South Africa

National Land Forum: Does the Constitution need to change to effect land reform?

By Rebecca Davis 29 March 2018

As the two-day National Forum for Dialogue on Land, Heritage and Rights came to an end in Johannesburg on Wednesday, a number of key points emerged from the talks. One was whether amending the Constitution is really necessary to effect land reform now that political will around the issue has been galvanised. Another was that the current administration of land-related matters needs to change significantly. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Two days is a woefully short period in which to tackle the fraught issue of land expropriation without compensation, and this week’s National Forum for Dialogue on Land, Heritage and Rights did not pretend to supply all the answers.

By the time the land forum concluded on Wednesday, however, a reasonable consensus seemed to have emerged around some key points.

It may not be necessary to amend the Constitution in order to address South Africa’s land reform imperative.

Several voices indicated that there was no need to change the Constitution,” said dialogue convenor Professor Quinton Johnson on Wednesday, in summing up the discussions.

This view was expressed most directly by the ANC’s deputy minister of public works Jeremy Cronin, who said that although the ANC had not yet consolidated its position, “the emerging view within is that the Constitution does not require an amendment”.

This was also hinted at by Minister of Land Reform Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who said on Tuesday that her department was preparing to use the existing constitutional mechanisms for land expropriation. It was a view that also seemed to be shared by former ANC Youth League deputy president Ronald Lamola, who is part of an ANC task team set up to shape the party’s position on land.

The MD of the Banking Association of South Africa, Cas Coovadia, said on Wednesday that from the perspective of South African banks, “our view would be that you don’t have to change the Constitution”.

The current land restitution process is being strangled by bureaucracy.

On both days of the forum, speakers voiced concern about the bureaucratic morass in which land reform is currently mired. Government has land programmes, said Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe, but “they are regulated by bureaucracy in a way that destroys the intention”.

ANC MP Mathole Motshekga said that if government hadn’t spent so much money on salary and petrol allowances for the officials tasked with overseeing land reform, results would be far more impressive by now.

Brian Whittaker, director of the Vumelana Advisory Fund, had an interesting proposal on Wednesday for simplifying restitution processes.

Can we learn lessons from the insurance industry?” Whittaker asked, suggesting that the territory was not dissimilar.

A Land Ombudsman position should be created.

A number of participants in the forum called for a Land Ombudsman to be appointed to manage disputes around the land reform process. This was one of a few institutional changes which were proposed.

Another, advanced by AgriSA executive director Omri van Zyl on Wednesday, was that the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform should be merged in order to work more cohesively. Since President Cyril Ramaphosa has already indicated that his Cabinet is due for a trim-down, this might be a way of killing two birds with one stone.

White farmers should consider donating land voluntarily.

This idea was first voiced at the forum by Gwede Mantashe, who told white farmers:

Volunteer land, because there is land hunger among black South Africans”.

Mantashe said that this was one way of averting a situation of anarchy which would make Zimbabwe look like a “Sunday picnic”.

The notion was reiterated by the Agri-Sector Unity Forum’s Pitso Sekhoto on Wednesday.

White farmers must donate land,” Sekhoto said. “We cannot expect government to do everything.”

Land reform offers opportunities as well as challenges.

While much of the national discourse around land reform has focused on its potential dangers, speakers this week reminded the audience that there is much to be gained, too – beyond social justice.

AgriSA’s Van Zyl pointed out that Africa has 60% of the world’s arable land, and the continent thus stands to be “the breadbasket of the future”. He suggested, moreover, that agriculture is “the only sector in the economy that can get us out of our economic woes” – and that expanding agricultural production in South Africa through land redistribution benefits everyone.

Banking SA’s Coovadia said that South African banks currently have an exposure of R129-billion in agricultural land – and that the banks wanted to help “create an environment to increase this”. If land reform is undertaken in a way that protects property rights and financial markets, said Coovadia, it can be a driver of economic growth.

Hanif Vally, the deputy director of the Foundation for Human Rights, also pointed out on Wednesday that a society which tackles inequality head-on stands to benefit in some unexpected ways. Vally said that research has shown that the more unequal a society is, the less innovative: fewer technological breakthroughs, fewer patents registered.

Land reform has to deal with environmental concerns.

Notably absent from the land discussion up till now has been reference to the potential impact of land reform on the environment. Thomas Fraser, an activist from the Food Sovereignty Campaign, told the forum audience that considerations around climate change had to assume greater importance on the agenda.

The CEO of Grain SA, Jannie de Villiers, meanwhile, proposed that certain areas of South African land should be reserved for food production only, with no mining or infrastructure development permitted.

Land has emotional and personal meanings.

AgriSA’s Van Zyl testified to the current anxiety experienced by South Africa’s farmers.

The guys literally think someone’s gonna pitch up there and take their land,” Van Zyl said, suggesting that as a consequence many farmers are reluctant to invest further in their farms.

On the other side of the debate, almost every speaker of colour at the forum had a personal story of dispossession to share: from Professor Quinton Johnson’s account of being moved out of District Six, to attorney Bulelwa Mabasa’s childhood memories of suddenly realising that suburbs existed with trees and clean air.

Land means more than a patch of earth, the forum was reminded. It is inextricably bound up with injustice, suffering, and a sense of belonging (or not) in South Africa. DM

Photo: Gabriel via Flickr

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