Resolving South Africa’s land crisis in South Africa requires radical solutions


Activist Mazibuko Jara outlines South Africa’s failures in implementing land reform and the solutions necessary to address the crisis.

Resolving South Africa’s land crisis in South Africa requires radical solutions

25 years after the end of Apartheid, the land question remains unresolved. Why has only so little progress been achieved?

Primarily, the failure to resolve the land question is due to the lack of political will on the part of the African National Congress (ANC) and its government. This political will is shaped by the ANC’s historical neglect of the land question and its reluctance to undertake a radical, thorough-going transformation of South Africa’s political economy. Historically, the ANC has poorly analysed and theorised South Africa’s land question. Even though South Africa experienced the most invasive land dispossession in the world (93% of the land was dispossessed) the focus of the ANC’s anti-apartheid struggle was on democratic rights. Important as this was, it minimised the importance of the land question in the ANC’s vision of a post-apartheid South Africa.

It was only in 1993 that the ANC produced a significant document on the land question. By this time, the ANC was already under the policy influence of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which drove neo-liberal Structural Adjustment Programmes in the developing world. The World Bank and the IMF were key interlocutors in shaping ANC economic policy options in the 1990s. This was crowned by the ANC government’s 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macro-economy policy. This neo-liberal policy framework confirmed the ANC’s reluctance to systematically and structurally transform South Africa’s economy. Since then, the ANC has prioritised investor interests based on the belief that its economic policy signals would attract foreign direct investment that would drive job-creating economic growth. Radical land redistribution was seen by the ANC as contrary to this policy thrust.

Even preceding this GEAR policy, by 1994 the ANC had already committed to a market-based land reform policy in line with policy recommendations from the World Bank and the IMF. These recommendations were driven through the ANC-aligned Land and Agricultural Policy Centre as well as research papers released by both global monetary institutions. Market-based land reform limited the role of the state and subjected the resolution of the land question to the vissicitudes of the market. This meant that the ANC government would buy land available on the market and then use it for restitution and redistribution. The ANC government prioritised and protected the interests of the willing buyer at the expense of the landless. This remains the case with government policy to this day despite all the radical rhetoric.

Market-based land reform led to the redistribution of less than 7% of agricultural land to date. Market-based land reform failed to stop the eviction of more than 2 million farm dwellers since 1994. These are more people than those who have benefitted from land reform. By comparison, these evictions come close to apartheid-era forced removals of some 3 million people between 1960 and 1980.

Further, GEAR also imposed fiscal discipline which negatively affected the budget for land reform and agriculture. This meant that relevant state institutions never had sufficient capacity and resources to decisively drive effective land redistribution. Even to this day, budgets for land reform and agriculture remain completely inadequate.

The negative effects of market-based land reform were compounded by the deregulation and liberalisation of the agricultural sector as was required by the GEAR policy. The deregulation and liberalisation of agriculture remove trade tariff protections, farmer production incentives, controlled pricing and other agricultural support systems which had been central in the development of commercial white agriculture. This deregulation and liberalisation squeezed many commercial farmers leading to a decline in the number of individual owners of commercial farms from 90,000 in the early 1990s to the less than 35,000 farmers we have today. This was accompanied by at least 300,000 job losses as farmers minimised costs and responded to global competition in the absence of state support. Today, South Africa has the second lowest agricultural producer support estimate in the world.

The policy options above were also consolidated by Section 25 of the country’s Constitution. Even though this section promotes land reform and allows for expropriation, but it has two major flaws. The first flaw is to subject compensation for expropriation to a court process which necessarily imposes delays and costs to land reform. The second flaw is the 1913 cut-off date for land restitution given that the 1913 Land Act merely codified what had been achieved through colonial land dispossession. In other words, the 1913 cut-off excludes claims for the restitution of land rights that were lost before 1913.

Further to the policy options and the constitutional flaws, the ANC also proved itself as a government prepared to sacrifice the poor at the behest of what it considers as more important interests. This can be seen in how the ANC government has failed to pass legislation to protect the tenure of those whose tenure was insecure in the past dispensation. This failure is despite a clear constitutional provision in this regard. Instead of passing such legislation, the ANC has opted to use rural land in the former homelands to bolster the power of tribal chiefs in ways that perpetuate tenure insecurity.

In a recent paper (Land redistribution in South Africa: pondering the solidarity economy alternative ) you call for a land reform based on a transformative political economy logic and framework which departs fundamentally from neo-liberalism. Can you elaborate on this?

This approach has to based on an a fundamentally different, overarching transformative political economy logic and framework from what we have as government land reform and agricultural policy. Such a framework has to depart fundamentally from the neo-liberalism that has dominated land reform to date. This will require a move away from the prevalent assumptions in ANC and government policy formulations that capitalist property relations should persist unchallenged even after widespread land redistribution. The required political economy foundation must inform and shape the detailed provisions of the technical and policy solutions/models required. In other words, the core questions above are primarily political and not technicist. A narrow, apparently “concrete”, technicist modelling approach may end up reinforcing the very same political economy that generated the very questions. It would probably also result in many academic articles and research projects without any concrete relevance to actual land redistribution and the required systemic transformation of society. In other words, a decisive resolution of these essentially political, social and economic questions in practice will not be possible without a transformative approach. In any case, it is not as if the agricultural sector is not facing systemic and structural crises which are often ignored in the public debate. This agrarian crisis requires radical solutions that go to the root of the problem.

