recent reports on the poor success rate of our land reform programme to date any new ideas must be good ones right? Wrong. But we can now put a price on how much it costs to make a land claim go away —R515 575 000.

This latest lesson is a sad and strong reminder about how land has become a playground for the wealthy few while the poor majority’s access to land has been reduced to symmetrical rows of cement block houses so they can be fed with infrastructure and services in the cheapest possible manner. For some, land use is about feeding a lifestyle. For many others, land use is about feeding a livelihood.

So isn’t it interesting that both the “lifestylers” and the “livelihooders” are complaining about the restitution process in KwaZulu-Natal. Now they have also found an ally in the staff employed to implement this process. In a recent bizarre twist the restitution commission staff have gone public over their internal complaints about their manager — the KZN regional land claims commissioner. Is the stumbling restitution process really the fault of one land claims commissioner? While the Association for Rural Advancement (Afra) would love to join a finger-pointing session, we were forced to consider the situation more carefully when we witnessed another recent lesson in how land reform really works. Those who value their lifestyles or their livelihoods should pay close attention to this story.

The restitution process, ostensibly a rights-based programme to redress dispossession, started with the passing of the Restitution Act in 1994. All potential claimants were required to lodge their claims before a prescribed cut-off date, which finally was December 2000. One such claim was lodged by a group of people who had faced repeated removals from the area in and around the Dukuduku forests. Prior to lodging a claim they had in fact resettled on some of the land they were to claim, in a desperate attempt to reclaim it. This led to a dramatic growth in new homesteads in the natural forest area as others supported their claim to the land, in return for a place to live. For the past eight years the claimants have struggled to get the Regional Land Claims Commission (RLCC) to process their claim. They have had many “lifestyle” detractors, in the government, the development and tourism sector and the environmental sector who attempted to criminalise their legitimate claim to the land. In this time our government had a large part of the area they had claimed proclaimed as a world heritage site. In this time the government tried to entice them out the forest into a formal housing settlement, ostensibly to save the forest. In this time the established Greater St Lucia Wetland Park (now called the Smangiliso Wetlands Park) gave out BEE concessions for development of tourism lodges in the park.

In this time the RLCC tried unsuccessfully to dismiss their claim as invalid. The claimants contested this in the Land Claims Court and won. Six years into the claim and after the court case the RLCC informed them that their claim happened to overlap with another group. It then took more than a year to convince the RLCC that this was a mistake. And finally in this time of eight years, the claimants have witnessed the position of the commissioner being changed three times. From commissioner Cherryl Walker to commissioner Thabi Shange to the current commissioner Duduzile Sosibo. However, the most recent coup d’état in this eight-year period, in attempts to undermine their land rights, is not one brought about by an allegedly by incompetent RLCC commissioner. Rather it is one that has seen the provincial Minister of Local Government, Housing and Trade Affairs, Mike Mabuyakhulu, with the support of the provincial cabinet, announce that part of the land which they have tried to reclaim will now become a housing project. On fairly good word it seems that not even the RLCC official handling the claim was consulted.

On August 27, 2008, in a local stakeholder meeting comprised mainly of traditional leaders and councillors, Mabuyakhulu announced that the KZN cabinet had decided to “legalise” the Dukuduku settlement through on-site resettlement. Essentially the government will turn the settled area of the forest into a housing project and move the heritage park’s boundaries to secure “conservation bottom lines”. Two bottom lines are the securing and fencing off of the remaining natural forest areas that have not been settled, like Futululu forest, and secondly moving subsistence and small-scale farming by families away from the flood plains. It should be noted though that even the Futululu forest and the flood plains fall under the Dukuduku-claimed area. And the estimated cost of the solution to this battle for the land will cost R515 575 000.

While housing and services will always be a critical part of supporting families to improve their livelihoods, the Umkhanyakude district is renowned for its high unemployment and poverty rates. With much land under forestry, conservation, game farming and commercial farming, increasingly dense rural settlements face poor prospects for upliftment. Currently the highest sector of employment remains the service sector. Agriculture and access to land for small-scale family farming seems critically important even with the proposed tourism potential of the area. With battles between tourism developers over large tracts of land and restitution claimants growing increasingly acrimonious what prospect is there for self-sufficient or secure livelihoods?

The development stakes are clearly high. The year 2010 is looming and we have partially banked our economy on a potential tourism industry. That the Dukuduku land claim and a settlement agreement with the people in the natural forest area of the claim is long overdue smacks of government high-handedness. This will be the third attempt in 30 years to settle the Dukuduku matter and this will be the third time that political decision makers have not consulted those directly affected despite the fact that they have legitimate land rights over the area. While the restitution process is turning out to be protracted and messy, it could be the developers who finally win, through back- door deals like Dukuduku. An early score for 2010: development 1 — people 0.

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