What’s holding up land reform?

Specialist land reform writer Stephan Hofstätter argues swift, orderly and effective land reform is vital for political stability and long-term economic growth. But botched state interventions have exacerbated tensions between the landed and landless that will lead to violent confrontation, unless dysfunctional institutions are drastically overhauled.
Issue date 26 October 2007

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When the ANC government came into power in 1994 it inherited a country where the vast majority of farmland belonged the white minority. This was no accident, but the deliberate result of over a century of racist landownership restrictions that sought to entrench white domination of every sphere of the economy at the expense of blacks. cumulative effect of these restrictions was racially skewed landholding patterns and a white monopoly on economic power based on territorial resources. Reversing their impact, or reforming inherited racial inequality in access to land, is therefore considered a continuation of the liberation struggle and became a cornerstone of ANC policy once in power. Land reform is also the only way to ensure lasting racial harmony in South Africa, precisely because our country is steeped in blood from wars fought over territory and resources. Long-term social and political stability, as vividly illustrated by Zimbabwe, will never be achieved as long as the black majority remains impoverished tenants on land owned by whites. But to minimise disruption to the economy and the danger of rekindling racial tensions, land reform must be swift, orderly and effective. So far it has been none of these. In 1994 the newly elected government grandly announced that 30% of farmland belonging to whites would be distributed to blacks within five years as a first step to achieving racial equity in landholding. The willing-buyer, willing-seller principle would underpin the process, both in arriving at a fair price for the land and letting landowners or beneficiaries choose whether to buy or sell. Victims of forced removals were entitled to claim back their ancestral land or, where that wasn’t feasible, to compensation. The entire process was expected to be wrapped up by the millennium. Instead land reform appears to have ground to a halt. In the first 10 years of democracy, state interventions produced dismal results, with only one tenth of the target transferred in double the time. Although the timetable was extended to 2014, the annual rate of transfers by 2005 suggested it would take a century to reach the 30% target unless something drastic was done. In 2005, partly responding to pressure from grassroots activist groups such as the Landless People’s Movement (LPM), which had grown disillusioned with the state’s unwillingness or inability to carry out its promised land reforms, government organised a national Land Summit. But instead of taking honest stock of its own shortcomings in implementing land reforms, government caved in to pressure from its alliance partners Cosatu and the SA Communist (SACP) party to fixate on the failures of the market to deliver land on the scale needed to have a real impact on millions of black South Africans. T his narrow focus on the outdated ideological polarities of controlled versus market economy provided government with the scapegoat it needed. In its first decade in power it had become obsessed with fiscal austerity and pleasing the investor community. As a result land reform, an issue of vital national importance, was left to a programme that was badly thought through, fragmented and badly aligned with other state priorities, and a land affairs department that was poorly skilled and hopelessly underfunded. The SACP and Cosatu gave government the diversionary excuse that racist whites unwilling to sell had derailed its reforms. here is no doubt some racist landowners will do everything in their power, from setting up legal resistance funds to incitement to violence, to obstruct the sale of land for redistribution to blacks. If they represented the vast majority of white farmers the market would indeed be hard pressed to deliver enough land for redistribution. But after writing about land reform for a variety of local and foreign publications for a number of years it has become clear to me this country is awash with willing sellers. Some believe equitable land distribution is the best way of avoiding a Zimbabwe scenario and want to sell some or all of their land and stay on as mentors. Others are fed up with the sector’s increasingly poor returns and high risks, including to their lives, and just want out. A third group is going bankrupt and will take any fair offer. But it has become equally clear government shortcomings are preventing many farmers from selling their land for redistribution. At a national level land officials and politicians have become paralysed by academic or emotive squabbles and are doing little to prioritise organisational efficiencies and lines of accountability, or come up with solid implementation plans. Their district-level counterparts are either overwhelmed, negligent or deliberately obstructive for reasons ranging from racial prejudice towards white farmers to being addicted to their own exercise of power even if it harms the people they’re paid to serve. I have seen copious correspondence, visited several farms and received countless reports of officialdom tripping up willing sellers. In many cases sellers are resorting to legal action – sometimes with the same lawyer representing land claimants and owners – to compel government to do its job. More often they have given up and sold to white neighbours. Clearly, if the land transactions of all farmers willing to sell were processed professionally, speedily and efficiently, government would dramatically speed up redistribution. The Land Summit did air a few new ideas promising to fast-track land transfers. Unfortunately policy makers, politicians and Treasury officials have squabbled ever since over which interventions would be most effective and fiscally sound. Far from speeding anything up, they simply added another layer of bureaucracy. Fortunately the most promising intervention mooted, an area-based planning model, appears to be making a comeback. It envisages landowners, government agencies and civil society groups getting together at district level to thrash out local land needs, taking economic and environmental constraints into account, and matching these with land available for sale, with the option of expropriation used as a last resort. The model is already being piloted in selected areas with some success. But to work on a national scale land reform’s dysfunctional institutional arrangements must be overhauled. The Byzantine land grant and post-settlement support application processes must be simplified into one procedure. Government agencies must cooperate at municipal level with political backing at national and provincial level. Obstructive or poorly performing officials must be replaced by a better calibre of civil servant. And government must actively engage with the private sector, including organised agriculture, as partners and not adversaries in implementing land reforms. All of this requires visionary leadership. We need politicians who put serving the nation above their personal or party interests, or we’ll be having the same debate 10 years from now. But by then what little goodwill that remains among the landed and landless after the first decade of botched reforms will be gone forever, and violent confrontation will be the only realistic outcome. |fw