Let the people own the land

Jessie Duarte’s comments on land reform “New mood will help economy – ANC” (City Press, January 28 2018) raise disturbing questions about just how much has really been learnt from the experience of the past two decades.

It is common cause that our land reform programme is failing. It has fallen short of the targets for redistribution. More importantly, we have seen widespread failure in land reform projects undertaken. The figure of a 90% failure rate floated by the minister of rural development and land reform a few years ago may well be an exaggeration, but there is no dispute that it is in crisis.

To see expropriation without compensation as a solution is to miss the point entirely. The constitutional requirement to pay compensation for land acquired has not been a hindrance to land reform.

Government’s own investigation into the transformational impact of its policies found that the problems lay elsewhere: “Other constraints, including increasing evidence of corruption by officials, the diversion of the land reform budget to elites, lack of political will and a lack of training and capacity have proved more serious stumbling blocks to land reform.”

Evidence of this abounds. At the moment, South Africa is reeling from reports of the apparent diversion of funds – most of some R220m – meant for a dairy project in Vrede, the Free State. Instead of developing the agricultural economy of the area, it evidently paid for celebrity weddings, luxury vehicles and private jets. A large chunk of it was simply transferred to other companies. The local farmers derived no benefit from this.

This case may be an extreme one, but the problems it embodies are not isolated.

The solution that Duarte proposes is greater government control and direction over the agriculture sector. There is every likelihood that this will merely aggravate existing failures.

It is important to point out that expropriation without compensation would not transfer land to its “beneficiaries”: government policy is to retain ownership of land acquired for redistribution while leasing it to tenants.

But the available evidence raises serious doubt about this. The state hasn’t the capacity to manage landholdings on this scale. It has failed to provide appropriate support and, in many instances, officials refuse to sign leases, leaving “beneficiaries” with very few rights or prospects.

The idea that beneficiaries might own their land, and farm it as they see fit – perhaps even look to alternative uses – is not considered. This can only be described as sad.

Rather, we need to rethink land reform. Fortunately, it seems quite clear what a successful programme would entail: property rights for all – especially for emerging farmers – proactive engagement in the land market and suitable budget allocations, combined with better project design and focused support, derived both from the public and private sectors. That is, of course, if South Africa is prepared to learn the hard lessons of the past two decades.

Terence Corrigan is a Policy Fellow, SA Institute of Race Relations

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