For the sake of dignity

Land is an issue that is often in the news, but not always for the right reasons.

“The ANC goes radical on land” proclaimed the headlines soon after Cyril Ramaphosa was elected as ANC president in December. The governing party had just decided that owners would not be compensated when their land was expropriated for purposes of land reform.

The raging controversies surrounding the ANC’s decision on expropriation illustrate the symbolic power of the land question within the contested politics of the country. One way to read the decision is that it is an attempt to head off the challenge from the left, in the form of the Economic Freedom Fighters. But it is also clear that “land” symbolises wide discontent within the populace at large over the slow rate of change in post-apartheid South Africa.

In the background, fuelling the fires, are the most intractable problems facing South Africa: massive levels of unemployment, structural poverty and gross inequality. The most important question facing land reform is how it can contribute to increasing employment, incomes and livelihoods among the 55% of the population who live beneath the poverty line.

Of course, land is about much more than economics, but radical reform also has to change material realities, or risk irrelevance.

These matters will be discussed at the Mandela Initiative workshop on strategies to address poverty and inequality, which starts tomorrow. Land in urban and rural areas will be central to debates on how to move South Africa forward.

To date, land reform has failed miserably as a poverty-reduction strategy. Many land restitution projects are in serious trouble. Redistribution is benefiting only a small minority. The land tenure security of people living in the former Bantustans, on commercial farms and in informal settlements has barely improved since 1994.

The reasons for the malaise are many and various, and include a tiny budget, poor state capacity, ineffective political leadership, insufficient political will and the state’s inability to target the poor. These are highlighted in the large and growing amount of research literature available. But policymakers continue to deny the clear evidence of failure and refuse to engage with the research community to look for solutions.

Another key problem is the lack of a reliable national data set on the performance of land reform. The department of rural development and land reform does not undertake monitoring and evaluation. The only official sources of any use are the occasional evaluation reports commissioned by the department of performance monitoring and evaluation, but these also cannot provide a comprehensive picture.

Ramaphosa’s recent announcement of a study to determine land use and other outcomes on the 8 million hectares of land that have been transferred since 1994 is therefore significant. Such a study is vital if we are to draw the appropriate lessons from 24 years of failed land reform and take remedial action.

A recent report from Parliament has much to offer in relation to possible solutions. It is the result of a two-year project chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, known as the high-level panel on the assessment of key legislation and the acceleration of fundamental change. It is focused on social cohesion, poverty, inequality and land. The section on land makes for compelling reading and offers a comprehensive assessment of progress and problems since 1994, and it recommends a range of far-reaching measures.

One finding of the panel has already caused a major stir. It recommends that the Ingonyama Trust, set up to hold communal land in KwaZulu-Natal in trust for its occupants, either be abolished or have its founding act amended to constrain the corruption and abuse by its executive and board. King Goodwill Zwelithini and other traditional leaders in the province have reacted with outrage, and it is not yet clear how the ANC intends to handle the politics of land tenure held under customary law.

Public hearings convened by the panel saw scores of rural people express their deep anger over the abuse of their rights by chiefs in areas where minerals such as platinum and titanium are found. They also provided many examples of corruption by officials and the capture of land reform projects by the elite, as well as a lack of support for those who have received land through restitution or redistribution. If the ANC ignores the voices in this rural constituency, it will risk losing voter support.

The panel’s report provides suggestions on how the failings of the land restitution programme can be remedied, and proposes far-reaching amendments to existing land laws. A new law is also proposed to give expression to section 25 (5) of the Bill of Rights, which commits the state to “foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis”.

This law would aim to guide the design and implementation of all sub-programmes of land reform. It would give the highest priority to meeting the land needs of poor and vulnerable people, and emphasise the need for land reform to support sustainable development. It would also provide procedures to ensure that land reform is undertaken with transparency and accountability.

Of course, legislation alone would not be sufficient. Government also needs to commit enough resources to ensure that land reform can make a real contribution to reducing poverty and inequality in rural and urban areas. Providing effective support services to beneficiaries is vital, and should be appropriate to the livelihood and production systems of the poor. Practical support to those who operate in the informal economy is essential, and the state’s capacity to provide that support will have to be greatly improved.

It is necessary to resolve South Africa’s land question to restore the dignity of the black majority. But land reform must also address the deep-rooted problems of structural poverty, spatial inequality and skewed power relations. This will require political courage, as well as the will to develop appropriate laws, policies and implementation frameworks. Are we up to the challenge?

Cousins is a senior researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, and a member of the Mandela Initiative think-tank


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