What do we really want out of land reform?

2013-09-06 00:00

LAND reform in South Africa has proceeded at a glacial pace, repeatedly breaking government deadlines and promises to fix historical dispossession wrought by the notorious Land Act.

Land reform has revolved around the twin axes of restitution and redistribution. While the majority of cases lodged around restitution have been settled, redistribution and fundamental land reform have largely failed to occur. As legal commentator Pierre de Vos recently said, we cannot wait another generation to address this shortcoming.

The Freedom Charter states clearly that the land belongs to all and that it must be used to overcome famine and hunger. While the land issue is spoken to in the National Development Plan (NDP), which currently appears to be the overarching national policy document, the answers it provides to address the land question remain unfulfilled.

The NDP echoes the Freedom Charter’s intentions to deracialise land holdings and support food security, acknowledging that less than five percent of the land has been redistributed since 1994.

The failure to redistribute 30% of the land in five years following our democratic transition illustrates how business as usual dominated both our economic and political discourse.

Recent overtures to purchase an upmarket game farm for nearly a billion rands illustrates how deeply we have lost the plot.

The questions that have neither been properly asked, nor answered, are: what exactly do we want from our land-reform process, how do we get there and what should the nation look like when it is complete?

Legal analysts such as Matthew Chaskalson believe that the state’s perception that land reform must follow the willing-buyer, willing-seller model is flawed.

The Constitution allows for expropriation and the Property Valuations Bill and Expropriations Bill may help the state initiate creative litigation around land reform.

And how, for instance, do we approach the land holdings of the minority of massive, industrial farmers? Their numbers have fallen as farm sizes have increased, creating a de facto concentration of land among white grain farmers. This sector has tracked international practice, where high input costs, coupled to low-margin returns have seen increased consolidation here, in the United States, Argentina and Brazil.

These substantial, industrialised operations use high-cost inputs such as GM seed, artificial fertilisers, chemical pesticides and gargantuan machines, which are reliant on economy of scale. Some are privately owned, but most are controlled through holding companies.

So how on Earth do we reform this sector?

There are limited choices in doing so. First, we can leave things as they are, run on a commercial model, working in lock step with the dominant financial system: banks, insurance broker and grain traders.

Even following this route, black ownership can increase, as sufficient numbers of black farmers, willing to indebt themselves heavily, step in to run what are essentially large corporate holdings. Given the record of the state to date, they can expect limited financial or technical support.

If this is unacceptable, perhaps we could reform our entire agricultural system into a centralised model where land is collectively owned and operated through state management, in much the same way that the Russian system works.

However, Russia remains an extremely inefficient agricultural producer, primarily because of the dated and incentive-sapping collectivist system.

What is notable is that nearly a quarter of Russian agricultural value emanated from around three percent of the land farmed as “private plots” during the eighties. Now, 93% of Russian potatoes and 80% of vegetables originate from these two-hectare plots.

So perhaps a radical shift to collective farming would appear not to be a good idea, but a partial shift may.

A middle line would be to follow the lead of Brazil, and more specifically the route taken by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), the movement of landless workers.

This group has had on-off alliances with the goverments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, yet it remains largely marginalised through pressure from large landowners and commercial agriculture.

It has, through land invasions and reform, resettled over 400 000 farmers onto primarily productive smallholdings. These are now among the most productive farms in Brazil, echoing the Russian experience.

Scholar Gillian Hart recently wrote how post-apartheid reform is not stymied as much by neoliberalism as by the decline and rise of nationalisms. First the denationalism during the decline of Afrikaaner nationalism, and now the renationalism of the liberation movement. This theoretical blueprint arises from the observations of political and social theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891 — 1937) regarding the rise of fascism in the Italian state, in what he saw as a “passive revolution” imposed from above.

This has direct parallels to our situation in that the actual revolution has not come to pass; it is just repeatedly ventilated by the ruling class.

Perhaps a lesson to draw from this is that a shift towards meaningful land-reform policy in South Africa requires the emergence of a strong, informed landless people’s movement.

It would be helpful for the state to cease its oppression of our equivalents of the MST, such as the local chapter of the Landless Workers Movement and Abahlali baseMjondolo, so they can articulate and agitate for the requirements of long-overdue land reform.

The role of the state needs to shift from oppression in the name of economic stability to one of change management.

There will be tensions, as in Brazil, but this is the nature of change. Nowhere in the world has hegemonic land ownership willingly yielded to structural changes.

Further, instead of reforming our capital-intensive industrial farming heartland in huge leaps and bounds, we require incremental shifts.

For a start, we need to support small farmers, not through tokenism, or ill-considered Comprehenisve Agricultural Reform Programmes (CASP), which have demonstrably failed, as have corporate ideologically driven massive food-production programmes.

Instead, we need to consider initiating reform programmes that are iterative and which respond to the needs and requirements of real-time agricultural demand.

We can at least start to occupy that space that Russian and Brazilian small farmers have so successfully filled in providing good-quality and high-value produce, to where it is required.

The NDP 2030 suggests as much, yet fails to consider realisticially its implementation.

We have to keep our land productive while avoiding the systemic shocks of Zimbabwean-styled land grabs.

The realistic option is for the state to legislate and litigate creatively, in order to manage an incremental reform process.

The time for change has come.

— The South African Civil Society Information Service.

• Glenn Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society.

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