Land Reform in South Africa: An Unfulfilled Obligation

By Glenn Ashton · 1 Nov 2012

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Picture: Kalense Kid/Flickr
Picture: Kalense Kid/Flickr

The question of land and agricultural reform in South Africa remains largely unresolved as we head towards the end of our second decade of democracy. It is remarkable that a democratically elected government, enjoying such an overwhelming parliamentary majority and popular support, has failed so spectacularly, in such an important area of governance, for so long.

It is equally remarkable that the government is still, this late in the day, touting concepts as vague as the five-step programme on land reform recently outlined by President Zuma. Something certainly has to be said about this hot button issue. What with leadership under review, even vapid brainstorms may be interpreted as leadership!

The fact is that land reform, tenure and security has not yet been tackled sufficiently robustly by the democratic government. The early iterations of the land reform process bumbled along with good intentions but with little impact.

The new post 1994 political leadership appeared unable or unwilling to grasp obvious solutions like tapping into the vast collection of state owned land as a starting point. A major roadblock was that the dysfunctional Department of Public Works was unable to quantify state land ownership. This problem remains unresolved. A separate national audit of all private land ownership, meant to be completed in 2010 also awaits completion. No wonder land reform remains so fraught.

We are now in the anomalous position of decreasing numbers of white commercial farmers owning increasingly large farms. This has occurred through the government continuing to support an industrial farming model dependent on high input, energy intensive farming using genetically modified seed. This is the antithesis of farming practice required for land and agrarian reform. Land reform and agricultural practices are inextricably connected if transformation is to succeed.

A global consensus has emerged amongst ideologically disparate organisations like the World Bank, the UN Global Environment Facility and various other UN bodies that diversified, smallholder led, sustainable farming practices are required to feed a growing global population in the face of climatic and economic uncertainty.

The failure to achieve land and agricultural reform has negatively impacted food security. National levels of mal- and under nutrition remain a disgrace in a food exporting nation like South Africa. Land reform, food security, market reform and access to a balanced diet are each distinct aspects of the same problem, none of which have been adequately addressed, let alone resolved.

While the government has made the right noises about land reform during the previous 18 years, little more has been achieved than placating investors while alienating the political support base. The land reform programme started by the 1994 Restitution of Land Rights Act has largely failed key constituencies such as women and marginalised communities who voted the ANC into power.

A green paper on land reform took six years to compile. When it was released in 2011, it said nothing new and was arguably counter-productive. Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti has attempted to fix a broken system but clearly lacks an over-arching vision. There is little work being done on the Land Tenure Security Bill. The Communal Land Resources Act of 2004 was declared unconstitutional in 2010, in a judgement, which turned on technical details yet left the substantiative problems related to communal land ownership unaddressed.

The Extension of Security of Tenure Act, meant to protect vulnerable farm workers and dwellers, has not been adequately enforced. So land tenure and security, both within traditional structures and on conventional farms, remain unresolved.

Agricultural extension and support programmes such as the Comprehensive Agricultural Support Programme (CASP), Micro Agricultural Financial Institutions of South Africa (MAFISA) and the Land Care Foundation have been criticised by both parliamentary committees and by farmers. The present Minister of Agriculture is clearly out of her depth and would not be there except for her obsequious support for the President. Previous Ministers have fared little better.

Neither have supposedly neutral arbiters been much help. Recent proclamations by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) assumed a particularly tactless stance by claiming “populist” calls for land reform, particularly for agricultural land, were misplaced. The IRR opined that these calls were unrealistic, suggesting that people rather aspired toward middle class, urban lifestyles than toward a return to unglamorous, agrarian roots. While increased urbanisation and the middle class dream may be relevant, this is only one facet of a complex land debate.

Despite a promise to transfer 30% of agricultural land by 2014, only 8% has been transferred to date. Even this is problematic as extension services to newly settled farmers are inadequate and failure rates of new land claimants are high. State extension services can cost more than R40 000 per visit. Smallholder farmers are seldom assisted and extension quality is rated below par.

On the other hand NGO’s and private entities are providing extension services at a fraction of this cost. In KwaZulu Natal a full time extension officer provides support at less than R40 000, to extended communities, per month. There are clearly ways to fix the problems of agrarian reform, more efficiently, flexibly and productively than is presently being done.

Land reform is an undeniably political process. Yet the piecemeal, fragmented and un-coordinated solutions of land and agricultural reform have signally failed to achieve the desired results. The recently released New Growth Plan recognises the importance of the agricultural economy, yet its proposals echo the ASGISA programme, which failed to achieve any significant progress. It is fine and well for the New Growth Plan to propose creation of a million farming jobs by 2030 but how realistic is this given prior delivery experience?

The string of examples cited highlight an overriding reality: That we have attempted to fix a broken system of land and agricultural reform without a suitable overarching vision or template. We have never achieved anything approaching a national consensus on how we should achieve what is clearly urgently required.

It seems obvious that a national summit on land reform should be held. Practical and academic studies and models must be presented, discussed, and a focussed, overarching policy hammered out. The CODESA template would provide a suitable way forward. It may be an expensive exercise but the alternative is to continue to waste billions of Rands, attempting to fix a broken system with broken tools. Some degree of constitutional and legal reform may be required to solve land and agrarian issues, but broad consensus must be gained and then acted upon.

The reality is that the world is rapidly changing. South African agricultural policy has failed to reflect this. Industrial agriculture remains the dominant voice, echoing the past but devoid of a suitable vision for the future. While the old agricultural extension model may have worked in the past, it is increasingly irrelevant.

Extension to large commercial farmers is provided by seed and chemical companies while small and emerging farmers are left in the cold by extension officers incapable of helping them because of poor foundations - agricultural colleges perpetuate outdated practices. Small and emerging farmers need constant, innovative and hands on assistance, not a visit every year or two by extension officers trained in irrelevant methodology.

There are numerous experts with excellent proposals to achieve the required changes. The Programme for Land and Agrarian Reform (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape has studied many of these and proposed numerous solutions to various aspects of these systemic problems. The Sustainability Institute at the University of Stellenbosch has implemented several courses examining food production systems at Masters and higher levels.

There are numerous small scale NGO-run schemes, which can be scaled up, just as there are indeed some successful programmes initiated by the government, which can be replicated. Equally, we can learn as much from our failures as from our successes. We should also take some lessons from land reform programmes in South America and elsewhere in Africa.

A broad body of relevant international experience exists, including agricultural programmes devised to withstand the impacts of climate change and water constraints. These are particularly suited to smallholder and emerging farmers. The UN FAO runs regular international dialogues on food security from which our policy makers are notably absent. Most of our systemic shortcomings can be addressed.

We also need to reduce staff turnover with every change of political administration, especially in portfolios like agriculture where institutional memory is so important.

The solutions for land reform are certainly more complex than those related to agricultural solutions, because of the political baggage. However land reform can never succeed if there is not an over-arching model to enable the productive use and resettlement of the land.

It is fruitless to hand over huge parcels of land to new, emerging farmers with inadequate capital resources and no means to leverage land for capital collateral. Most of the land presently being transferred to new owners is not even transferred, but leased, almost setting the system up for failure.

We urgently need to move away from the failed dialogue of the deaf between government and commercial farmers. We need wider expertise, broader buy-in and the involvement of grass roots farmers if this system is to succeed. All of the interests and experts in this field must co-operate to solve this problem for once and for all.

Or we can just muddle along, floating woolly concepts until the fuse for the powder keg is lit by circumstance or a Malema clone, placing expediency above the collective interest.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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