Land Reform Watch

Some radical thinking needed on land reform

Town Two protest
Town Two protest.jpg

In South Africa, a land of many issues, few are as emotional and explosive as ownership and occupation of the land itself. A radical new approach is needed.

Government’s approach of Government’s policy of redistribution, rather than restitution, is out of touch with the needs at ground zero of the emotive, but legitimate unrelenting demand for fresh parcels of urban land to settle on and establish full property rights over.

Case in point

Mid-way through last month, in Town Two, Khayelitsha, next to the busy highway to Cape Town's International Airport, a wave of dissatisfied citizens – in a now typical pattern across the country – started occupying a piece of open land, unused for many years. 

Many, interviewed by the NGO GroundUp, stressed that they were local backyarders from Town 2, fed-up renting from family members or relying on others when an ideal nearby piece of land remained unutilized.

By all accounts the invasion was well organized – plots clearly demarcated beforehand and occupation not just a random affair. Established residents were also at ease with wat was happening.

Later the same morning, a police contingent arrived to protect what is ostensibly private property and commenced dismantling the shacks. As the police left, the backyarders started erecting new dwellings.

The City of Cape Town said while it empathized with the occupiers needs, it could allow land invasion which in the long run would prevent proper township development with services like electricity, roads, sewerage and that would heightened risks of fire, flooding and cause public health issues.

This incident, once again, highlights the dilemma of the needy on the one hand, and the need for law and order on the other.

Another story

In stark contrast, a recent report of the KwaZulu-Natal Land Claims Commissioners Office found that the vast majority of successful land claimants – almost 40 000 to date – requested financial compensation rather than taking ownership of the land itself.

At a recent briefing on the implementation of land reform and restitution in that province, Land Reform Support Chief Director Bheki Mbili said claimants generally preferred cash to land. This can be ascribed to the fact that it is often second, third or even fourth generation relatives of the original victims of land dispossession that are involved.

And, many beneficiaries already had another piece of land or, no longer live in the areas to which the claims relate.

Government’s present approach is clearly misses the target of establishing a more equitable distribution of land ownership, a problem is simply perpetuated by cash payments simply not reducing the gap.

Another impediment to normalising the property market for many previously disadvantaged South Africans was highlighted in a Free Market Foundation (FMF) statement last week.

The foundation, long championing the conversion  of the various forms of apartheid title the townships to full, unambiguous ownership for the current tenants, stated: “…the unwillingness to give the urban poor property rights still remains in that the ‘owners’ of RDP homes are bound by ‘pre-emptive clauses’ that prohibit them from selling their property for eight years.

“At the end of this period, owners can only sell the RDP home back to government. This is not real ownership – it is a continuation of paternalistic Apartheid thinking.”

It also states that “Radical economic transformation (RET) means exactly that – a radically different approach to policy. President Zuma puts land reform high on the RET agenda, yet government land policies maintain apartheid era thinking and prevent the real social and radical change required in urban and rural land ownership.”

The reality is, the majority of black people in the cities still live as tenants on property owned by the local municipality, which developed into what we know today as ‘townships’. For them, on this front, not much has changed since the days of apartheid.

The FMF argues that restitution of land expropriated during the apartheid era, must be speeded up and finality achieved. Where property has been acquired illegitimately it must be returned to the owner.

However, government’s policy of redistribution – rather than restitution – of privately owned land, amounts to the same kind of land theft perpetrated by the apartheid.  

“The post-Apartheid land restitution process has been neglected and abused, with government now resorting to emotional blackmail to persuade people into taking back the land, rather than choose compensation, as is the right of any property owner. Government’s goal should be the restoration of property rights – not forcing modern South Africans to become farmers.

“Also, the apartheid rural land law must be finally abolished. The Subdivision of Agricultural Land Act is a relic from the past and has meant that small-scale and subsistence farmers cannot easily acquire land. The Act must be repealed. 

“These measures would deliver radical economic transformation in land reform and in the lives of millions of citizens,” the MF states.

Some positives

However, there are also some positive signs, and it is heartening that the DG of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Mike Mlengana, recently at NAMPO’s Harvest Day in Bothaville admitted that handing over land is by itself not the final (nor sustainable) solution.

The government also needs to build the necessary capacity and support and match the profile (or competencies) of the emerging farmer with that of the commercial (beef, dairy, grain etc) profile of the land.  

He also acknowledged that many white commercial farmers were committed to partner, and working with, emerging black farmers to change existing land ownership patterns for the better. And, he assured those farmers, government is not a threat to their livelihoods and that the expropriation of land without compensation is not official policy.

In the same vein, the CEO of the Land Bank, TP Nchocho, committed to not only making more land available to emerging farmers through land reform, but that the bank also understood its role in continuing to assist those farmers whose initial projects had not been successful.

The land bank would not dessert them, and in fact would continue to collaborate with them to enable them to run their (farming) businesses on a commercially viable basis.

There is still lots of goodwill, and much to be proud of, on the front of the land reform.

However, the challenge to ensure equity and social stability, is to not only normalise the position of the millions of tenants in urban areas,, but to come to grips with the unstoppable process or rapid urbanisation.

It is on this front that an urgent need exist for some radical thinking, with a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of local governments. 

by Eve van Basten

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