What Do We Really Want Out of Land Reform?

By Glenn Ashton · 4 Sep 2013

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti and President Jacob Zuma officially open the exhibition titled Reversing the Legacy of the Natives
Picture: Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti and President Jacob Zuma officially open the exhibition titled Reversing the Legacy of the Natives' Land Act of 1913 at Cape Town International Convention Centre coutesy GovernmentZA/Flickr.

Land reform in South Africa has proceeded at a glacial pace, repeatedly breaking government deadlines and promises to fix historical dispossession wrought by the notorious Land Act. Land reform has revolved around the twin axes of restitution and redistribution; while the majority of cases lodged around restitution have been settled, redistribution and fundamental land reform has largely failed to occur. As legal commentator Pierre De Vos recently said, we cannot wait another generation to address this shortcoming.

The Freedom Charter clearly stated that the land belonged to all and that it would be used to overcome famine and hunger. While the land issue is spoken to in the National Development Plan (NDP), which presently appears to be the overarching national policy document, the answers it provides to address the land question remain unanswered.

The NDP echoes the Freedom Charter’s intentions to de-racialise land holdings and support food security, acknowledging that less than 5% of land has been redistributed since 1994. The failure to redistribute 30% of land in five years following our democratic transition illustrates how business as usual dominated both our economic and political discourse. Recent overtures to purchase an upmarket game farm for nearly a billion Rands illustrates how deeply we have lost the plot.

The questions that have neither been properly asked, nor answered, is what exactly do we want from our land reform process, how do we get there and what should the nation look like when it is complete? Legal analysts like Matthew Chaskalson believe the state’s perception that land reform must follow the willing buyer, willing seller model is flawed. The constitution allows for expropriation and the Property Valuations Bill and Expropriations Bill may help the state initiate creative litigation around land reform.

And how, for instance, do we approach the landholdings of the minority of massive, industrial farmers? Their numbers have fallen as farm sizes have increased, creating a de facto concentration of land amongst white grain farmers. This sector has tracked international practice, where high input costs, coupled to low margin returns have seen increased consolidation here, in the USA, Argentina and Brazil.

These substantial, industrialised operations use high cost inputs such as GM seed, artificial fertilisers, chemical pesticides and gargantuan machines, reliant on economy of scale. Some are privately owned but most are controlled through holding companies. So how on earth do we reform this sector?

There are limited choices in doing so. First we can leave things as they are, run on a commercial model, working in lockstep with the dominant financial system; branks, insurance broker and grain traders. Even following this route black ownership can increase, as sufficient numbers of black farmers, willing to heavily indebt themselves, step in to run what are essentially large corporate holdings. Given the record of the state to date, they can expect limited financial or technical support.

If this is unacceptable perhaps we could reform our entire agricultural system into a centralised model where land is collectively owned and operated through state management, in much the same way that the Russian system still works. However the reality is that Russia remains an extremely inefficient agricultural producer, primarily because of the dated and incentive-sapping collectivist system.

What is notable is that nearly quarter of Russian agricultural value emanated from around 3% of land farmed as “private plots” during the 1980s. Now 93% of Russian potatoes and 80% of vegetables originate from these 2 hectare plots. So perhaps a radical shift to collective farming would appear to not be a good idea, but a partial shift may. After all, most of us live in the city yet require good food.

A middle line would be to follow the lead of Brazil and more specifically the route taken by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), the movement of landless workers. This group has had on-off alliances with the goverments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, yet remains largely marginalised through pressure from large landowners and commercial agriculture. It has, through land invasions and reform, resettled over 400 000 farmers onto primarily productive smallholdings. These are now amongst the most productive farms in Brazil when considered against size, value and employment levels, echoing the Russian experience.

Scholar Gillian Hart recently wrote how post-apartheid reform was not stymied as much by neo-liberalism as by the decline and rise of nationalisms; first the de-nationalism during the decline of Afrikaaner nationalism, and now the re-nationalism of the liberation movement. This theoretical blueprint arises from the observations of Gramsci regarding the rise of fascism in the Italian state, in what he saw as a “passive revolution” imposed from above. This has direct parallels to our situation in that the actual revolution has not come to pass, it is just repeatedly ventilated by the ruling class.

Perhaps a lesson to draw from this is that a shift toward meaningful land reform policy in South Africa requires the emergence of a strong, informed landless people’s movement. It would be helpful for the state to cease its oppression of our equivalents of the MST such as the local chapter of the Landless Workers Movement and Abahlali baseMjondolo so they can articulate and agitate for the requirements of long overdue land reform.

The role of the state needs to shift from oppression in the name of economic stability to one of change management. There will be tensions, as in Brazil, but this is the nature of change. Nowhere in the world has hegemonic land ownership willingly yielded to structural changes.

Further, instead of reforming our capital intensive industrial farming heartland in huge leaps and bounds, we require incremental shifts.

For a start we need to support small farmers, not through tokenism, or ill-considered Comprehenisve Agricultural Reform Programmes (CASP) which have demonstrably failed, as have corporate ideologically driven Massive food production programmes. Instead we need to consider initiating reform programmes that are iterative and which respond to needs and requirements of real time agricultural demand.

We can at least start to occupy that space that Russian and Brazilian small farmers have so successfully filled in providing good quality and high value produce, to where it is required. The NDP 2030 suggests as much yet fails to realistically consider its implementation. We have to keep our land productive while avoiding the systemic shocks of Zimbabwean styled land grabs. The realistic option is for the state to legislate and litigate creatively in order to manage an incremental reform process. The time for change has come.

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.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/1772.

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


5 Sep


Hi Glen,

Thanks for a useful article. The MST is the most important soical movement on the planet.

I've never heard of there being a branch of it ( the 'local chapter of the Landless Workers Movement') here and couldn't find anything online. If this correct it sounds exciting. Can you give us some more detail?

Respond to this comment

Glenn Ashton Verified user
6 Sep


I agree on the importance of these movements: they are the Via Campesina/ MST/ Zapatistas of our local political landscape, yet remain far more disempowered and oppressed in many cases.




11 Sep

AbM, LPM and SDI

Hi Glen,

There are very different kinds of organisations. The first two are grassroots organisations. The third is an international NGO supported by the World Bank, the Gates Foundation and the South African state.

See the paper by Podlushuc at: http://antieviction.org.za/2013/05/13/the-south-african-homeless-peoples-federation-interrogating-the-myth-of-participation-by-leopold-podlashuc/

Rory Verified user
6 Sep

Agriculture and Land, the Reform

Food security is the natural product of healthy agricultural practices. Healthy agricultural practices are agricultural practices that are predicated on a recognition that agriculture is not an industrial activity but rather a living relationship between the farmer and the Eco-system. Land reform which just aims to change the racial balance in the composition of the farming community otherwise leaving business to continue as usual is absolutely insufficient for our needs as a country.

Respond to this comment