Tozi Gwanya:Farming’s fate in his hands

Tozi Gwanya was appointed director general of Land Affairs last month. The position carries considerable weight. The fate of all SA’s land programmes, including privatising communal land, finalising land claims, transferring a third of white-owned farms to blacks and implementing tenure security laws for farmworkers, lies in his hands. Stephan Hofstätter reveals the man behind the public face of SA’s top land bureaucrat.

Issue date: 16 May 2008

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Tozi Gwanya, South Africa’s newly appointed director general of Land Affairs, is a man of many faces.

There’s Gwanya the workaholic, with prodigious energy, who holds meetings at 5am, doesn’t think twice about continuing work-related discussions at his office until 8pm or sitting up until midnight drafting reports or responding to queries.

Then there’s Gwanya the affable, likable, thinking, feeling government functionary given to hugs, handshakes and backslapping. Talk to him about his favourite subjects – land dispossession, his desire to revive a thriving class of black smallholder and commercial farmers destroyed by apartheid policies, his wish to partner with white farmers to set things right – and he becomes consumed with almost messianic enthusiasm. Gwanya can stand back and consider a question rationally, objectively, or from an opposed point of view.

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He even cracks subtle jokes about the foibles of his political bosses, usually with barely noticeable ironic interjections. On the other hand, as chief land claims commissioner, Gwanya can be roused quickly to often-irrational anger – be it at NGOs he feels are unfairly critical, or farmers he accuses of holding up land restitution by demanding unreasonable prices. This is the man who announced without warning last year that large-scale expropriation of properties belonging to farmers unwilling to sell to the government was about to begin. Some say this Gwanya is also a scheming political animal who meticulously plotted his rise, carefully choosing his enemies, allies and public utterances for maximum effect.

The man
Gwanya and his 11 siblings grew up on a farm 40km from Mthathta in the former Transkei. His family grew vegetables on a 5ha stand and ran 200 cattle on a nearby commonage.

Gwanya’s father was an Anglican priest, and Gwanya himself later became a sub-deacon in the church. In the mid 1970s his village, Upper Xongora, became embroiled in a bitter struggle for survival. The village was seen to be aligned with the ANC and opposed to Transkei dictator Kaiser Matanzima. When Matanzima wanted to turn the Transkei into an independent homeland with the backing of the apartheid government, Gwanya’s father, together with 28 village rebels vocally opposed to independence, was jailed for two years. “They said he was a communist, but his politics had to do with real issues of the land, and how you lived off it,” says Gwanya.

Under the guise of the so-called betterment scheme, the family lost most of their land and livestock. “The land was taken from our chief and given to a compliant chief,” says Gwanya. His family plot was subdivided among eight households, their livestock reduced from 200 to 10. “I really felt the pain of the cattle reduction and loss of land. It was dispossession.”

These experiences shaped his political thinking. While at school he joined a political movement aligned to the ANC. Like his father he soon became a ringleader, and attracted the attention of the security forces. “would be taken for interrogation in the morning and released in the afternoon. That was my life,” he recalls. After completing a B.Com at the University of Transkei he started working for the Africa Cooperative Action Trust (ACAT),Christian development agency linked to regional NGO networks and the SA Council of Churches, which promoted the use of agriculture to alleviate poverty. Gwanya majored in development economics and business management and holds a postgraduate diploma in human resource management, from Leicester University in the UK.

He quickly rose through the ranks. In 1989 he became deputy director at the Bureau of Development and Training at the University of Transkei. Five years later he was appointed director of ACAT and in 1999 the NGOs nominated him for Eastern Cape land claims commissioner. Four years later he became chief commissioner in Pretoria, in charge of SA’s restitution programme. Within five years, despite previously protesting the job would ruin his career, he was appointed director general by President Thabo Mbeki.

The future of SA’s land reform now lies in his hands. Does Gwanya have friends in high places? “No, not really. It comes down to my work ethic. Wherever I work I make a difference,” he insists. “When I joined the commission I pushed really hard. You can look at the progress I made in the claims in the Eastern Cape.” Gwanya’s career hasn’t been without controversy. Critics describe him as a centralising bureaucrat with a love for red tape, or say he ruthlessly removed opponents he perceived as threats to his advancement, with his latest victim being Limpopo land claims commissioner Mashile Mokono, who has been suspended pending the outcome of a fraud case against him.

Gwanya rejects these claims. “The National Prosecuting Authority produced a charge sheet against Mashile. If it was me I would have laid charges against him. I am on record as protecting many commissioners when I felt there was a witch hunt against them.”

He resists the bureaucrat label too: “My predecessors will tell you I hate bureaucracy with a passion,” he protests. “Those who hide behind it don’t want their own inefficiency exposed. I feel it’s the reason for lack of performance in the department.”

