Lack of Tenure – The True Scandal of South Africa’s Failing Land Reform Policies

South Africa fallow land

I wrote a blog yesterday about the South African Parliament’s vote to allow the government to expropriate land without compensation. The blog was an attempt to explain the context to the vote, as well as the implications for food security and the economy if the policy actually is enforced.

While researching it, however, I started looking into the wider issue of land reform in South Africa – what policies are in place currently, how they are being enforced and what progress has been made in the 24 years since the end of apartheid.

The South African government in 1994 launched a process by which black people who were dispossessed of their land via colonial or apartheid policies, could claim back the land from its current owners. An initial application deadline was set for 31 December 1998, and around 80,000 claims were submitted prior to this deadline. 20 years later, around 6,000 of these claims are still outstanding, and the government has since reopened the application process to allow further claims to be made, as it has been suggested that the 80,000 initial claims only represented “1% of anticipated demand”.

While the government initially aimed to redistribute 30% of South Africa’s land by 2014, at present only around 7% has been redistributed, and the government has now shifted the target deadline out to 2025, with very little hope of actually meeting that target at the current pace of progress.

As pointed out in the previous blog, one of the key reasons given for the slow progress of land restitution, is the difficulty in negotiating appropriate compensation – hence the call for land to be expropriated without compensation.

But what the ANC is currently keeping very quiet about, is the fact that the existing land reform policies have created a situation in which any land that is expropriated, almost inevitably ends up falling into disuse. The reason for this is not due to any lack of motivation on the part of those who laid claim to the land, but rather due to the fact that the government does not give them secure tenure, instead granting them short-term leases, while the government retains the title to the land. The lack of tenure security makes it impossible for the recipients to secure funding to develop the land.

Worse still, in some cases it transpires that corrupt officials hand over the land to unknown people, rather than to those whose names are on the claim form.

The above-mentioned issues are highlighted in a damning parliamentary panel report which was published in November 2017, which sought to investigate the effectiveness of post-apartheid legislation in addressing the key issues of inequality in South African society. In addition to looking at issues such as poverty, unemployment, inequality, the creation and equitable distribution of wealth, and social cohesion, the report took an in-depth look at the way in which land reform policies have been pursued.

In addition to the issues mentioned above, the report highlighted issues with officials consolidating claimants into large dysfunctional groups, often with no shared identity and in some cases in serious dispute with one another. These groups are then expected to manage large farms or areas of land together, with no governmental support, making successful agricultural production impossible.

Furthermore, the report highlighted wider issues of tenure security particularly in former homeland areas where mining is taking place, with local people being denied rights to the land they are living on, by mining officials and traditional leaders who claim exclusive rights to the land through inaccurate interpretation of the underlying laws.

None of the issues mentioned in the report, could be blamed on white ownership of land, or on colonialism or apartheid – all of these issues relate to poor government policies enacted during the post-apartheid era.

It appears that rather than taking on board the report’s findings and its recommendations, and seeking to tackle the issues raised, the ANC are trying to take the easy way out, sweeping the bigger issues under the carpet and trying to focus all attention on the issue of land expropriation. But until the issues of corruption, mismanagement of claims and tenure security are resolved, any further expropriations – with or without compensation – will not only fail to fully satisfy the claimants, but will do irreparable damage to the South African agricultural sector, and the wider economy.

None of these issues will be easy to tackle. But it’s time for the ANC to stop blaming all of the country’s woes on the legacies of apartheid and colonialism, and instead take on the immense task of fixing the underlying policies that are keeping its citizens in perpetual insecurity.   I can only hope that Cyril Ramaphosa proves equal to the challenge.


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