Slow pace of restitution fuels tensions

2008-03-07 00:00

THE government has conceded that it will not be able to meet the self-imposed March 31 deadline for the settlement and finalisation of all land restitution claims.

Land Affairs Minister Lulu Xingwana was quoted this week as saying that about 74 000 claims have been ­settled so far from the total of about 79 000 claims that were lodged before the cut-off date of December 1998.

KwaZulu-Natal seems to have the highest backlog of unresolved claims. However, all attempts to get statistics from the provincial Land Restitution Commission proved fruitless.

The ­Witness sent questions to the commission in January but no response had been received at the time of going to print.

More worrying than just the statistics, it has been argued by those involved in the agricultural sector, is the dire socio-economic impact that the slow pace of the restitution process is having on the sector.

“It creates uncertainty, which then affects the ability to make long-term investment decisions. It therefore holds back development in the agriculture sector because people are ­uncertain about the future,” said the president of the KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu), Robin Barnsley, during an interview with The Witness in ­January.

Reverend Thulani Ndlazi, a researcher at the Church Land Programme (CLP), argues that the delayed restitution process is also causing stagnation in the socio-economic development of landless rural communities.

“In many cases the landless want to build proper houses and get electricity and tarred roads, but they cannot access those services if the claim has not been finalised because the argument is that development cannot be carried out on private land or land that is under ­dispute.”

Ndlazi and Barnsley concur that the most serious impact has been the fact that the delay has somehow fuelled tensions between landowners and claimants, especially in rural areas.

The bulk of the unresolved claims involve rural land which is mainly nature reserves and farmland.

Barnsley says he is aware of some cases where farmers’ rights have been violated by the land claimants who, in some situations, tend wrongly to blame the landowner for the delay.

“I know of farmers who have been physically assaulted, who have had their livestock poisoned, their fences cut and their gates wired closed so that they could not get in to or leave the farm,” said Barnsley.

Ndlazi provides a counter-argument: “In most of the cases where restitution has been delayed, a trend develops where the rights of the landless are violated … The slow pace of land restitution has resulted in the process failing in its main objective — that of reconciling the formerly disposed and the elite landowners.”

While the delay has been attributed to several factors, including legal ­challenges by landowners, the government’s “willing buyer, willing seller” policy has received the most criticism from some sectors — and from within the government itself.

Barnsley believes that the free market mechanism is the “most efficient way” of resolving the land claims and meeting the targets of the state.

Ndlazi, however, thinks otherwise: “Land dispossession did not happen through the market and so the market cannot be a tool to resolve it. Land is a justice issue and you cannot just buy justice.” He adds that there seems to be a lack of political will from the government’s side to speed up restitution.

From speaking to the two men, it becomes clear that there is no clear-cut solution to the complex issue.

“The solutions are there, but we [the government and even the NGOs] seem not to be prepared to listen to the ­dispossessed communities. If we were to ­listen to them we could find solutions,” Ndlazi says.

Kwanalu has made a proposal to the government for the creation of a provincial land reform company that will bring together the sellers and the acquirers of land. This structure will look, it is proposed, at the economic viability of the land and develop strategies on how to make the land more profitable while providing mentorship to those who acquire the land.

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