Crisis In Land Reform: The Way Out Is Not Complicated

By Stephen Greenberg · 11 Mar 2009

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Picture credit: DanieVDM
Picture credit: DanieVDM

One thing that almost everyone across the political spectrum can agree on is that land reform in South Africa is in crisis. The pace of transfer is consistently slower than planned for, and much redistributed land is not being used productively. Government policies favour land redistribution, but land use models are not so clearly defined. In the absence of creative thinking about how land can be used, government has defaulted to a position that commercial agriculture is the only viable use for rural land.


First things first, a fundamental redistribution of the land to those who were dispossessed under colonialism and apartheid must be defended. The African rural population, rightly, has not lost their sense that the land is rightfully theirs to use and live on. The African tradition was never to deny newcomers access to land. But whites, who in many situations were graciously permitted to cohabit on the land, took advantage of these open traditions to gradually assert their exclusive, private ownership of the land. They took the land through a combination of force, stealth and law, and their assertion of exclusive ownership is illegitimate. Land reform, first and foremost, is about redressing this historical injustice.


The division of the land reform programme into restitution and redistribution components has created a conceptual split between redress of past injustice (restitution) and economic equity (redistribution). This is an artificial divide: restitution responds to clear cut cases of unjust dispossession. But redistribution has an important component of redress to it - after all, for centuries the land belonged to, and its use was managed by, the indigenous people of Africa. Likewise, productive use of the land is a legitimate element of policy for both restitution and redistribution.


Land and Agriculture Minister Lulu Xingwana recently warned beneficiaries of land redistribution that government would take back farms not being used productively. Two questions arise: first, what is the model of a ‘productive’ farm that the Minister (or her Ministry as a whole) has in mind? Second, what is the government’s role in ensuring that land is used productively after redistribution?


The emphasis in government is on land transfer and meeting quantitative targets. Targets of hectares delivered are the Holy Grail in the work plans of Department of Land Affairs (DLA) and Land Claims Commission (LCC) staff. A former Deputy Director in the Limpopo Regional LCC says: “Our work plan is to settle more than 400 claims in Limpopo in one year, but the LCC has never settled more than 100 in a year. The targets are entirely unrealistic”. The result is that project officers take short cuts to meet the targets. Separate claims are merged to speed up settlement with little regard for the long-term consequences. Restitution should be a nuanced process, but pre-settlement is increasingly crude and formulaic. The same can be said for redistribution projects.


This approach might realise short-term gains in increasing the number of beneficiaries and hectares. But it creates major problems once land use planning has to happen. The old story of consultants being brought in to develop unsustainable Rolls Royce business plans, getting their fee and then moving on to the next contract is well known. It reveals a stark lack of capacity inside the DLA and LCC, which undermines efforts at realising the goals of land reform. Staff are mostly young and lack experience. In and of itself this is not a problem. But without strategic guidance and a systematic mentoring programme, they are like rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming car: they freeze in the face of an overwhelming challenge. Greater leadership, stability and experience are required at higher levels. Without this, harnessing and building passion and commitment in the public sector to make land reform really work is impossible. Instead, staff are directionless, turnover is extremely high and vacancies persist. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The ANC has a political tendency to centralise. The logic behind this is understandable: a strong centre can provide strategic direction and drive a progressive agenda in the face of local obstacles. However, policies have centralised a lot of functions in government that it neither has the technical capacity nor the experience to carry out. Recognition of this in some quarters unfortunately has led government to veer to the opposite extreme, relinquishing its responsibilities altogether. DLA’s release of terms of reference for accreditation of strategic partnerships is a case in point. Here the DLA aims to outsource identification and selection of beneficiaries; land identification; planning and acquisition of land; development of land; and provision of all support services. The only entities large enough to provide this package in numerous sites are agribusinesses.


Progressive civil society organisations are marginalised in the process. It remains to be seen if the ANC under new leadership will make good on its promises to work more closely with civil society. This is necessary, because no institution on its own has all the answers to the dilemmas of land reform and sustainable land use in South Africa. Government has policies and resources, but not the technical expertise or experience. The private sector has some technical expertise, but this is shot through with self-interest and the desire to make a fast buck - a characteristic of capitalism in South Africa. Mainstream expertise is also built on a model of commercial agriculture that privileges economics and that is socially and ecologically unsound.


Non-government organisations (NGOs) have links to communities but have very limited resources and often limited strategic direction. They tend to be localised and reactive to immediate crises. This responsiveness is necessary, but not enough on its own. Community-based organisations are like the NGOs but organisationally and strategically weaker in most cases.


There is a need to draw on the strengths of each of these, to form coalitions that can draw on government resources and strategic possibilities; adapt the technical knowledge of the private sector while injecting it with a collective ethos, using and transferring technical know-how as a tool to realise a transformative agenda rather than as the primary driver of rural change; and draw on the rootedness, responsiveness, collective culture and activist spirit of NGOs and CBOs.


If a major issue is lack of skills and capacity, the obvious response is education and training at all levels. If you want to create a new generation of farmers, with skills sets appropriate to the challenges of the time, that training should be freely available for all who want it. Adding course components on environment and social rights would enhance standard technical agricultural training courses and lead production in the direction of true sustainability. DLA and LCC staff, many of whom want to make a difference but don’t know where to begin, should be encouraged to take up the opportunity for training. Within five years the country would start reaping the benefits. This should be compared to the existing system of pumping millions into farms without the appropriate capacity to use those resources effectively.


The kind of production system that emerges on land reform farms need not be focused single-mindedly on large-scale, capital intensive commercial production. South Africa has been nationally food secure under this model for decades, but that has not prevented millions in the country from going hungry daily. Gearing production on land reform farms towards local markets rather than export markets or cities can contribute to local food security. Over time, those who are producing consistent surpluses can be supported to expand their production further. But start locally and at the appropriate scale with the possibility of growing over time. 


It’s time to return to the basics: draw on anybody who is willing to contribute to a collective process; to build skills, provide training and opportunities for practice; start small and grow. Sticking to these basics can lead us out of the crisis.

Stephen Greenberg is a freelance researcher with an interest in food systems, land, agriculture and rural development.

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