South Africa

South Africa

Analysis: Land reform in a year of election

Analysis: Land reform in a year of election

Parliament passed the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill on Tuesday, opening restitution and redistribution claims again for another five years. The Democratic Alliance had to face its race bogey, something the ANC can easily exploit on such an emotive issue and something the EFF has little trouble with. By GREG NICOLSON.

“Land must be returned to blacks in South Africa no matter what the consequences are for the current owners and for political stability,” agreed 68% of black respondents to a 2001 survey. Since then, urbanisation has continued and the land issue may have lost some of its allure. But there is no doubt it remains an emotional issue for voters, one that’s tied up in the politics of race, especially among black voters who are skeptical of the ANC’s “good story” and disappointed with the rate of transformation. During the Economic Freedom Fighters’ manifesto launch on Saturday, Julius Malema’s announcement that his government will become custodian of the land, and distribute it fairlym got enormous cheers from some 50,000 supporters in attendance.

The Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill was one of the ANC’s priorities before the impending closure of Parliament and it was clear it would pass. Tuesday’s debate over the Bill, however, reflected the dynamics headed up to the 7 May polls.

Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille is convinced the ANC will win the vote only because it can exploit racial and ethnic divisions. “All they need to do is keep old divisions alive, and they win every time. This is exactly what the National Party did under Apartheid. So it makes sense that both the NNP’s former leaders, as well as the ‘old nationalists’, now with the Freedom Front Plus, are with the ANC today. They all use the same strategy of ethnic and racial mobilisation, otherwise known as ‘divide and rule’,” she wrote on Sunday.

She hammered the ANC’s record on land reform, pointing out the failure to turn land recipients into viable farmers, the high level of claimants who take cash compensation rather than land, almost R100 million in illegal land grants, and multiple examples of fraud and corruption. The failure of land reform is well known. After democracy, 30% of commercial farmland was supposed to be redistributed to black farmers within five years with restitution claims being settled in 10 years. The rush of claimants combined with insufficient resources to process the claims and an inefficient system prone to backlogs and fraud made these goals unrealistic.

The new amendments will open up claims for another five years, at the expected cost of up to R179 billion over 10 years. The Act makes fraudulent claims a crime and seeks to overcome some of the inefficiencies. It will also consider allowing those who were dispossessed of land before the 1913 Land Act to apply, which is targeted at the Khoisan nation. The ANC says it’s crucial to open up the claims again, as last time featured insufficient communication and many people missed out.

Zille called it an election gimmick. “Its purpose is to deflect attention from past failures by seeking to re-open the ‘window of opportunity’ for land claims until 2019. It says to potential claimants: if you did not lodge a claim by the deadline of 1998, we are giving you another chance to do so now. This offer then becomes the overriding focus of the land debate during the election campaign! Neat. The government escapes any focus on its disastrous land reform record, while diverting the debate into the most racially divisive and emotive dead-end,” she claims. “It is merely intended to divide South Africans along traditional fault lines.”

Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti didn’t hide the importance of the elections in Tuesday’s debate. “It’s an endless programme… It does intensify during elections because it is our revolutionary task to ensure that people will support us because it is we that will restore the land back to the people. Not you. You will never do that,” he told the DA.

ANC MP Mandla Mandela made an emotional appeal to voters to support the ANC in honour of his grandfather, and also criticised the DA’s image as a white party. “You represent the minority who own the vast majority. While we, the ANC, represent the vast majority who are still denied accessibility (sic) to the land of their forefathers,” he told the DA.

“Voting against this Bill will be voting for backward movement to 1913,” said the ANC’s Jerry Thibedi, before saying the DA bench might be mistaken for a visiting delegation from the European Parliament.

It was clear that the different parties agree on the need for land reform. The DA’s Kevin Mileham argued for new amendments to be included in the Bill. With over 8,000 claims still not settled, reports of corruption and insufficient resources to cover the new claims, “[t]his government and this Bill in its current form are not going to do it,” he said. The DA wanted new claims to only be open for only a year, improved public communication (which the ANC says is already underway) and a private contractor to investigate claims. It also wanted new claimants to explain why they missed the last window and members of the claims commission to be appointed through Parliament rather than the minister. The proposal was shot down. “It appears this is yet another unfunded election promise the ANC has no intention to deliver on,” said Mileham. He added that without an orderly process voters would be let down and South Africa could see Zimbabwe-style land invasions.

ANC Chief Whip Stone Sizani’s office said the new Act signals a move away from the “willing-buyer, willing-seller” model. “This re-opening of land claims for those who missed the deadline will be guided by a just and equitable principle of compensation as opposed to the willing-buyer and willing-seller system. The system is anticipated to be faster and efficient because the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform will be using better and advanced technological systems; and there will be additional employees working on this project. This Act will also strengthen the office of the land claims court and it will be led by the Judge President of the High Court, who will be assisted by Judges of the High Court.”

Zille says the “willing-buyer, willing-seller” model, which gives farmers market value for their property but has been criticised for holding up claims and being prone to inflated prices, isn’t the problem. It hardly seems the fastest way to promote transformation, but judging the model is difficult because it’s part of a system that has never really worked.

What’s crucial is that claimants and the enormous number of voters who have an emotional attachment to the land issue, even if they won’t be part of the process, are unhappy seeing whites still owning large swathes of land while many blacks have for too long been stuck in conditions similar to Apartheid. People want drastic action, on this and other issues of transformation. That’s why the EFF is the fastest-growing party in the country.

Even with the new amendments that tighten some land reform processes, the ANC’s track record inspires little hope for much improvement. Zille’s right: the issue is more about divisions than unity. The perception that the DA is out to defend the interests of whites, even if that view is diminishing, gives it little legitimacy on the topic. The EFF faces no such worries, except the fear that land reform will benefit party leaders instead of the majority. DM

Photo: Farm workers reap beetroots at a farm in Klippoortie, east of Johannesburg November 21, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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