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Land Redistribution in South Africa Moves to the Front Burner

Integrated Regional Information Networks, United Nations, November 4, 2007

Claimants from the Pniel community sing and dance after the South African government, in a move designed to silence criticism that it is dragging its feet over land reform, took possession March 10 of the first farm to be expropriated on their ancestral land. (Photo: Gianluigi Guercia / AFP-Getty Images)

The South African government has revealed that less than 5 percent of white-owned commercial agricultural land has been redistributed since the demise of apartheid in 1994, making the target of having 30 percent redistributed by 2014 seem almost unachievable.

Dealing with the skewed apartheid land legacy has been a constant refrain of the ruling African National Congress since it came to power nearly 14 years ago, but progress has been stymied by a range of factors, including capacity constraints in the Land Affairs Department, steep rises in property prices, and political will.

Cultural and emotional imperatives often underpin land ownership in South Africa, as in much of the continent, where, beyond land as a resource or investment, it is also regarded as having social and spiritual value. The issue is fraught with all of these, and South Africa's neighbor, Zimbabwe, serves as a constant reminder of the dangers of not resolving it.

A Nigerian chief's submission to the West African Land Commission in 1912 is often quoted by government as encompassing the values of land ownership. "I conceive that land belongs to a vast family, of which many are dead, few are living, and countless yet unborn."

During apartheid, 87 percent of the land was reserved for the white minority, while the remainder was parceled out to the black majority. However, only 13 percent of South Africa's land, much of it in the hands of white farmers, is deemed suitable for crop production.

South Africa's Department of Land Affairs noted in its annual report for 2006-2007 that it "faced a serious challenge" if it was to achieve its 2014 target.

The report's release coincided with the sacking of the land affairs director general, Glen Thomas, with the official reason given as his failure to return in a timely manner from watching South Africa's rugby world cup victory in Paris, causing him to miss a scheduled parliamentary portfolio committee meeting to address the qualified audit his department received from the auditor general.

However, critics have cited Thomas's inability to pick up the pace of land reform as a consequence, according to reports, of staff spending only six days a month at their desks, and the remainder of the working month spent at workshops or meetings.

Thomas also managed to alienate himself from the white farming unions, who found his style aloof, as well as land activists, who reportedly felt patronized and angry that the department had failed to confront the growing number of agricultural workers evicted from farms.

Rising Eviction Rates of Farm Workers

A recent report by the Nkuzi Development Association, a nongovernmental organization advocating land rights, claimed that between 1994 and 2004, 942,303 farm workers were evicted from farms, 200,000 more than were evicted in the decade leading up to the demise of apartheid.

The report said farmers had listed their reasons for evicting farm workers as drought, international competition, deregulation of the sector and the minimum wage regulations. "Labor on farms is one production cost that can be cut or reduced, especially given the low level of unionization and inability of farm workers and dwellers to defend their rights."

The land affairs annual report said 4.3 percent of land had been distributed to black beneficiaries since 1994. Spokesman Eddie Mohoebi told the media last week: "It is clear that, short of nationalization of land, there is a need for drastic measures to be implemented to intervene in the land market to accelerate redistribution."

Ben Cousins, director of the Program for Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, told IRIN the 30 percent target was "not feasible at all," but then again, it was just an "arbitrary figure."

Agrarian Reform

Cousins said targets, dates, and speeds were really not the issue; the focus should be on sustainability, and this raised questions of approach, budget, and political will. "Land reform on its own cannot achieve rural poverty reduction," he said, and a rethink of the extent of agricultural deregulation was required.

All producers—small, medium, and large—were competing in a difficult global market, and land distribution had to be carried out in concert with agrarian reform, where policies concerning subsidies and market protection could be considered, he said.

In October, Land and Agricultural Affairs Minister Lulu Xingwana blamed white farmers for the delay of land restitution because "They increase land prices so that the state cannot afford to buy it."

There have been calls from some quarters to cap land prices, but Cousins told IRIN that the market was buoyant, with land being bought and sold on a constant basis, but unfortunately, "government is a very ineffective player of the [land] market" and did not match the supply of land to the demand.

Government was also sending contradictory messages on land distribution: on the one hand, it touted land reform, although the national budget of about 3 billion South African rand ($430 million) for land and agriculture was very small, while on the other hand, it relied on commercial farmers to produce the country's food.

Cousins said the land issue had the potential to be politically volatile: as in Zimbabwe, "it is a symbol for other sorts of things not working," such as reducing poverty and creating employment; and like in Zimbabwe, it can be "a vehicle for other kinds of frustrations."

A few months after Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government lost a referendum on constitutional reform in 2000—the first public vote the party had lost since achieving independence from Britain in 1980—the government adopted a chaotic fast-track land reform program that saw white-owned commercial farms expropriated for landless blacks.

Since then the country has experienced a seven-year recession, recording the world's highest inflation rate—more than 6,000 percent—and 80 percent unemployment. International donor agencies conservatively estimate that more than a third of the population, or 4.1 million people, require emergency food aid. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.

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