OPINION | Terrence Corrigan: What does the handover of Tafelkop title deeds mean?

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The 30 farmers who now have title deeds to their farms. (GCIS)
The 30 farmers who now have title deeds to their farms. (GCIS)

Terence Corrigan asks that, following the handover of title deeds to farms at Tafelkop in Limpopo, has government warmed to private ownership of land?

Public works minister Patricia de Lille exudes enthusiasm in her reflections on the handover of title deeds to the farming community at Tafelkop. ('Tafelkop farmers’ title deeds: an example of transparent land redistribution', 29 May) 

For the minister, the title deeds signify ownership and dignity. "It brought me great joy and a great sense of relief when we finally received the title deeds and handed them over to the farmers," she writes. She describes the pride and emotion that permeated the ceremony.

For President Cyril Ramaphosa, she remarked, this was "the best day in the office".

These are laudable sentiments, and it is encouraging that the minister (and the president) is expressing them. 

But the policy regarding land redistribution - that is, land made available to people and communities based on need, rather than based on a historical claim - at present, rejects and rebukes the minister's position.

State Land Lease and Disposal Policy

The State Land Lease and Disposal Policy sets out that land would be passed on to beneficiaries to use, but not to own. The option to purchase would arise only after some 50 years of having worked it to the approval of state officials (who might themselves have scant knowledge of farming). Such an option would also only be offered to those operating on a substantial commercial scale.

While this period has reportedly been shortened (without much publicity), the basic tenets of this scheme - the primacy of state ownership - appears as entrenched as ever.

In contrast to the enthusiastic handover of title to the Tafelkop community, much publicity was given over the past few years to the case of David Rakgase. Rakgase had also demonstrated a formidable degree of patience in trying to purchase the land he was working - an odyssey that seems to have exceeded in some respects that of his peers in Tafelkop.

After agreeing to sell him the land, the state changed its mind. His property was subjected to a land invasion, and he was unable to have the unwelcome residents evicted, as he lacked standing in the matter. When he turned to the courts in desperation, the government opposed him.

In contrast to the celebration of title deeds on display at Tafelkop, the government's papers in the Rakgase matter stated coldly that policy proceeded from the "principle that black farming households and communities may obtain 30-year leases, renewable for a further 20 years, before the state will consider transferring ownership to them". Rakgase finally owns the land after successfully suing government.

READ | 'I didn't even dream of this day' - Limpopo farmer, 80, finally gets land the govt promised him

Since both Minister De Lille and President Ramaphosa have made an explicit connection between the handover of title deeds to the Tafelkop community and the broader "land reform" drive - the amendment to the Constitution and the Expropriation Bill - it is also worth noting the position of the former Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform. Speaking for the ANC at the Parliamentary debate in early 2018 on whether a constitutional amendment was necessary, he made it very clear that title deeds were not on the agenda. 

Is this a change in approach?

The question is whether Tafelkop means a change in approach, or was it a once-off media extravaganza?

If indeed the government has warmed to the idea of private ownership, it needs to say so, and at the very least start mapping out paths to achieve this.

Certainly, titling comes with risks, and these need to be anticipated - but, frankly, the chances of trusting landholdings to the unsteady and often unscrupulous hands of the state are far more pronounced.

This leads to developments in the committee working on the amendment of Section 25. The ANC's proposal now is that the amendment should require legislation to introduce state custodianship of land. This has long been mooted as the endpoint of the "land reform" drive - including by an official on no less a platform than the World Economic Forum.

Understand clearly what this would mean: private property rights in the land would effectively cease to exist. With no small measure of irony, the circumstances of communities like Tafelkop would revert to the status quo they have just emerged from to the cheers and congratulations of the minister and the president.

One wonders whether President Ramaphosa would then see that as the "worst day in the office..."

If, however, the Tafelkop community is to mean something profound, and if the minister's and the president's sentiments were sincere, then withdrawing the party's custodianship proposals would be an excellent way to demonstrate it.

- Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.


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