‘Stay on the land,’ says Zuma. It hasn’t been for lack of trying.

By Laurel Oettle, published 9th February 2017.

South Africa’s fortunes rest on land, which has become a rallying cry for #FeesMustFall, the EFF and various other organisations across the country. It took President Jacob Zuma an hour to get to the issue in his “radical socio-economic transformation” SONA address last night. The troop mobilisation, punch-ups, teargas, stun grenades, swearing and walkouts suggest that the disintegration of consensus will make it difficult for government to enlist broad co-operation in any of its objectives, including land reform, and will continue to drive change in a way that has been marked by 23 years of failure.

President Zuma’s pronouncement that it will be “difficult if not impossible to achieve true reconciliation until the land question is resolved,” was an acknowledgment of the seriousness of the issue, simultaneously pointing to the failure of land reform (quoting only 9,8% of arable land having been transferred to black people) and government’s contortions to appease the electorate and take the sting out of political competition that has taken over the initiative.

The renewed and ever more vigorous focus on land is welcome because land is the basis on which all South Africans are able to assume full citizenship. It grants them access, in a multitude of ways, to livelihoods, dignity and equality. The land question therefore remains a critical feature of the country’s politics, marked by volatility, insecurity and confusion. To break the logjams in land reform is necessary, and long overdue. But the question has to be asked: to what end? What will be solved or destroyed along the way? Will those who reap the reward be those in the queue of history, patiently waiting for justice to get around to them, or will it be those who already have the money and the connections and are poised to add a farm here or there to their property portfolios?

It is hard to ignore the staggering amount of money – R631 million, according to Zuma’s SONA pronouncements – that is going into a policy that as of yet remains highly criticised, unpublished and entirely opaque. Known as the “50/50 policy”, or “Strengthening the relative rights of people working the land,” this brainchild of Minister Nkwinti does not, in fact, transfer land to black farm workers. Instead, it is pumping millions of rands into failing farms for the transfer of business shares to a relatively small number of farm workers and farm dwellers, with the biggest benefit seeming to remain with the white land owners. This seems little more than a horribly twisted and empty embodiment of the ANC policy under OR Tambo of “land to the tiller.”

Everyone is watching the land space. It embodies transformation, and understanding this allows for a comprehensive and critical analysis of the successes and failures of transformation in South Africa. So what has gone wrong? We have policy and legislation, but poor governance and administration systems. The push and pull around land has not been grounded in the systems and resources that would be needed. Land claimants have been paid out in quickly-spent cash rather than having their land restored, without a full understanding of what options should be available to them. It is laudable that Zuma’s speech included an appeal to land claimants to accept land instead of financial compensation, stating that over 90% of claims are currently settled through financial compensation and acknowledging, moreover, that government from the outset has poorly handled this issue.

“Land remains,” he said. “It is important that you remain with the land.” It hasn’t been for lack of trying, if you are an evicted farm dweller or neglected labour tenant.

Government has tended to speak to people through announcement, through press statements, especially with regard to land. Dialogue needs to be moved from the central, urban, metropolitan processes and spaces, and must instead be grounded in variegated realities of rural life.

There’s a general consensus that land reform has been a failure, and so one can only agree that it is necessary to accelerate the process. But you can also speed up a disaster if you don’t get it right. It should not be done just for the sake of it, or because government needs to regain ground lost to the EFF. It’s important to reflect on the successful constitutional court case on re-opening restitution and look at how moving forward hastily in broadening restitution could have bad consequences especially for historic claimants who have been waiting to have their claims settled.

And now the government is reinforcing their intention of using the Expropriation Act to pursue land reform and land distribution. However, while the minister for Rural Development and Land Reform, Nkwiti recently adopted the language of expropriation-without-compensation, blaming the constitution for tying government’s hands, Zuma merely stated in SONA that they will pursue this “in line with the constitution.” There are processes for expropriation; that option has been available to government, but it has chosen not to do so. Nkwinti blames the constitution for imposing a willing-buyer-willing-seller condition on land reform, which is not the case, and it is government that has chosen this option. The constitution simply states that reasonable measures must be applied. The next step is that parliament must pass the Expropriation Bill, which will no doubt be tested in the constitutional court, but which will not necessarily resolve the issues that have languished in a political limbo for over two decades now.

Speeding up the transfer of land has to be a priority, but as a sole objective, and government has not demonstrated that it is anything more than that, is insufficient. As a small example, take the case of the Impendle area in KwaZulu-Natal. There, 60% of land has been transferred to the state. Unemployment is 87%. Transfer alone is not a solution in itself, and you can’t blame communities for not transforming their lives, and then threaten to take the land away from them again because it hasn’t been turned into a bread basket overnight, which moreover was not the original objective of restitution.

Clearly farm dwellers, for example, have not benefited from land reform. Or those whose claims have gathered dust, or those who have not put in claims. It is not fair to say no one has benefited. There has been rampant elite accumulation along the way, and many of those who already have significant capital benefit from land acquisitions and transfers. Where the mechanism of land reform is the state alone, the political class can position to benefit itself. To forestall this, to ensure that the powerful do not become more powerful, calls for a different process, one in which social dialogue will lead to social policy which results in a social compact, in the interests of a common purpose. The consultative processes that government has tried to implement, for example newly established labour tenant forums, and district forums, are no more than “invited spaces”, with a pre-set agenda prescribed by the government departments and no effort to even out power inequalities. A better process would be to have, for example, social partners as co-chairs, and not be there by ‘invitation’ only. That would mean a meeting belongs to the social partners. We had a vision for this when we created the constitution, so that institutions by their very nature created dialogue to create policy. Now anonymous officials make rulings on who can and can’t attend forums.

To break the blockages in land reform will take not pronouncements from on high, but a coalition of the willing. Instead of getting stuck on what is an intractable problem of legislation, budgets and endless new policies, there is enough energy and goodwill grounded in good citizenship that can drive the process. Government should join this dynamic. It should support local initiatives by providing services to people on land, and work together with farm dwellers and land owners, organised agriculture and local government. Pronouncements in parliament do not bring water to people on farms. It is necessary to help people where they are, and to improve their lives. South Africans need to work together to develop new directions in agriculture and sustainable living, because this ultimately is the purpose of the land debate. We cannot talk about land alone. It’s not an issue in isolation.

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