Land reform is in crisis

2008-03-07 00:00

The Department of Land Affairs is a joke. This is according to ANC MP David Dlali, a member of the Port-folio Committee on Land and Agriculture. His comment was made during a farm evictions briefing in Parliament on Tuesday.

The Association for Rural Advancement’s (Afra) sister organisation from Limpopo, the Nkuzi Development Association, and two landless farm dwellers briefed the committee on the issue of evictions and then a spokesperson for the Department of Land Affairs (DLA) presented a three-page strategy document meant to deal with the issue of land reform.

To say that the DLA is a joke is true. But the question needs to be asked: why has it taken so many years for the politicians to see that it is a joke? The fundamental problem with this joke, however, is that it involves the lives of landless people who live on farms.

The committee must be congratulated for rapping the senior members of the department over the knuckles for their failure to deliver land to the landless. For starters, the department has failed to perform effectively some of the responsibilities flowing out of two pieces of legislation, namely the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (Esta) and the Labour Tenants Act. The DLA has failed for many years to provide legal assistance to people who are being evicted and who are facing human rights violations on farms.

The DLA has also failed to invoke important sections in the acts which provide protection for the vulnerable landless who might face evictions.

There is a total lack of strategy and direction and as a result a number of landless people who lodged applications for land as labour tenants, in accordance with the act, as early as 1999, have not received their land because their applications have not been processed or reportedly have been lost.

Now and again the DLA comes up with different strategy documents that have not been implemented. There continues to be a lack of post-settlement support for new beneficiaries of land reform. The performance of DLA officials is very shoddy, to say the least. In many instances they have forced landless families into compromising settlements just to capture more statistics of delivery on their part. They have yet to play any meaningful role in terms of ensuring co-operative governance and inter-departmental collaboration in relation to rural development. As a result, land reform has not been integrated within municipal planning.

Although not all the problems around the slow pace of land reform are attributable to department officials and farmers, each has a share of blame. Farmers have been abusing and, in many instances, illegally evicting people from farms and denying them the basic human rights necessary for a dignified life. The abuses range from denial of burials to closing down of access roads, refusing to allow visitors, poor labour practices and generally the exploitation of landless farm dwellers and farm workers.

The farmers have yet to play any positive role in terms of ensuring that the objectives of land reform are met. Rather, they have been inflating land prices to frustrate the very same land reform.

However, the overall political accountability has to fall squarely on the shoulders of the political leaders. The current framework for land reform is a compromise consequence of a political settlement that was the product of elite transition. The delivery problem associated with this framework cannot be blamed on the officials and this is what politicians conveniently will not own up to.

The closest to acceptance of ownership of that reality at Tuesday’s meeting came from Motsuko Pheko of the PAC and the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs, Dirk du Toit.

The former indicated that it is only through the equitable redistribution of land that the current problems being faced by landless farm dwellers will be resolved.

The latter indicated much more sharply that the legislation regulating evictions should be fundamentally reviewed. These sentiments find resonance with the calls that have been made by the landless that there should be radical redistribution of land from the landed oligarchy to the landless poor if feudal relationships are to be smashed.

The fact that we have a property clause enshrined in our Constitution cannot be blamed on the officials. That the government has failed to use the expropriation clause because of being sensitive to international capital cannot be blamed on the officials but on the politicians.

It is now eight years after the Land Summit which made calls for a radical review of land reform policies, which included the review of the willing buyer, willing seller principle and a moratorium on evictions until a new framework had been put in place. These are all political imperatives that have nothing to do with technocrats and bureaucrats and everything to do with a strong political will to do what is right.

Therefore, Tuesday’s portfolio committee meeting should be judged by the extent to which various players owned up to their fair share of responsibility for land reform failures. Clearly, the DLA did own up but that is not enough — the senior leadership of the department needs to be very clear about where the bottlenecks lie. If the bottlenecks are to be found in the reformist framework that underpins our land reform, the DLA officials should point this out to the politicians.

Similarly, the politicians need to own up to the fact that they have neglected the land reform issue and acknowledge that if they had paid adequate attention to this question they would have made those statements a long time ago. Sadly, some politicians will acknowledge this neglect in private discussions and in committee meetings, but then it all ends there. It seems that in a sense they talk left and walk right.

While the portfolio committee members showed a lot of energy and clarity in terms of engaging with the land issue, only time will tell whether some of their sentiments will see the political light of day.

• Thabo Manyathi is a land activist working for Afra. He writes in his personal capacity.

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