South Africa

Land Reform Uncertain in South Africa
land reform

SOUTH AFRICA: Land reform blocked

This guest article gives an interesting perspective on land reform, and asks a lot of the right questions. But why does it ignore the great potential of peaceful land reform via site value taxation, as has worked successfully in Taiwan and other areas that needed land reform?

by Andile Mngxitama
Land Rights Coordinator for the National Land Committee

JOHANNESBURG -- The Zimbabwean land crisis presents South African activists with an opportunity to honestly review their country's land reform program to date.

South Africa's post-apartheid land reform program was delivered to us by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The general prognosis is that our land reform is in a bad shape and the trends are worrying.

Any comparison between Zimbabwe and South Africa has to be sensitive to some fundamental differences. The Zimbabwean war of liberation (1965-1979) was inspired by the land question. The South African struggle was underlined by urban demands, mostly couched in terms of ``freedom''. But in both countries, the overwhelming majority are land hungry as a result of settler colonial conquest.

South Africa does not have liberation war veterans in the Zimbabwean sense, but it has a rural landless populace which is mobilised around the pace and direction of land reform. South Africa's land politics are also shaped by the white land-owners' class violence against farm workers and labour tenants.

Zimbabwe obtained its liberation via the Lancaster House agreement [negotiated between Britain and the liberation movement]. South Africa's democracy was ushered in through the historic compromises made between the former apartheid rulers and the African National Congress (ANC).

In both cases, the resolution of the land question was highly circumscribed. The former oppressors demanded guarantees that the land would not be arbitrarily taken [i.e., without permission of the land owner and without compensation based on market prices -- the so-called willing buyer, willing seller principle], in exchange for relinquishing political power. In both cases, they were granted their wishes.

Willing buyer, willing seller

Two main assumptions informed the representatives of the oppressed in the negotiations. First, that there would be enough funds to purchase land to satisfy the legitimate land hunger of the landless. Second, that those who held the land would willingly place land on the market for land reform as a sign of reconciliation.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know both assumptions were flawed. The clauses on land meant that it was going to be practically impossible to implement radical and widespread land redistribution.

The tasks of the South African democratic order were interpreted differently by the rural oppressed. For those who lived under conditions of semi-slavery on white-owned farms, democracy meant that their misery should end. For those who remember the pain and indignation of apartheid's forced removals, it meant redress for their ordeal.

In recognition of such expectations, the ANC's 1994 pre-election manifesto, the Reconstruction and Development Program, promised to redistribute 30% of agricultural land in its first five years in government. The reality is that less than 2% has been redistributed in that period, and even what has been is not prime agricultural land.

The South African land reform program has three legs: the restitution of land rights, land redistribution and recognition of tenure for farm dwellers.

Restitution seeks to address the legacy of forced removals after 1913 by returning the land to the communities dispossessed. In South Africa, land ownership remains much as it did in the final years of apartheid -- the white population (14% of the population) owns around 85%.

For the redistribution of land to the landless, the main leg of the land reform program, the state makes funds available to purchase land on the open market in line with the principle of ``willing buyer, willing seller''. Until now, the program has operated under the same conditions as the housing grant [favouring the those with low incomes].

There are proposals on the table to shift the focus of the program to make it an instrument for creating a black commercial farming class. The implications of the shift are dire as it is the poor that stand to lose in the change.

Tenure reform deals with land rights of people in communal areas, farm workers and labour tenants. [Labour tenants are impoverished communities which exchange their labour for the use of land on white-owned farms. In many cases the labour tenants have lived on the land in question all their lives, as did their ancestors for several generations and who are buried there. They know no other way of life and having been denied education opportunities by the apartheid regime, are unable to compete for work elsewhere.]

To date, legislation has been developed to deal with procedures for evictions of farm workers (the Extension of Security of Tenure Act) and for regulating relations between labour tenants and owners (the Labour Tenants Act). Unlike the ESTA, the LTA gives stronger land rights. The trouble with the LTA is that it is a too complicated and expensive as a mechanism.

Progress stalled

Under the land restitution program, of 63,455 claims lodged since 1994, only 4925 have been settled. The majority of settlements are cash payments, with just 162 involving restoration of land. Commentators estimate that it could take between 18 and 63 years to deal with claims load.

Some provinces have settled as few as two claims between 1994 and February. Some communities have not heard a word from the restitution commission since they lodged claims in 1994. Communities have written letters to the minister of land affairs and even the president with no success.

As if that is not enough, the Department of Land Affairs has introduced a policy of paying flat-rate compensation to urban claimants. This new approach is calculated to save the state money but will cost victims of apartheid's forced removals dearly. The flat rates paid to households of victims of forced removals range between R40,000 (former residents of Sophiatown near Johannesburg), to R3500 (the value of serviced site in the Karoo).

What is even more baffling, the government has not recommended that present land owners be compensated at a flat rate if their land is redistributed. This benefits those who were advantaged by apartheid yet again. For instance four farmers in North West Province will walk away with R15 million in compensation.

In terms of land redistribution, the minister placed a moratorium on the project six months ago. Some estimates indicate that at least R17 billion is needed (because of ``willing seller, willing buyer'') to satisfy South Africa's land hunger. The Department of Land Affairs has now jettisoned any pretensions that is will satisfy the land hunger of the poorest in favour of concentrating on creating a black commercial farming class.

In terms of labour tenants and farm workers, the available statistics show that only 17 land projects have been designated for labour tenants, and farm workers have got nothing! What complicates matters further is that farm owners are continuing to evict farm dwellers. The landless have not had access to legal aid because the Legal Aid Board is in financial crisis. This situation has left farm dwellers vulnerable to all sorts of human rights violations.

The picture is made even worse by the meagre resources made available for land reform. The total budget for land reform is less that 1% of the national budget and only a tiny fraction South Africa's 1.1 million civil servants are involved in implementing land reform.

Under these circumstances, it is very difficult not to conclude that the ANC government does not have the political will to deal effectively with the land question. South African land activists need to liberate the land reform program. Land reform has to be politically driven instead of being restricted by the current judicial approach.

What can be done?

What can be done to avoid a crisis and conflict-ridden land redistribution process?

First, white land holders will have to show that they are committed to reconciliation and change. They must recognise that the land they hold was taken from Africans by force.

In concrete terms, farmers and other land-owners could donate substantial pieces of land to landless people without expecting compensation. For this route to materialise, we need a renaissance of the mind of the white farmers. They need to accept that black farm dwellers are not part of their property, but people with a real need for land.

The other option is for the South African government to get rid of the ``willing buyer, willing seller'' policy. This may require amending the constitution, but the state will have to show that it is serious about land redistribution to the poor.

This option will require a political will to act in the interests of the poorest South Africans and to re-prioritise land reform. Clear time frames and the expected number of beneficiaries will have to be set. Such a new approach would recognise that land has many important meanings for African people which cannot be narrowed down to economics alone.


This report first appeared in an Australian periodical called Green Left Weekly and was distributed by the Grassroots Media Network.

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