Expect things to get worse before they get better

Feudal-style title hold, failed land-reform farms and meeting distribution targets are just a few of the headaches facing Gugile Nkwinti, the new Department of Land Reform and Rural Development head, writes Stephan Hofstätter.
Issue date : 19 June 2009

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Feudal-style title hold, failed land-reform farms and meeting distribution targets are just a few of the headaches facing Gugile Nkwinti, the new Department of Land Reform and Rural Development head, writes Stephan Hofstätter.

The Recently-appointed minister of the newly-created Department of Land Reform and Rural Development, Gugile Nkwinti, has been given a tall order. To tackle the intractable land issue he must succeed where all his predecessors failed, leaving a string of broken promises in their wake.

His first major challenge will be implementing the Communal Land Rights Act (CLaRA), which seeks to convert millions of hectares of communal land in former homelands to freehold title. This will unlock latent economic potential and secure land rights for women. Land-rights activists argue CLaRA represents an unworkable political compromise with unelected traditional leaders and concentrates too much power in their hands. The outcome of their court challenge is expected later this year, which means Nkwinti will no longer be able to duck the issue like his predecessors. He will either have to confront the chiefs head on, or risk consigning millions of rural South Africans to feudal subservience and a property-rights regime open to abuse and corruption.

Land redistribution
The restitution process, which allowed victims of apartheid’s forced removals to lay claim to ancestral land, faces several serious hiccups. The Land Claims Commission recently admitted that large numbers of farms under land claim would need to be delisted. It was discovered far more properties were gazetted than actually claimed. Organised agriculture believes thousands of farms will qualify for delisting, which could spark rural conflict and pose a major administrative headache.
Public interest law firm the Legal Resources Centre believes the commission must also fix colossal errors made during the claim-verification process, if it wants to settle thousands of outstanding rural claims without further unrest and economic collapse.
By confusing community and individual claims, the commission has encouraged thousands of descendants of victims of the original forced removals, who no longer have any direct interest in the case, to demand their share of a scarce land resource. This is causing massive conflict among communities, who often take out their frustrations on landowners.

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Sparks will also fly during policy debates on restrictions on foreign landownership: revisions of government’s willing-buyer, willing-seller policy; and whether market value should be the prime land-price determiner. Agri SA is already warning that it plans to haul government before the Southern African Development Tribunal to challenge below-market value offers for farms under claim, unless agreement is reached soon. Nkwinti also gets to carry the can for meeting impossible land-redistribution targets. By 1999, at least 30% of farmland owned by whites at the end of apartheid, or just over 25 million hectares, was to be redistributed to blacks. The date was later changed to 2014, but no one in government seriously believes Nkwinti will be able to meet this deadline, given that less than 6 million hectares were transferred in the last 15 years.

Last February his immediate predecessor, current arts and culture minister Lulama Xingwana, told parliament she would transfer 5 million hectares to farmworkers within a year. She managed less than a 10th of this. One cause is a lack of funds. Last year, lands officials estimated R74 billion extra was needed to achieve targets, trebling previous estimates. Treasury offered just R20,3 billion over the next three years, warning sustainability must not be sacrificed for accelerated delivery.
But, failures go far deeper than the slow pace of reforms. ANC voters were promised that reversing the impact of apartheid’s racist restrictions on landownership would bring prosperity. But, bungled reforms have cost taxpayers R23 billion to date, including over R17 billion on restitution claims alone, which have made little difference to rural livelihoods or economic development.

Available evidence shows they often made matters worse by discouraging rural investment and causing scores of commercial enterprises to fold, each employing hundreds of workers. A recent study revealed over 50% of land reform farms have failed, with anecdotal evidence suggesting the figure is much higher. This has depressed rural economies and turned South Africa into a nett food importer for the first time in decades.

Xingwana’s response was her controversial “use it or lose it” campaign, which has resulted in several black farmers who leased land from government being evicted after being accused of failing to farm productively. Most insist promised support, as well as lease agreements needed to secure production credit, failed to materialise. One, Veronica Moos of Bapsfontein, successfully challenged her eviction in court.
Nkwinti’s less confrontational approach as land and agriculture MEC in the Eastern Cape is likely to prove more productive than Xingwana’s. He also has a good working relationship with land reform director-general Thozi Gwanya.

Farmers can also expect Nkwinti to be less combative than Xingwana on issues such as expropriation, in line with a softer stance towards commercial farmers displayed by President Jacob Zuma and ANC Treasurer Mathews Phosa. Xingwana threatened to force farmers to sell to government if negotiations deadlocked for longer than six months. It remains to be seen if Nkwinti has the force of personality and energy needed to handle this volatile, demanding sector. He has a reputation as one of the cleanest politicians in the Eastern Cape, which says something. But a question mark hangs over whether he has the drive and dynamism to get things done. Stephan Hofstätter is contributing editor. To contact him for feedback, e-mail [email protected]     |fw