Development Watch

Fixation on agricultural land sees opportunities slip by

Agriculture and urbanisation, where to focus?

Both the debate and the political drive for land reform in South Africa remain fixated with agricultural land, largely to the exclusion of urban residential property ownership.

In view of the pace at which the South African population is urbanising, this fixation does not only skew debate and policy, but is also counterproductive.

And it causes the missing of economic opportunities and – in terms of social stability – is amounting to a dangerous folly.

Property rights, farming and food production/security, urbanisation, cultural heritage (with its own tribal and land-use patterns), restitution policies (with its recent history of results and non-results) and above all the emotions involved are intertwined in the extremely complicated subject of ‘land reform’.

To these factors can be added the need to maintain investor confidence, the often complicated financial needs of agriculture and the fact that all indications are that the ANC government will have to come to terms with the first really serious drought since it took control in 1994.

This an attempt at a first ‘scene setter’ article of a series in which we will attempt to unpack some of these factors and how they impact one another.

Demographic reality

The demographic reality of South Africa’s fast urbanising population is well illustrated by the latest available statistics. 

In 1980 57% of the population were rural dwellers against 43% urbanites. By 2001 it was exactly the other way round and by 2014 about 63% of the population could be classified as urban dwellers.

The reality is that the majority of the population is, and should be, acquiring their ‘piece of the land’ in metropolitan and other urban areas. It is important that statistics on and valuation of land reform should reflect this reality.

It seldom, if ever, does and definitely does not find resonance in political rhetoric and posturing. To our mind it is an opportunity missed to add to the “good story to tell” and to positively channel the emotions about land ownership.

I can still remember the positive emotions in my childhood home when my father became the owner of his “scheme” house, finally turning away from his days as an ordinary white farm worker or ‘bywoner’.

For me the emotions were even stronger in the mid-1970s when I took ownership of my own tiny two-bedroom bonded home on one eighth of an acre in Johannesburg.

Agricultural dominance and atmosphere

To what extent agricultural land still dominates land reform focus, policy and political debate in the country was recently emphatically illustrated by President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) in parliament.

One of the main themes of the SONA was the confirmation of policy and legal interventions aimed at land reform. It was all, however, aimed at agricultural land. Not a single word was said about home ownership in the country’s cities and towns.

His address shortly afterwards to the House of Traditional Leaders (HTL) was slightly more nuanced, but the main focus was again on the rural areas, agricultural activity and the role that traditional leaders can and, to his mind, should play in land restitution claims.

The attitude to the process, and the resultant atmosphere it takes place in, was at just about the same time given away by the Minister of Agriculture, Senzeni Zokwana, when he revealed that some of those SONA announcements were nothing more than ‘negotiation’ tactics.

He was quoted by Reuters as having said at a conference organised by Grain SA: “Whenever you are negotiating, you always put forward a figure. What informs the end of that figure is the process of negotiation.”

Over an emotional subject like land ownership and which involves important issues like investor confidence and food security one would have rather expected a process of ‘consultation’ between partners than ‘negotiation’ between adversaries.

Even more revealing about the governing ANC’s attitude to the subject is a statement by its secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, that “anarchy will reign” if farmers do not cooperate with the ANC regarding land reform.

How this attitude screws up the atmosphere around the subject while organised agriculture has offered cooperation in finding solutions and expressed support for land reform, is illustrated by the reaction of AfriForum. Its CEO, Ernst Roets, said that minorities will not allow themselves to be threatened by the ANC.

 “The ANC is on the wrong side of the debate. Their plan for land reform is not only morally unjustifiable, it is unconstitutional, conflicts with the basic fundamentals of democracy and will mutilate the free market in South Africa indefinitely.”

This sets the scene of lengthy confrontational political and costly legal battles instead of a positive, development-focused process.

In the meantime an answer by Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to a parliamentary question has revealed that only two million hectares of State-owned land across 1.16-million land parcels remained undeveloped. Not all this land was suited for residential development and the development of a strategy to identify what was suitable for residential purpose, is still underway.

Tradition and culture

President Zuma’s speech to the HTL also served to confirm to what extent traditional thinking in tribal areas has failed to evolve since 1994 – thinking that was used to its advantage by the apartheid government for its ‘homeland’ policy.

The notion that traditional leaders are the custodians of tribal land over which they hold sway as a means of patronage, trade and subject to negotiated treaties far outdates apartheid. It was at the heart of the first major conflict between the Zulus of king Dingane and the migrating Afrikaners in the 19th century.

It is becoming a major question if a modern South Africa as a ‘developmental state’, aiming to give the majority of the population a stake in the land, its fruits – including mineral wealth – and its economy can afford a perpetuation of this situation.

It seems to perpetuate and strengthen historical advantaged elites as illustrated by, to give but a few examples: 

  • The recent announcement by King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulus of his intentions to file a massive land claim;
  • News of a huge land claim by President Zuma’s family; and
  • News of the Bakatla tribe of the North West’s acquisition of interests worth billions in platinum mines in that province.

The critical question is, to what extent do these concentrations of wealth, opportunity and resources get ‘redistributed’ to ordinary people and are changing their lives meaningfully for the better?

It is against this background that Nomboniso Gasa, a senior research associate at the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town, recently wrote in Business Day: “We need a nuanced discussion that takes into account the complexity of the issues and, most important, puts the substantive rights of all people at the centre of public debate, legislation, policy debate and programmes that are adopted and implemented.

“Such a conversation can only take place if the king, other traditional leaders and the government recognise the accountability to, and participation of, people as an integral part of African cultural systems and democracy.”


One cannot but concur with the view expressed recently in an op-ed in Times Live: “Land reform has to be ramped up – the effects of the terrible legacy of apartheid dispossession cannot be overstated – but the process will require innovative thinking, tons of hard work, lots of resources and, critically, co-operation of commercial farmers.”

To this one can add that we argued, as far back as November 2012, that unless the country succeeds in harnessing the process of urbanisation as a positive developmental tool, it could become a serious risk to social stability.

by Piet Coetzer

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