Land Affairs: its own worst enemy

According to Dr Theo de Jager, chairperson of Agri SA’s Land Affairs Committee, the Department of Land Affairs has stalled its own efforts at land reform, and the process has brought nothing but frustration to organised agriculture.
Issue date 31 August 2007

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The Department of Land Affairs is its own worst enemy as it struggles to meet its own land restitution and redistribution targets and deadlines. Poor management, poor communication, desperate skills shortages and lack of capacity cripple land reform initiatives, leaving behind failed projects and dilapidated farms. Amidst threats of state intervention in the land market, of expropriation, of abandonment of the willing seller principle and forcible implementation of a right of first refusal for the state, officials at grassroots level are falling further behind on routine tasks. The Land Claims Commissions in the northern provinces still haven’t processed most of the claims submitted before 1999, and despite assurances to the contrary, there’s no way all outstanding claims can be finalised before the March 2008 deadline. The uncertainty created by gazetting, which has crippled the agricultural sector in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Natal, won’t be resolved for years. Some visionary managers on a national level have diagnosed the problem, and designed imaginative solutions such as the pro-active land acquisition strategy (PLAS) and the privatisation of delivery mechanisms, to break the deadlock in areas such as Mooketsi where conflict between claimants has frozen reform for six years. Yet regional managers are stuck in a mindset of self-enrichment and boer-bashing.

The Limpopo Land Claims Commission refuses to apply PLAS, even though the Premier admits at least 88% of the province’s farms are caught up in restitution claims. The redistribution process can’t get underway until all claims are settled. Government can’t risk buying farms for redistribution only to discover they’d already been claimed, and have to be bought again. Despite promises, no complete list of land claims has been made available to organised agriculture. Landowners suspect the list is growing daily. In August 2006 the Land Claims Commission denied willing sellers the right to appoint their own transfer attorneys. Since then hundreds of farmers, who were willing sellers before, have decided to sell their farms in the redistribution programme instead. Government-appointed attorneys are as a rule inaccessible, incapable and take months to get the transfers done. They’re committed to the government’s interests, not the sellers’. F armers talk amongst themselves. When potential willing sellers hear about landowners who accept the commission’s offers and never hear from them again, many reconsider, preferring to challenge the validity of the claims rather than fall victim to the commission’s ineptitude. The Boschhoek claim in has dragged on for over five years, with no feedback or progress whatsoever. Officials didn’t even bother to honour a confirmed appointment with landowners and claimants.

Officials are useless because of a total lack of discipline and management. The regional commissioners seem so busy arranging government contracts for their friends and promoting their political agendas they can’t find time to do their jobs. It’s not only farmers who hold this opinion – several judges in the land claims court have made damning findings about their capabilities. In the Hlaneki case in Limpopo, Judge Justice Moloto called the commissioner “arrogant and high-handed”, and in the Daisy Kopje case in Mpumalanga Judge Antonie Gildenhuys proposed that the court take over some of the commission’s functions, to relieve traumatised landowners from the commissioners’ incompetence. This is why official liaison between the provincial commissioners and organised agriculture is close to nonexistent. Organised agriculture sees President Mbeki once every three months, but has only seen the chief land claims commissioner Thozi Gwanya once in the last three years. It has been four years since he and Agri SA agreed on a memorandum of understanding, but he has yet to sign it. Neither has he signed a similar memorandum with TAU SA.

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Things are no better in the redistribution programme. In Limpopo only the 12% of land without claims on it can be considered for purchase under LRAD or PLAS. Hundreds of claims have been dismissed as frivolous and vexatious, but the commission isn’t prepared to release that list. Senior officials don’t even know about programmes such as PLAS. Only last month Limpopo land affairs official Shandukhane Kenane declared to the media that the programme doesn’t exist there. Farmers who offered their land for reform in January 2007 had withdrawn it again by the end of May, because they hadn’t been able to get a response in five months. Meanwhile, to speed up land reform, the minister is threatening to risk the international investment mood. It’s a misplaced effort – with the current corps of officials, land reform will get nowhere. |fw