Land Reform Watch

Traditional leaders perpetuating apartheid’s legacy

Khalema Motlanthle
Khalema Motlanthle.jpg

The powers conferred on traditional councils and traditional leaders appear to introduce a fourth sphere of government, and perpetuating the legacies of colonialism and apartheid.

Former President Khalema Motlanthle, has been conducting a series of hearings countrywide, chairing a high-level Parliamentary mandated panel to assess and review the extremely diverse, and often contradictory, body of key legislation in the country, also dating back to pre-1994. He is tasked with recommending legislative reform that can assist in accelerating transformational change.

He has more recently raised concerns about the slow progress being made in dealing with land restitution, citing budget constraints as one of the many hurdles.

Motlanthe was an early mover in recognising that the first step in dealing with land redistribution is to do an audit to establish who owns what part of the country's land.

The government also needed a land audit to develop an accurate record of all public agricultural land and to assess the performance (or lack thereof) of its land-reform programme.


The former president for instance mentioned that during one of these public hearings he and his team had heard of a 102-year-old man who has waited over 15 years to get his land claim processed.

This is a prime example that the restitution programme is taking far too long. Many people have also complained that while they understood how to make and file their claims and complaints, the formula for resolving them is not clear to all.

As a result, the perceived lack of reform since 1994 has prompted more radical calls from several quarters, including the EFF, for the Constitution to be amended to provide for expropriation without compensation.

According to Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti, the good news is that Phase two of the Land-audit report is due to be considered by the Cabinet any day now and then released to the public by the end of this month. The first audit indicated that while 14% of the land was directly owned by the state, roughly 80% of the land was owned by individuals, companies and trusts. Phase two will endeavour to analyse ownership by gender, nationality and race, and assess the extent of Sectional Title (as opposed to freehold) holdings.


In the meantime, the Agriculture Business Chamber (AGBIZ) has added its voice to those that caution against a move by the government to expropriate land unfairly as the knock-on effect will, most likely, negatively affect the people that the land reform programme is intended to benefit. The Chamber pointed out that the business of agriculture relies on bond financing to procure the highly costly inputs (such as animal feeds, chemicals, electricity, equipment, fertilizers, and fuel etc) necessary to produce food on a national and sustainable basis.

AGBIZ estimates that the debt of the farming community is in the region of R160billion and that most of that risk is covered by mortgage bonds. Any move on a large scale to expropriate that productive land without fair recompense will, by implication, not only jeopardize the farmers, but the banks who hold the bonds as well.

Six bills in process

Speaking of laws, there are nine bills in process in parliament relating, in one way or another, to the land rights of rural communities; of which six have direct impact on the people living in South Africa's former homelands. Among these are the Traditional Leadership & Governance Framework Amendment Bill and the Traditional & Khoi-san Leadership Bill which, on the face of it, appear to, ironically, seek to entrench important aspects of the Bantu Authorities Act that had shaped the system of Apartheid.

Accordingly, the civil rights group, the Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD) is particularly calling on the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), to uphold the constitutional rights of rural dwellers and to consult with all the communities concerned.

These bills aim to address the concerns of the rural communities who have been outraged about the lack of accountability for their affairs by the government, private institutions, and the traditional leaders themselves in managing the revenues and other benefits flowing from the commercial and industrial use of their land. In addition, the Bills aim to address the reform of invalid Traditional Councils that have, for instance, failed in their mandate to meet their composition requirements by including women members. 

Core problem

At the heart of this dilemma lies the continued confusion of division of authority that exists between elected (i.e. representative) bodies and that of the traditional (i.e. autocratic) institutions.

The powers conferred on traditional councils appear to introduce a fourth sphere of government as one of the bills gives them sweeping powers to transact on communal land without an obligation to consult with the residents, who supposedly actually hold the land rights. In addition, the ARD is concerned that there are insufficient safeguards to protect the land rights of people who were historically dispossessed of their rights during the eras of colonialism and apartheid. They therefore called on parliament to be mindful of its duty to facilitate public participation and give effect to citizens’ rights to meaningful consultation where legislation can affect their lives and livelihoods.

This form of civil activism is to be applauded as it insists that the people with historical land rights in the former homelands are given a chance to be heard before the Bills in question, which are fundamentally tied to the powers and status given to traditional councils and traditional leaders, become law.

What matters is that reasonable opportunity is given to those forgotten members of the public, and communities who, were the unfortunate subjects of dispossession by the autocratic authorities created during colonialism and apartheid.

by Eve van Basten

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