Farm Repossessions: Consolidating an Elitist Class Project in the Rural Areas?

By Stephen Greenberg · 29 Apr 2009

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Picture: Maureen Sill
Picture: Maureen Sill

On 8 April, Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Lulu Xingwana acted on her threat to reclaim redistribution farms that were not being used. In the fifth such repossession, the minister moved onto a Gauteng farm with a group of officials, reportedly telling a tenant: “Do you know who I am? I am the minister of land affairs and this is my house. Pack your bags and get out of my house right now.”

What are we to make of this rather aggressive assertion by the state of its rights to land previously transferred to citizens? The immediate implication is that all land purchased through the land redistribution programme remains the property of the state. It is transferred to beneficiaries for use, but not ownership. That is not what the land reform policy actually states. Nevertheless, it might shed light on one of the major points of contention between the Department of Land Affairs (DLA) and beneficiaries over the years - the failure to hand over title deeds. It has generally been believed that this failure is the result of bureaucracy and ineptitude on the part of officials. Without ruling these out, perhaps there is a deeper motive: government does not actually want to transfer ownership, but only use rights, of the land.

This may appear to be nationalisation of the land, but it is far from it. If government were to nationalise land and declare it a collective resource for all who live on it and work on it (following the Freedom Charter), that would eliminate the need for a huge layout of expenditure to purchase the land. But the government has instead elected to pay the prevailing market price for the land, and then retain ownership of it. This merely means the state is active in the land market as a buyer of private property. This is not new, either in South Africa or elsewhere. The difference from previous cases of state ownership is that the land is being handed over to the dispossessed to use, rather than remaining in state hands for use by government departments.

Article 186 of the Brazilian Constitution identifies a ‘social function’ of agricultural land as being met when “it is used in a manner that is (i) economically rational; (ii) adequate to the available natural resources and ensures preservation of the environment; (iii) in compliance with labour law, and (iv) favourable to the well-being of both owners and workers.” This clause is based on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle and sets out the conditions under which land should be used or forfeited. In the Brazilian case, private ownership and use of land is acceptable under certain stipulated conditions. Of course, translating that into reality requires a mobilised and active citizenry to enforce the Article. Outside of a sustained challenge to the power of private landowners, the latter will continue to do as they wish with and on the land.

In South Africa, the picture is messier. Land reform policy says the state will purchase land on behalf of beneficiaries and hand it to them for their use. The assumption underpinning this policy is that the use of land for private profit is a legitimate use of public resources. It is a conceptual weakness that lies at the heart of the land redistribution programme. Even the idea that the land can be taken back if it is not used in a way that government deems effective remains within this framework. All that is required is for the land to be used ‘productively’. At least some land redistribution beneficiaries appear to have bought into this notion that they are not owners of the land, but only using it by the grace of the state.

The notion that the state can and will repossess farms that are not being used in accordance with some unspecified productive use has deeper implications for land reform and the consolidation of an elite ‘class project’ in the rural areas.

First, the method employed by the minister and her officials was counter to the laws governing evictions. It is true that the government has never really put a stop to the evictions that were so prevalent under apartheid. In the cities, local governments are responsible for the forced relocation and evictions of tens of thousands every year as they try to clean up the cities and make them ‘globally competitive’. In the rural areas, a few weak pieces of legislation have not stemmed evictions. From 1994 to 2004, 2.35m people were displaced from farms in South Africa, of which close to a million were evicted. Only 1% of those evictions involved a legal process. Xingwana told journalists that the occupiers could take the matter to court if they felt it was an illegal eviction. The tenant happened to be white in this case. But the message the minister is sending to landowners is that it is acceptable to summarily evict unwanted tenants, and more power to the landowners if the tenants are poor and have no effective access to the justice system. That sends a worrying signal to landowners about the right to use their power to assert their property rights.

But the implications of Xingwana’s actions go deeper because they target the rural poor for another round of dispossession. Relative rural elites with enough resources and access to credit to farm will feel secure because they are able to use the land productively and for private gain. Those who will feel greater insecurity will be those who desperately need financial and technical support to farm, but who do not have the resources to acquire these. In the farm repossessed by the minister, the beneficiary, Veronica Moose, used her own pension payout from the Land Bank to tide her over when the department failed to act on a promise to provide infrastructure. She used money she would have used for operational capital to erect infrastructure, ran out of money and was forced to stop farming. The white tenant was hired by the beneficiary to act as security while she was not there.

In the absence of adequate support for newly settled farmers, a policy of repossession of land reform farms therefore strikes at poorer beneficiaries first. It reinforces the trend towards consolidating a rural elite that was started with the introduction of the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) programme under then minister Thoko Didiza in 2001. The transfer of control of land to the chiefs in communal areas through the Communal Land Rights Act is another aspect of the same tendency. The ‘populism’ of the Hanekom era, where land was provided to large groups of the poor, but without any plan for how the land was to be used are now being eliminated as the poor will be forced to give up redistribution farms. This will rectify the mistakes of that era, and consolidate ownership in the hands of elites. Despite the prevailing rhetoric of rural development for the poor, are we now entering a new wave of dispossession of the rural poor?

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

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