The proposed transformative approach must necessarily include building new institutional capacities in the state for effective land and agrarian reform, sectoral interventions in the agricultural value chain, a conducive macro-economic policy framework, and ensuring sufficient fiscal allocations. All this will require some significant encroachment into the inordinate power of private capital in particular the rolling back and transformation of the market in land and associated agricultural value chain. Further, even the combination of the strategic and the concrete will not be enough to ensure transformative land redistribution without breaking new ground with regards to the centrality of regenerated agency and power of the landless, transformative power and action from below so to speak. Thus, the main approach to land redistribution proposed in this paper combines these three dynamics: a transformative political economy framework, effective policy solutions and mass power. This approach is framed as the solidarity economy approach applied to land redistribution. This solidarity economy approach is about the reconstruction of society, about rethinking power and how power is held, by whom and for whom, for what purposes instead of reducing land redistribution to a stale process concerned with technicalities around meaning of legal words, and technical possibilities such words grant to society.

Building on this solidarity economy approach, the core proposals put forward in this paper are:

  1. Land hungry households and communities should be the main beneficiaries of land redistribution. These are located in both the former homelands, the still white commercial countryside, informal settlements and urban areas. As a broad category, this grouping includes unemployed people, farm workers (including those evicted since 1994), farm dwellers, small farmers, dwellers of informal settlements and dwellers of townships and city centres. This is radically different from seeing land redistribution as an opportunity to deracialise land ownership and commercial agriculture in favour of elite class formation by aspirant black capitalists.
  2. Land for redistribution should be identified through considering a combination of factors most relevant to a transformative logic. These are historical redress, ensuring equitable land access to land hungry beneficiaries, the decongestion of the former homelands and the densely populated zones of dire black residence outside the homelands, breaking up large farms to enable the emergence and growth of smaller farms, the reconceptualisation of land as an asset for multiple uses, and the agro-ecological potential of the land to be redistributed. Key policy tools, processes and institutional players in this regard must include municipal Integrated Development Plans (particularly at district level) combined with the approach of area-based planning for land and agrarian reform, spatial planning, the mapping of all registered claims for land restitution, the mapping and review of all leases on public land to private users (e.g. municipal commonage land leased to private farms), the mapping of existing agricultural production by land hungry communities, the mapping of farms in debt, un- and under-utilised land, an appropriate supportive role for the Office of the Valuer-General, and the central role that capacitated government departments and other public institutions must play.
  3. The state should be the main institution to acquire land through a combination of different measures: purchases, expropriation, donations, release of available public land, review of all pre-transition long-term leases over public land (e.g. leases in municipal commonage land), and the recognition of rights to land of occupied land. The state must play its role primarily based on consultation with and empowerment of self-organised intended beneficiaries, negotiations where appropriate with current land owners, and with the involvement of courts as a matter of last resort under clear criteria set out in an amended Constitution. Such criteria must direct courts to enable land redistribution. The overall processes of land acquisition should be based on a pro-poor bias, public participation, openness, transparency and accountability.
  4. Transfer should enable the growth, consolidation and legal validation/recognition of values, practices and institutions that guarantee equity, redress, democratic participation, security of tenure, the use of land to ensure the realisation of decent and sustainable livelihoods by all, and the public interest protection of land as a universal public good to be preserved and protected from degradation, alienation and commodification (for the present and the long-term future): in this sense the ecological and social functions of land have to be legally restored and protected.
  5. The state must provide legal certainty, security and protection of different bundles of rights to redistributed land. These include the primary reassertion and legal recognition of land as a public good with inherent social value that trumps private property ownership, and the recognition of diverse forms of tenure beyond private title deeds. The diverse tenure systems must protect vulnerable individuals and communities (such as women, youth, farm workers, farm dwellers, dwellers of informal settlements, etc.).
  6. Key elements of support required by beneficiaries include social facilitation, development planning, land administration, spatial planning and land use, production and marketing support, a conducive broader macro-economic framework and industrial policy-like interventions in the agricultural value chain.
  7. Land redistribution should contribute to four transformative outcomes: historical redress, wealth (asset) redistribution, decent livelihoods and transformation of local economies.

What is the relation of South African women to the land and is this reflected in ongoing discussions?

Women are the majority of the landless. Women remain without secure tenure and rights to land. Women constitute 59% of rural areas in the former homelands. It is in these homelands where the often-partriachal tribal chiefs have inordinate powers over land allocation. Land reform debates have largely been silent on how land redistribution must be gendered and prioritise women. Where women have had some access to land combined with public goods we have seen significant improvements in the quality of livelihoods through the investments that women make.

In general, what are the most pressing issues in the coming 25 years in South Africa?

Land redistribution, rural development, food production, employment and a just transition to a low carbon economy are the most pressing issues for the next 25 years. These would be the basis for stable, secure, decent and comfortable livelihoods for all, and a stable political system. Without significant changes in these areas, South Africa will be more unequal and unstable.