But warning signs remain. The new Settlement and Implementation Support (SIS) strategy he is championing to help keep land reform farms productive, proposes project funding should be disbursed by a committee chaired by Land Affairs and municipal officials. Critics warn this should fall to people directly affected, as officials have little incentive to ensure grant money is spent effectively. SIS risks multiply government inefficiency and strangle the land programme with yet more red tape, because land reform failures are viewed as planning problems that can be fixed with more state intervention.

Gwanya argues the strategy is misunderstood. “We’ve tried to push decentralisation, with maximum participation from lower levels,” he says. “The officials aren’t there to approve processes or to decide on things, but to facilitate and coordinate.” He concedes his department’s reputation for being lacklustre and inefficient, but believes he can instil his can-do attitude in his officials. “I set very clear plans and decide what I am going to do to achieve those plans. I tend to get people’s energies together for the end goal.”

Questions and Answers

Newly appointed director general of Land Affairs Tozi Gwanya has been given the task of redistributing 10 times more land than his predecessor while making sure farms stay productive. Stephan Hofstätter asked him whether he planned to take shortcuts or play by the rules.

How do you plan to dramatically increase land redistribution while ensuring the farms you transfer don’t collapse, when right now your department can’t cope with a much less ambitious task?
There are three ways. Firstly, we are reviewing our funding models. The new grant system approved by [land and agriculture] minister Lulama Xingwana will enable us to do much more in a short period of time. It allows us to offer a subsidy of up to 100% for buying land. This means farmworkers can buy land outright.
Secondly, we expect to be able to buy moveables by the end of the year, once we have amended the Provision of Land and Assistance Act, which only allows us to buy land and fixed assets now. This will enable us to address the whole post-settlement issue. It will give the new owners the tools to work that land at transfer.
Thirdly, we have commitment from the department of agriculture to work with us. The new Land and Agrarian Reform Programme (LARP) has four legs. The first is land acquisition. The other three are agriculture.

Are you engaging provincial agriculture department heads to come on board?
Yes. But they have indicated they need additional resources. The agricultural budget is very small. As a developing country, 10% of our budget must go to agriculture. This is something the UN is trying to promote. Right now it’s 2% or 3%. As long as the budget is so far below 10%, you cannot expect much in agriculture. We’re trying get this message across to [finance minister] Trevor Manuel.

Your department is notorious for its inefficiency. What are your plans to improve performance?
We accept there is a problem of capacity, in numbers and skills. Most of the people we have are planners without technical skills. But if you’re going to take 25 million hectares of agricultural land, you need planners with agricultural skills on a par with farmers so they can talk the same language. We have done a skills analysis, and found shortages are very conspicuous in surveying, valuation,and agricultural technical support. I have instructed my human resources department to buy in new skills and develop current skills in these areas.

Government says it wants white farmers to be partners in achieving sustainable land reform and AgriBEE, yet we keep getting reports of your officials refusing to work with them. What is your position on this?
That culture must just go. I will not accept it. I’ve been proactive in trying to work closely with farmers and their organisations. I’ve invited a number of them to share their skills to assist in agricultural planning and on some of the projects we have handed over. It would be bad if at the level of director general we are talking to farmers but at the operational level [officials] are not.
It happens all the time.
Yes. You are not the first one to tell me this. That culture must go.

What will you do to eradicate it?
I will take drastic action if there is a report that there is an official who is working against a farmer in a particular area. It’s not in the interests of the department to do that. I have told the chief directors that this negative attitude must not continue. We are here to serve people – that’s the reason we get salaries. If they can’t serve, their salaries are not justified. I have made this point strongly.

You plan to fill over 1 200 new posts. What will this cost and do you have the budget?
It will cost another R450 million over the next three or four years. Treasury’s guideline is an increase in staff costs of 15% per year. In principle this has been approved and is now with the Minister of Public Service Administration.
You’ve asked for an extra R74 billion to meet the target of transferring 30% of white-owned land to blacks by 2014, but Treasury will give you less than R20 billion. It looks like you’re running out of money for land reform.
With the current allocation we will have to look at 2025 to achieve the 30% target.

Are you saying your political bosses must get real, that unless you receive R74 billion you will miss the 2014 deadline?
That’s right. The Polokwane resolutions re-emphasised the 2014 target, but we are saying: here is the realistic expectation in terms of resource requirements for achieving that target.

Why should we be worried about 30% in 2014, if we can still achieve it by 2025, but make sure we are doing it right?
Does this mean you are heading for a showdown with the ANC, which at Polokwane insisted on meeting the 30% target by 2014?
No. They have also taken a resolution about post-settlement support. They are already seeing reason. We just need to balance these two issues.

