Land reform without end

A striking fact about the leaked rural development and land reform Green Paper is the absence of any redistribution targets for white-owned land.

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According to ministerial spokesperson Mtobeli Mxotwa, the target of redistributing 30% of white-owned agricultural land by 2014 set up after the 2005 Land Summit has not been replaced by a revision of the terms, but by an idea – the complete de-racialisation of the rural economy. “In the past we made the mistake of chasing hectares,” said Mxotwa. “Now we’ve had to abandon the 30% target due to financial constraints and are focusing on assisting farmers on failed farms.”

As to why the target would not be met, the department blamed the willing buyer/willing seller model, claiming land prices had been artificially inflated, and said the programme, which would cost more than R80 billion to complete, was unaffordable anyway.But a number of commentators, including the University of Pretoria’s Prof Johann Kirsten, have long held that it’s the state’s failure to account for all its assets, and not the costs of redistribution, which make chasing the 30% target a ridiculous aspiration.

This year the department received a qualified report from the auditor-general because it failed to account for its tangible capital assets. The 2008/09 report was qualified for the same reasons, and as a result National Treasury approved the National Vesting Master Plan. This identified milestones the department was required to achieve to ensure that all unsurveyed state land is surveyed by March 2012, and vested by March 2014.

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The milestones set for 2010 weren’t achieved. According to Mxotwa, the problem of the asset register is a historical one. “Since 1652, there’s been no register,” he explained. One will only be established by the land commission mooted in the leaked Green Paper. “The commission will oblige people to register all land, and after this, it is possible we will no longer be qualified by the auditor-general,” he said.

Agricultural unions have pointed out before, that blindly chasing redistribution quotas puts South Africa’s food security at risk and impoverishes beneficiaries. These points were reiterated during the South African Institute of Race Relations’ recent annual review of the state of South Africa, where CEO John Kane-Berman suggested that for the country to progress, land reform needs to focus on farmers and farming, and not just on meeting quotas.

However, in absence of a definite quota and an accurate asset register against which progress in redistribution can be judged, and given the radical proposals in the leaked Green Paper and the department’s new rhetoric of de-racialising the rural economy, it seems that, when it comes to land reform, there’s simply no end in sight. “Land reform without end – now that’s a truly terrifying prospect,” said Kane-Berman.