Property & Wealth

Zuma drags thorny issue of tribal land into public debate

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 President Zuma’s dragging of the thorny issue of tribal land, controlled by traditional leaders, into the public debate should not block out other serious problem areas of the land reform process.

Addressing the 2016 session of the National House of Traditional Leaders (NHTL) in parliament last week, President Jacob Zuma also pondered the question of whether the departure date as basis for the process of land restitution, reform and redistribution should not be moved back to some – unmentioned – date in the 19th century.

He was also at pains to highlight the need to debate SA’s uphill battle against inequality, and the cry from many corners of the economy for more and faster meaningful and visible transformation of land ownership.

The need for land reform is largely uncontested.

Referring to colonial dispossession and discriminatory legislation like the Native Land Act of 1913, the Native Trust and Land Act of 1936 and the Group Areas Act of 1950, a 2007 study by the FW de Klerk Foundation stated: “The urgency of the need for a successful land reform programme arises from both the moral obligation of a democratically elected government to rectify the injustices of the past, and the reality that in the long run the present unequal division of land is untenable.”

There is also broad consensus that land reform that gives ownership and security to the majority of the estimated 675 000 ‘landless’ households in the former black homelands alone would make an enormous contribution to economic growth, the alleviation of poverty and job creation.

It is, therefore, fine that, at the NHTL, the president again encouraged leaders to work with him in resolving the dire need for substantially increasing the amount of private property held by blacks.

He encouraged them to band together and appoint a law firm mandated to make land claims on behalf of “all of us”. It is, however, important that this cooperation is not burdened by bias.

Wider approach

Since, as has been a regular habit of his, Mr Zuma made his remarks when deviating from his released written speech, it is unclear whether it reflected his personal view or the prevailing and official view of the governing ANC alliance. As happened before, in 2003 and 2013/14, the remarks might have been triggered by the fact that there is an election at hand.

It does present an opportunity to take a look at the success, or not, of the land reform process and some of the very complicated factors impacting on it. One of the core issues goes much wider than just tribal land under the control of traditional leaders.

We suggest that as a starting point the government should conduct a national audit as to the size and value of that part of the SA property market that falls directly under the control of traditional leaders.

In our previous article we reported that in 2013 it was estimated that government-owned or -controlled land, including that held by the national, provincial and local governments as well as state-owned enterprises, totals around R573 billion and is held by:

  • The national government R188 billion;
  • The nine provincial governments R342 billion;
  • Local government R37 billion; and
  • State-owned Enterprises (SOEs) R6 billion.

These holdings exclude the land, such as in the former bantustans, that is held by the government through the traditional leaders for the benefit of those millions who reside there. Estimates from various sources put it at 16 million on the low end and 20 million people on the high end.

What we are now encouraging is that a formal assessment be made of the extent of the land, in hectares, being ‘held’ or controlled by traditional leaders and the number of beneficiaries who could gain should this communal ownership be transformed into private property holdings.

What about restitution?

It was reported that some 124 000 new land claims have been lodged with the Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights since the submission of claims was reopened at the end of 2014, and that the Department of Land Reform expects a total of closer to 400 000 claims by December 2018.

Should most of those claims succeed by the time that the communal land is transferred into the hands of the individual owners, then SA can claim to have achieved the radical land reform that is expected of the government by the vast majority of the country’s citizens.

Ways also need to be found to deal with the often problematic power/political relationship between traditional leaders and local authorities responsible for the infrastructure to facilitate development on tribal land.

Such a programme will bring an enormous boost to economic growth too, go a long way towards alleviating poverty and contribute much to job creation.

Let’s not forget

And let’s not forget that it was not only blacks that suffered dispossessions in the past.

This year marks 50 years since the declaration of District Six in Cape Town as a WHITES ONLY AREA in February 1966 in terms of the Group Areas Act, 41 of 1950.

In effect this act of parliament substantially eroded the concept of freehold property as it restricted the occupation and/or ownership of land (and businesses etc.) in designated areas.

The upshot was that, broadly speaking, blacks could not own or occupy land in white areas or vice versa, which in turn robbed ‘non-white’ areas of access to private development capital.

South Africa is in the midst of a rapid urbanisation phase and if we get an efficient, focused and holistic land reform programme, aligning all available resources – from government, the private sector and civil society – it will go a long way towards turning the country’s economic development prospects around.

 Also read: Zuma and the dangerous traps of history

by Eve van Basten

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