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Analysis: Land politicised, land divided

Speaking to traditional leaders last week, President Jacob Zuma went off script. His comments were charismatic, even encouraging, but ultimately show how the issue of land is detached from meaningful reform, meaning one of the country's most important issues will continue to be exploited for political gain. By GREG NICOLSON.

“In fact it is beyond comprehension how a land as majestically stirring, as abundantly endowed with human and natural resources, as fertile in producing both food and feelings of intense joy and longing, can create nothing more than this shabby and repetitious growling of constitutional misreading, statistical embellishment, land-grabbing hysteria and food security myths, mostly led by intimidating, small-eyed, thick-necked, greedy men,” writes Antjie Krog in a new collection of essays, Land Divided, Land Restored.

Issues of land remain some of the most emotive in local discourse, chained to personal identity, livelihood, oppression, and violence. Yet the complex history and post-1994 systems of governance and redress are most often reduced to slogans, used and abused by coffee-shop-revolutionaries and campaigning politicians. Since the Economic Freedom Fighters emerged, voicing anger over land dispossession and the failure of transformation policies, efforts to lead the conversation have detached “land” from land, while actual work on the issue founders.

Responding to the rhetoric, and coinciding with the centenary of the 1913 Land Act, President Zuma and the ANC have introduced a raft of legislation aimed at giving the party the lead on the issue, which will change little. Last week Zuma, continuing the disconnected dialogue, suggested more troubled times ahead.

Compiling available statistics, Land Divided, Land Restored says by 2013 only 3.37 percent of land had been redistributed through land reform initiatives and 2.46 percent claimed through restitution, with around 20,000 restitution claims not finalised after being lodged in 1998.

“In 20 years land reform has only marginally altered the agrarian structure of South Africa, and has made relatively minor positive impacts on those to whom land has been transferred,” writes University of Western Cape academic Ben Cousins. Around eight percent of farmland has been transferred. Many urban, as well as rural, claims have resulted in cash compensation. Projects to build viable agriculture businesses from restitution claims have struggled and tenure on farms and in communal areas remains largely unreformed.

The failures stem from poor policies and implementation as meaningful land reform is sacrificed to politics. Addressing the National House of Traditional Leaders last week, Zuma highlighted two of these problems.

According to UCT’s Centre for Law and Society (CLS), which translated impromptu remarks from the president, Zuma again encouraged traditional leaders to apply for land claims in the re-opened window until 2019, suggesting they establish joint legal counsel. “I requested that we should all come together as traditional leaders and have perhaps one set of lawyers that we can all contribute to. They can deploy themselves in different provinces, so that there is no land that remains in the wrong hands,” translated CLS.

There are already fears that the re-opening of land claims is an attempt by the ANC to maintain the support of traditional leaders who can influence the rural vote. Leaders such as King Goodwill Zwelithini have already announced plans to claim enormous tracts of land. CLS said the comments, not in the official speech, highlight the president’s “double speak”, “the closed dialogue on land reform taking place between government and traditional leaders to the exclusion of communities.”

However, Zuma said the Communal Land Bill, expected in Parliament this year, will empower citizens in rural areas to have more control over their land. It will institutionalise their land rights and enable them to access credit, hand the land down to their children and enter into investment partnerships.

Yet there is widespread fear the Bill will do the opposite and entrench Apartheid patterns of control by traditional authorities, who will gain titles. Criticising Zuma’s land policies, Aninka Claassens from CLS has warned that the poor will be deprived of land ownership as it will continue to be a tool of patronage propping up the former Bantustan elites.

“Pressure from particular lobby groups among traditional leaders has led to the extraordinary outcome that in the centenary year of the 1913 Land Act, the ANC government adopted policies that once again foreclose the option of land ownership for poor black people,” says Claassens. “Most flagrant is the reiteration of the colonial premise that rural African people never had, and are still not entitled to, ownership rights in respect of the land they have occupied and used for generations.”

Through failing to reform traditional leadership systems, critics complain that land is vastly underutilised as rural residents lack individual ownership and authorities dispense patronage.

Zuma’s comments further reflect past ideology on land and black farmers. “You should be charging people that are not farming… the land should be taken from people that are not using productively and be given to those that are diligent,” CLS translated his comments last week, urging the traditional leaders to get locals to work, but raising the spectre of evictions.

Ruth Hall from the University of Western Cape has written on how emerging farmer resettlement, with a focus on “proper farming” and establishing a commercial black farming class, is a hallmark of current land reform. “This idea, gestated through colonialism and Apartheid, has blinkered policy thinking about the rich diversity of situations, needs and possibilities to which land and agrarian reform can respond, and the profound structural changes it can bring about,” she says in Land Divided, Land Restored.

Essentially, while assistance for small-scale and subsistence farmers is ignored, even though they could help reduce poverty, the few commercial farmers seen as productive are benefiting from reform programmes. The current strategy, suggested Hall, has been around for over 100 years with little significant impact.

Hall describes four key changes since 1994. Commercial farm ownership is more concentrated. Fewer people are employed in the agricultural industry. Large companies in agribusiness have been the big winners from the state’s policies, rather than farmers. And many families who have land through reform or in communal areas cannot use it effectively. Meanwhile, the state has re-opened restitution claims, which if processed at the current rate could take over 200 years to complete, suggesting some claims from connected applicants and traditional leaders could succeed while others are added to the thousands that have been uncompleted since 1998.

The academics offer a range of changes to improve the system, but it’s unlikely anyone is listening. For those in power, and with the EFF and ANC both trying to claim the Freedom Charter ahead of next year’s local elections, it’s easier and more beneficial in the short-term to capitalise on the emotional connection to “land” than to focus on meaningful reform.

The “shabby and repetitious growling” allows the state to maintain the status quo and dispense patronage where needed. DM

Photo: Thorn trees mark a sparse landscape on a farm near Aberdeen in the Karoo, South Africa October 11, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings


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