Why land reform projects fail

Elvis Mgwenya
Elvis Mgwenya
The rights relating to individuals or families on land must be strengthened to improve the chances of successful land use, says a recent study by Wits University academics. The authors blame factionalism among claimants or communal property associations (CPAs), corruption and, in some instances, a lack of financial support and farming expertise for the failure of most land reform projects. They say this has left once-prosperous pieces of farm land lying fallow. The research was conducted by William Beinart, Peter Delius and Michelle Hay and is titled Rights to Land: A guide to tenure upgrading and restitution in South Africa. It punches holes in the government’s land reform and security of tenure policies that encourage communal ownership by communities, CPAs, or traditional authorities. City Press visited a failed project in the Ndlovini CPA, about 25km outside Mbombela and spoke to the beneficiary, Elijah Mhlaba, in Komatipoort to find out what happened

It could have been heaven on earth for its beneficiaries.

But the 235-hectare farm in Mpumalanga has been lying fallow since it was handed over to the Ndlovini CPA in 2004, due to factions and allegedly corrupt departmental officials.

The fight for control of resources has crippled the project.

This problem of the powerful elite in CPAs sidelining ordinary claimants has been identified in Rights to Land.

The thrust of the authors’ argument is that legislation needs to be strengthened to ensure that the rights of families within CPAs are not disregarded or violated.

Ndlovini CPA chairperson Elvis Mgwenya, who was elected about two years ago, told City Press that the previous association refused to do a proper handover, which had frustrated progress on the farm.

“The farm was almost attached because of debts to the SA Revenue Service and Eskom. We cannot do anything because of the problems with the previous CPA. Then we decided to lease it.”

As the African proverb says: When two brothers fight, strangers reap the harvest.

The CPA lost a R2.9m grant from the department of rural development and land reform, due to fraud in 2012.

The Nelspruit Regional Court this week found three individuals – Zenzele Jacob Mncwango, Grace Mokoka and Skhumbuzo Nkosi – guilty of theft, fraud and money laundering. The trio used connections within the department to have the money transferred to their accounts.

Some of the money was used to buy cars.

Ndlovini CPA member Dr Isaac Tlou, who laid charges with the police, said it was by fluke that they discovered that the money had been channelled to these individuals’ bank accounts.

Tlou said Nkosi was a volunteer on the farm and helped the CPA with marketing.

“We were at a ceremony and overheard Nkosi’s wife shouting at him for buying his girlfriend a car. I went to the department and discovered that money had been claimed without us knowing. I laid charges.”

In addition to this, an investigation by auditing firm KPMG conducted in 2012 and commissioned by the national rural development and land reform department, found that the members of Ndlovini’s previous management committee could not account for R8.3m.

They claimed it had been spent on infrastructure and other operating costs.

This case is still under investigation.

Surviving on 1 hectare

“It rained this morning,” says farmer Elijah Mhlaba (68) as he inspects the butternut on his land. 

 “Tomorrow I’ll have to spray them with pesticide.”

Spending much time outdoors in the sweltering Lowveld weather, he bears all the marks of his years of working as a farmer.

Mhlaba grows butternut, chillies, cabbages, lettuce, tomatoes and maize on a 1-hectare plot. He sells his produce at the local market.

He took over from his parents, who farmed on the same plot, in Block C, near Komatipoort, when the apartheid government forcibly removed the community from an area now covered by the Kruger National Park, in 1954.

“I live here. As a child I would join my parents after school and help them farm,” Mhlaba says.

“Today, I’m looking after seven of my children with the money I’m making from selling my produce.” Two of them are still at school. The rest are unemployed.

He, and many other people, have had massive tracts of prime agricultural land transferred to them through land reform projects, but have failed to keep them productive.

The Wits University study offers an explanation why Mhlaba has been one of those.

The authors of the Rights to Land study call for a change in land rights policies to ensure security of tenure for those living on it.

They say government’s land reform and security of tenure policies, that encourage communal land ownership by communities or groups under CPAs or traditional authorities, have been disastrous.

Many beneficiaries often fight, and powerful leaders in the CPAs, or chiefs, exercise their influence, hoard resources and reap the benefits, while ordinary people are excluded.

The authors argue that if individual family rights are asserted and they have some form of ownership, there is a stronger possibility that they will keep the land productive and earn returns.

The study warns government against mega land reform projects, where many people are lumped together and form incoherent communities bedevilled by infighting.

Mhlaba’s piece of land has been in his family for generations, but they have no title deed for it.

Despite this, he has some sense of ownership. The land falls under the local traditional authority.

“It is known that plot 35 belongs to my family. I cannot be removed,” he says.

“With more money, I could plant the whole hectare in one go, but I do it in small patches. Me and my family can survive.”
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