Land reform – how to take the process forward

Ownership of land in South Africa is a highly politicised and emotive issue. However, were land reform better administered, it could serve as a possible solution to rural poverty in the country. Agricultural Writers SA agriculturalist of the year for 2015, Prof Ben Cousins from the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of Western Cape, shares his thoughts on land reform and redistribution with Jeandré du Preez.

Land reform – how to take the process forward
Ben Cousins
Photo: Supplied

What is the state of land reform and redistribution in South Africa? How much land has been redistributed?
To date, 8% to 9% of commercial farmland, amounting to about seven million hectares, has been redistributed or restored to black ownership. Government figures show that several hundred thousand people have received land through redistribution and restitution, but we do not know how many of these beneficiaries are actually living and working on the land. Research, such as in Michael Aliber’s 2013 book on land reform in Limpopo, shows that in many cases few people remain on the land after a year or two. Also, research shows that in around 50% of cases, there have been no lasting benefits to those receiving land. This is due mainly to inappropriate business planning by consultants and a lack of effective post-settlement support.

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How many active land claims are there?
Government figures suggest that in late 2013 about 20 000 restitution claims had not been finalised. This means that the claims had been settled or resolved, but not yet implemented. Another 1 500 gazetted claims had not been settled and a further 7 200 had not been gazetted. This means that as recently as two-and-a-half years ago, 37% of first-round claims had not been fully implemented.

Since the Amendment of Restitution of Land Rights Act became law in 2014, another approximately 100 000 claims have been lodged. It is likely that the vast majority of these claimants are asking for cash compensation and not the restoration of land. It’s not clear where the budget to resolve these new claims will come from.

South Africa is facing a severe drought. Should the government remain focused on land reform and the redistribution of land, or shift its focus to ways of overcoming the drought crisis and support farmers?
Both drought relief and land reform are vital, and both must be given equal attention. Both require funds, which are now in scarce supply because of the slowdown of economic growth. I suggest that civil servants, whose salaries are much higher than those of their counterparts elsewhere in Africa, forego their salary increases for a couple of years to allow for the creation of more funds for the food production and land justice sectors. Drought creates opportunities for government to acquire farms at bargain prices, and should be seen as an opportunity to make the ‘willing-seller, willing-buyer’ approach work.

Will land redistribution contribute to the decline of rural poverty?
Land reform can contribute to reducing rural poverty if the transfer of land is accompanied by both appropriate farm planning and the implementation of well-designed support programmes to help beneficiaries become productive. Often this will require the subdivision of large farms.

I think we should accept that many poor rural households would benefit more from successful job creation in the urban economy than from redistributive land reform, and that the key beneficiaries of land reform should be market-oriented smallholders who supply large informal markets. If this category amounted to 200 000 households, then this would assist substantially in reducing rural poverty. Land transfers to a few thousand emerging business people would make very little contribution.

Are new emerging farmers skilled and capable of using land productively? Will they contribute to food security, especially now when we are facing possible food shortages?
Many market-oriented small-scale black farmers are highly productive, especially when they have access to irrigation water, as shown by research in the Lowveld areas of Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. Often they supply large, informal markets, as well as local supermarkets such as Spar and Boxer, who manage their own, decentralised procurement arrangements.

Many black livestock farmers are similarly productive, with low costs and high returns, and often supply local markets to good effect. Goats are sold to local ritual markets for billions of rands annually. This is poorly understood and not supported by extension services or veterinary support.

The real question is whether or not we have an effective system of state support, as was the case when white farming was assisted to become productive and competitive.

Why has the ‘willing- buyer, willing-seller’ model been regarded as unsuccessful?
The government has functioned as an inexpert and ineffective purchaser of commercial farms for land reform, and has often lacked personnel with the requisite skills. Its model has been used to acquire farms in a reactive and haphazard manner, rather than in a spatially intelligent and planned manner.

Land reform has not formed an integral part of local development plans developed by municipalities. Of course it costs money, but the budget for land reform has always been less than 1% of the national total because of Treasury’s scepticism about its impact on poverty.

Then again, some people see it as illegitimate to ask the state to pay for ‘stolen land’. Yes, the ‘willing-buyer, willing-seller’ model has not worked so well thus far, but a poor workman often blames his tools.

What is your opinion on foreigners being banned from owning land in South Africa?
This will not make much difference to the land distribution pattern in rural South Africa. It is not a major problem. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with restrictions on foreign ownership, and many countries allow only leases by foreigners. The question is, why do it if it’s not really an issue?

You do not believe that imposing land ceilings is correct. What, then, should be done?
Proactive acquisition of land through state purchase, using an expanded budget for land reform, at perhaps 15% below market prices to allow consideration of what is ‘just and equitable’, would be more effective than land ceilings. Beneficiaries should play an active role in targeting land and planning processes, and local government bodies must provide additional support. Planning should be realistic but also create opportunities for market-oriented small-scale producers to supply formal and informal value chains.

Is land reform abused by government officials?
There is some evidence of corruption, yes. However, the elite bias of land redistribution and communal tenure reform is out in the open for all to see. The major beneficiaries of current government land polices are emerging business people, some with good ‘connections’ to officials, as well as chiefs and their cronies in communal areas. The evaluation of the Recapitalisation and Development Programme commissioned by the Presidency is clear about the former, and this is a public document. The average recapitalisation grant in the Free State is around R1 million per person.

What has government done well thus far? Are there success stories?
There are some, yes. With several, private sector partners play a major role, although this factor is often exaggerated.
I know of success stories in the Besters and Weenen areas where former labour tenants are now productive livestock farmers. A few cases of successful land restitution involve highly capable leadership being exerted at community level, within institutional arrangements that require accountability. Government should do more to publicise these success stories, while admitting that many projects have failed.

What should be done to take land reform forward?
Install strong and capable political leadership. Rebuild capacity in the department through training and effective performance management. Evaluate the reasons for failure and success honestly and draw appropriate lessons. Specify the rationale for land reform, target beneficiaries more clearly, and work with them using well-facilitated participatory approaches. Redesign support programmes, working closely with other government departments and bodies. When success begins to show, increase the budget to 3% or 4% of the national total.

Target farms owned by less productive and successful commercial farmers, who constitute 80% of the total. Transfer their land to potentially productive black farmers. Don’t fixate on only high-value crops and livestock products – take informal markets seriously.

Review agricultural policy and provide more protection for the agricultural sector in general.

Accept that land reform works slowly and don’t promise quick fixes.

Email Prof Ben Cousins at [email protected].

This article was originally published in the 12 February 2016 issue of Farmer’s Weekly.