Guest Column

Getting land reform right – a warning, as comments deadline looms

2018-06-12 08:23

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Terence Corrigan

"Done right, land redistribution will boost economy". Thus ran the headline over a recent piece on News24 by veteran commentator Max du Preez. A truism certainly, and a profoundly optimistic sentiment – but also implicitly a warning about the direction things are taking.

It has become common cause that South Africa"s land reform programme has fared below expectations, both in terms of the amount of land transferred and the benefits bestowed on beneficiaries. And this – supposedly – necessitates the remedy of the drive for expropriation without compensation. Granted more intrusive powers, the state will ensure that this is corrected.

But Mr Du Preez (and he is not alone in this) is correct in pointing to the potential benefits of a well-designed and prudently executed programme of land reform. Measures that open up opportunities to larger numbers of people and that encourage their productive uptake can be of great benefit to those immediate beneficiaries and to the societies of which they are part.

Land reform programmes were instrumental in achieving developmental take-off for Taiwan and South Korea. This helped to boost productivity, contribute to food security, encourage industrialisation and grant the newly empowered farmers a stake in the society. 

By contrast, the land reform initiatives undertaken in Communist China, in the former Soviet Union and so on, proved very damaging. The devastation which China"s reforms in the 1950s produced is well documented: the triumph of ideological conviction over pragmatism, and one of the largest famines in history.

Hence the importance of "getting it right". 

The National Development Plan"s (NDP) analysis of the future of South Africa"s farming economy asserted that it had the potential to create around 1 million jobs in agriculture, along with numerous other knock-on effects. Land reform would play an integral role in this. This expansion of opportunities in a sector long viewed as being in decline is an appealing vision. 

Yet, the NDP's caution on this is worth spelling out at length: "Creating jobs in agriculture will not be easy. It will require credible programmes, sound implementation, significant resources and stronger institutions, such as agriculture departments in local and provincial government. The effectiveness of extension officers depends on performance, capacity and level of priority given by provincial agricultural departments. Whether this service is correctly located should also be considered. Despite these challenges, with the right approach it is possible to reverse the decline in the agricultural sector, promote food production and raise rural income and employment. White commercial farmers, agribusinesses and organised agricultural industry bodies can help bring these objectives to fruition."

In other words, jobs in agriculture – along with successful agricultural development – demand an appropriate enabling environment. Where land reform is concerned, the existence of a capable, effective state, able to provide meaningful, high-quality support (principally financing and proper scientific advice) to beneficiaries is essential.

This does not describe the reality in South Africa today. 

Available evidence places a large question mark over the ability of the state to play the developmental role it has defined for itself, and which would enable it to drive a successful and beneficial land reform process. 

In an important contribution published last year Professors Ruth Hall and Thembela Kepe investigated a number of land reform projects in the Eastern Cape. Their indictment was harsh – they argued that public criticism which focused on the pace of land reform "fails to capture the extent of this crisis". Their research showed that beneficiaries lacked land rights, they could not access production support, that government departments failed to cooperate and there was evidence of "elite capture" and collusion between the state and moneyed interests. The nominal beneficiaries of the process were left with very little. 

Where emerging farmers have managed to set up operations, the lack of state support – and the poor quality of support – has been a repeated cause of discontent. Not enough exists, and not enough is relevant. As one farmer put it in a recent interview: "The Department of Agriculture is meant to run an extension service programme. But in my experience, it"s very poor to non-existent. The only time extension officers have been to my farm was when they came to give me advice on my irrigation system. And it turned out to be very bad advice."

Financial support tough to come by for emerging farmers 

Financial support is a particularly serious problem, since farming demands significant investments. All farmers find raising such capital tough, but emerging farmers will find it especially tough. Indeed, since government policy in recent years has moved away from granting title to beneficiaries (and therefore collateral), accessing necessary funding will be a permanent obstacle. 

It is in these areas, deficiencies in policy, indifferent administration and state capacity, political will and the lack of willingness to make funding available, that the success or failure of land reform will depend. Expropriation without compensation deflects attention from it and promises an illusion of a solution. In more ways than one, it promises to get land reform badly wrong. When the suggestion for expropriation without compensation grows to encompass a wholesale taking of all land in the country into state custodianship, the disregard for flagging state capacity becomes delusional. 

The High Level Panel into Transformative Legislation, chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, examined the state of the land reform programme and reached similar conclusions: "Experts advise that the need to pay compensation has not been the most serious constraint on land reform in South Africa to date – other constraints, including increasing evidence of corruption by officials, the diversion of the land reform budget to elites, lack of political will, and lack of training and capacity have proved more serious stumbling blocks to land reform."

Successful land reform is possible in South Africa. It is possible to get it right – but only if the enabling conditions are correctly arranged for it. The country"s efforts would be better directed at creating and sustaining strong, competent institutions to manage it than embarking on the dubious policy twists that are now before it.

- Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the Institute of Race Relations in opposing the introduction of Expropriation without Compensation by endorsing their submission to Parliament or sending an SMS to 32823.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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