Will the 30% target be increased?
No. It stays 30%. We are not going to change it. That is the concern of the Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU). They say they support the 30%, but are worried once we’ve achieved it people will say: let’s look at our demographics. Why not 50%, or 80%? I’m saying it will be difficult to shift the goalposts. Look at the land that has been allocated to date. The biggest question people are now beginning to look at is if we transfer that 30%, which is about 25 million hectares, the critical issues will be land use, the productivity of that land, skills, and commercialisation. That is going to be a very long commitment. For every rand you spend on land acquisition, you need at least another R2 to make it sustainable. So unless we arrive with that R2, and have a concrete plan on how to spend it, it is not wise to push even this 30% by 2014. It’s throwing money away.

Farmers fear government’s new expropriation law is a thinly disguised attempt to get this land cheaply by forcing them to sell at below-market value. Are their fears unfounded?
The law’s primary purpose is to bring our legislation in line with the constitution, not short change anyone. The Expropriation Act of 1975 does not consider land reform a reason for expropriation. The constitution does. The Act still talks about a willing buyer and seller. The constitution does not. It outlines factors you must take into account when establishing fair compensation, including market value. This legislation is not targeting farmers. I wish they would understand that.

How is forcing farmers to sell at below-market value different from Zimbabwe?
The issue of land in Zimbabwe has been mixed with politics. The politics of wanting to stay in power forever. If you want people to support your political ambition to stay in power you will look for anything – land, mining, water.

So why insist on paying less than the market value?
I wouldn’t put it like that. But we must prevent people from loading the market price. There is a lot of padding going on. Banks use productive value as a yardstick for market value. They look at the farmer’s ability to repay a loan from the sale of produce. They say: this is the productive value of this farm, this is how much you should pay for it. But that’s not what farmers are asking for. They want the replacement cost.

What if a farmer wishes to continue farming elsewhere?
The question is where they want to farm. If you live in Gauteng you can’t farm in the winelands. You should be able to buy something similar to your farm with the money we offer you. The best way to illustrate this difference is to look at the sale of a used tractor. Is it fair for the farmer to say: if I sell you this tractor worth R40 000 I will need to replace it wherever I go for R2 million, so you must pay me R2 million? We are saying we will pay you what the market would pay: R40 000, not R2 million.

You publicly accused farmers at Badplaas of fraudulently inflating land prices, which led directly to calls to abandon the willing-buyer, willing-seller policy. Recently the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) became the second court to rule against you. What’s your position now?
I’m not surprised at the SCA judgment. A number of us feel the SCA is not transformed. We feel these people are prejudiced, that a different court would come to a different judgment. That’s why we will appeal to the Constitutional Court. We have taken a number of their judgments to the Constitutional Court, which ruled in our favour. The Popela judgment is a typical example. The SCA ruled against us and the Constitutional Court had to explain the rationale of our land reform programme to them.

Either farmers inflated land prices or they did not. Which is it?
It is still my view that those prices were inflated, and there was notable collusion. When one valuer says a farm is worth R2 million, another R5 million, and another R7 million – for exactly the same property – it can’t be true. Their own rules say if their deviation is beyond 10% there is something wrong. Collusion of landowners and valuers is not a myth, and it has the effect of increasing prices.

At Badplaas we did a revaluation, using another valuer, who found those prices were inflated. It was not my personal opinion. It was the valuer who said to me: you have been ripped off. [Most] farmers, except for these two involved in the [court] case, accepted the revaluations and settled on that basis.

So you won’t retract your accusations or apologise?
No. My comments were based on professional advice I got from the valuers and the forensic report.
When will the results of the willing-buyer, willing-seller review be announced?
It was submitted to Cabinet in March. Cabinet was very cautious and asked us to revisit some areas.

What did they object to?
We want a tax on unproductive land as a deterrent against speculation. They are worried about too much tax, and want us to introduce it through the Property Rates Act. They also objected to the term “one farmer, one farm”. We were given until July to rework the review based on their comments, and resubmit it.

What is wrong with current land reform policy?
It is not achieving what people expect it to, be they farmers, beneficiaries or politicians. We need land reform to create wealth. From the 1960s the National Party implemented a robust plan to remove black people from the land and entrench themselves on that land. Then we saw the crumbling of the wealth of black people. They had lots of cattle and commercial farming to an extent. They were selling and exchanging produce.

It was a robust economy. Land reform has not reversed this trend. If we could go back to the level of economic production and farming of black people before the 1960s, I would say we are liberated. Let land reform go beyond being a political statement of getting the land back. Let it start becoming an instrument of economic liberation. Then I will be fulfilled. |fw