Land panel report looks post-apartheid failures square in the eyes

One of the many strengths of President Ramaphosa's land panel report is that it does not shy away from the corruption, patronage and nepotism that have often dogged post-apartheid land reform, writes Jeremy Cronin.

The excellent and very timely 144-page report of President Ramaphosa's advisory panel on land reform and agriculture has just been released. It reminds us of the urgency and constitutional imperative of land reform. Anyone who cares about our country and its future should read the report.

Its publication coincided with another week of sobering disclosures at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture. The focus of the commission happened to be on the Free State provincial government's notorious Estina dairy farm project. It's a case of state capture masquerading under the cloak of land reform.

There were revelations of hundreds of thousands of rands worth of looting, and of the probable diversion of public funds to a Gupta wedding party. Especially heart-wrenching were the accounts of the disdainful mistreatment and marginalisation of the small-scale black farmers who were supposed to be the actual beneficiaries of the project.

One of the many strengths of Ramaphosa's expert panel report is that it does not shy away from the corruption, patronage and nepotism that have often dogged supposed, post-apartheid land reform in South Africa. The report flags market opportunism, bribery, land-price manipulation, fronting, the meddling of government officials and politicians, and unaccountable and illicit transactions on communal land in the former homelands. Government officials, politicians, traditional leaders, and business-people are all involved. The Estina dairy farm is, perhaps, the tip of an ice-berg.

However, the real strength of the advisory panel's report is that its diagnosis of the challenges is not restricted to the problems of malfeasance and ineptitude. If anything, it locates these within a broader set of issues – the lack of a clear and over-arching land reform policy, and major institutional and legislative gaps. Twenty-five years of tinkering, it states, have not worked.

The report reminds of us of some stark fundamentals: 83% of urban and peri-urban dwellers reside on 2% of the land. We have a globally competitive agriculture sector and we export food, achievements that the panel seeks to sustain and improve. But 41,6% of rural people and 59,4% of South Africans in urban areas have severely inadequate access to food. We have an advanced property registry system which is wholly inadequate to the actual needs of the majority, with 60% of South Africans' land and property rights not recorded or registered.

Among the many important recommendations is greater legislative emphasis on land redistribution, and not just land restitution. The report calls for clear policy on the principal target groups. Land reform cannot be a Zimbabwe (or Estina) land grab for the politically connected.

Particular emphasis is placed on the food insecure in both urban and rural areas, with special attention to what the report calls "agricultural households". A Stats SA 2016 survey estimates some 2,3 million such households, with 47% of them led by women, with 84% saying their backyard is the main place of agricultural activity, and 44% saying farming is their main source of food. The report is categorical: A narrow BEE approach to land reform, at least on its own, will not reverse the systemic reproduction of racialised and gendered poverty and inequality.

There is, of course, much more in the report, including the important proposal of a fourth pillar to land reform, namely land administration, alongside restitution, redistribution and tenure security.

In our current South Africa reality, what is especially encouraging is the diversity of the panel, drawn from a representative array of experts, academics, practising farmers both white and black, lawyers specialising in land reform, an agricultural economist with the Agricultural Business Chamber, and the president of AgriSA. It is an example of a cross-section of South Africans working together to diagnose the challenges and to map out a much more effective policy and key institutional interventions. This report stands as an excellent counter to political parties, factional interests and narrow lobby groups.

Of course, there was not absolute unanimity on every issue. Two of the panellists disagreed with suggestions on amending the property clause (which was part of the mandate of the panel). In practice, however, the recommendations imply minor adjustments to the property clause, in effect making explicit what is already implicit in Section 25 of the Bill of Rights, namely that nil compensation might be just and equitable in certain cases of expropriation of land in the public interest – for example, abandoned land.

There was also a minority disagreement about the advisability of not allowing for free-hold in the former homelands. A majority felt, correctly in my view, that turning communal land ownership into alienable private property would further deepen poverty and inequality in these areas.  

But these differences should not be allowed to overwhelm the major strategic coherence in the report. Cabinet has two months to consider the report. I trust that it will heed the wise words of the report concerning the "urgency and constitutional imperative of land reform" which must "not be taken lightly nor postponed".

- Cronin is a member of the SACP's central committee, and a former member of the ANC's national executive committee. He was a deputy minister between 2012 and 2019. His first collection of poems, Inside, was released to much acclaim after his release from prison in 1984.

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