Land reform green paper out, at last. Almost.

By Carien Du Plessis 26 August 2011

Government’s long-awaited green paper on land reform has been approved by Cabinet and will be available for comment next week. CARIEN DU PLESSIS had a sneak preview and there were no surprises. At least no new ones.

The green paper on land reform is fast becoming the Shangri-La of green papers, and it lived up to that reputation again when journalists went to the post-Cabinet briefing in Pretoria on Thursday, expecting to find copies waiting.

Instead we were given folders with a 22-page point form summary of what we can expect to see in the actual green paper, which is only due to be released next week. Officials are “optimistic”, at least.

Cabinet has now approved the document, which is progress. Rural development and land reform minister Gugile Nkwinti has confirmed as much in Parliament on Wednesday, and government spokesman Jimmy Manyi said it in the briefing again on Thursday.

This is much closer to the actual policy document than we’ve ever been. The paper was expected to be tabled in March or April last year, then in August, but it wasn’t even ready for Cabinet.

The delay was due to the debate raging within the ANC on the matter, and apparently also because the team which drafted the document embarrassingly didn’t quite come up with what the minister and the ANC had in mind.

Most of the proposals have been reported on extensively and they were amongst those accepted by the ANC at its July lekgotla.

Some of the things the policy won’t include are: expropriation without compensation, as called for by the ANC Youth League, a restriction on land ownership by race, and a blanket ban on foreign ownership.

But there will be a Land Management Commission, a Land Valuer-General (who will help negotiate reasonable prices for the land to avoid exorbitant pricing, although the need for this has been questioned by critics, who said government should just implement its existing policies better), a Land Rights Management Board, with local management committees, and a four-tier land tenure system.

This four-tier system includes state and public land leaseholds, private land freehold title with limited extent, foreign precarious title with regulatory limitations, obligations and conditions (to prevent the country from falling into rich and foreign hands) and communal tenure for mixed use with institutionalised use rights (this is set to fill the gap left by the Communal Land Right Act, which was declared unconstitutional in May).

The “land ceilings” imposed on foreign ownership have been controversial, although not as controversial as the outright prevention of foreign land ownership in the country, which was originally mooted. Property agents have complained that restrictions might scare off investors and they have argued that foreign land owners are in a minority in South Africa anyway (a 2006 survey found less than 5% of South African land is foreign-owned).

Sunday Ogunronbi, from policy research and legislation development in the department, explained to iMaverick that foreign land ownership would be dealt with in the Land Protection Bill, to be submitted to Cabinet in the next few months.

Amongst others, it would deal with foreigners buying land in South Africa to launder money. He said in some countries like Nigeria, officials would steal money from government and invest it in land in other countries.

He also gave an example of a Norwegian national who recently bought land in the Eastern Cape with money he stole from the government there. He was caught out and the land was sold back to the original family.

The bill would also seek to impose a ceiling on the amount of land foreigners can own, and deal with the issue of “sensitive land”, such as land close to military bases, which government might want to have a first option on.

Coastal land is also an issue. Large tracts are sometimes bought by foreigners for speculation purposes alone, releasing it later on the market at “exorbitant prices”, while the government might want to develop this land for residential purposes.

Restrictions will also apply to agricultural land for food security purposes. Foreigners or private owners would not be able to turn a productive farm into, say, a game farm or one where no food is produced.

Also, “we are expecting to be able to say to a foreigner intending to purchase agricultural land that he may need to partner with a South African in specific cases,” Ogunronbi said.

Officials said the paper could not be released on Thursday (the paper on the National Health Insurance two weeks ago was released the day after Cabinet approved it and published the next day) because it needed some polishing. Notes following the Cabinet meeting needed to be added, and Nkwinti still had to write a foreword.

The writers also had to make some additions about the public participation process, but the officials declined to give details.

It is unclear what the public participation process would involve or how long it will take, but one thing is certain. Government would want to do this thoroughly to prevent the embarrassment of any Constitutional Court challenges to the law. Many interest groups are watching. DM

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