Budget reveals government's real position on land reform

Cattle feeding at a feeding trough.  (Photo by Gallo Images/Landbouweekblad/Chris Jooste)
Cattle feeding at a feeding trough. (Photo by Gallo Images/Landbouweekblad/Chris Jooste)

The Budget shows that government planning on land reform is misaligned with its proclaimed ideological policy stance, writes Terence Corrigan.

Government's priorities are seen less in the volume of its rhetoric than in the quality of its actions; nothing encapsulates this better than the Budget. 

For all the voluble discussion around land reform and the evident determination of the country's political elite to steamroller a policy of expropriation without compensation, there was little to suggest that land and agrarian reform were taking on any greater significance than has been the case previously.

The breakdown of expenditure by function in the Budget Review puts all spending on land, agriculture and rural development at some R30.7bn in the coming financial year, rising slightly to R32.8bn in 2021/22. The allocation for these functions would account for some 1.7% of consolidated state spending, with an average annual increase of a paltry 3% over the three-year period. This rate of increase is one of the lowest of any functional element in the budget.

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The message is clear here. Government has singularly failed to make a meaningful provision for an expanded and enhanced land reform effort, even as it talks up its commitment to doing so, and talks down the protection of property rights.

It's important to remember that the current expropriation without compensation policy drive was introduced with assurances that it would not disrupt the economy, or deter investment or threaten food security. Rather, so the reasoning goes, it would enhance property rights and stimulate economic activity.

Indeed, if there is any hope of achieving these outcomes, it will be necessary to improve on the performance of the whole land reform system. It has long been common cause that the acquisition of land is only one element of this system, and far from the most demanding one. Given the disastrous performance of many if not most land reform projects, making them work as viable economic units is critical. Government has – to its credit – acknowledged that providing appropriate support will be crucial to successful land reform.

But the budget commitments show scant evidence of this. One of the most important sets of figures in this respect – making land reform successful beyond the mere transfer of land parcels – is the budgeted support for farmers. "Famer support and development" is to receive some R4.1bn in 2019/2020, rising to R4.6bn in 2021/22. At an annual increase of some 4.1%, it may not dissipate under inflation, but these numbers do not suggest a quantitative or qualitative increase in support for farmers – as one might expect in light of the supposed heightened commitment to a greatly stepped-up programme of land reform. 

Rather it has restated past patterns – it is difficult to imagine that this will result in anything other than past mistakes. And it is above all a betrayal of the aspirant farmers whom government is nominally keen to promote.It also invites caution about the direction that South Africa's land politics is likely to take.

For the Budget shows that government planning on this issue is misaligned with its proclaimed ideological policy stance. An accelerated programme of land takings and redistributions can simply not be successfully undertaken when the resources and infrastructure that will make it possible are not in place.

Many commentators noted in the run-up to the presentation of the Budget that the government would need to perform a very delicate balancing act in inauspicious circumstances. If nothing else, the document presented has shown just how unworkable the emerging land policy is likely to be.

- Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).

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