South Africa

The Interview: PLAAS’s Professor Ruth Hall on land, and what you should – and shouldn’t – worry about

By Marelise Van Der Merwe 29 March 2018

Everyone’s talking about it. Many of us have been wrong at least once. MARELISE VAN DER MERWE pinned down Professor Ruth Hall, from the South African Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape (PLAAS) to get some straight answers on the land question.

Daily Maverick: What are some of the successful models of land reform that we should be looking at?

Ruth Hall: Historically land reform typically happens at moment of major political change: revolution or major revolt. The point of land reform has typically been to change power relations between those who own property and those who don’t. The examples we can look at from the 20th century are twofold. On one hand, is South East Asia, for example Taiwan and South Korea. These were land reforms promoted in the context of the Cold War.

Then there are the capitalist land reforms promoted by the US. The idea was to break through the landlord class that was breaking the backs of the tenant farmers; to transfer land rights from the landlords to the tenants themselves.

In many respects these are considered the most successful land reforms on record because they broadened out ownership of the economy. Instead of a parasitic class that was extracting rent, what they enabled was a broadened class of farmers to produce, accumulate market, and those surpluses started to lay the basis for industrialisation.

Many people look at the rise of the Asian Tigers: that what enabled the rise of the Asian economy was the broadening of ownership of the agrarian economy.

DM: How do these compare to the case of South Africa?

The problem in South Africa is that it’s not very clear exactly who the land reform is for. In both the examples I’ve given it was very clear that the land reform was for the people already on the land. They were farming on the land owned by others and having rent extracted from them.

This is not typically the case in South Africa. We’ve gone through a process where both colonial conquest and apartheid ripped away land rights and agrarian livelihood, and what is left is a very de-agrarianised society. So when people in South Africa say “we want land”, they often mean often one of two things. One is a very symbolic and political point. “We want to have a sense that this country is ours, that our dignity is intact, that we are citizens of this country and co-own it and have overcome dispossession.”

But another issue often overlooked is that the land question is not only a rural phenomenon. It is also urban. With 60% of our population urbanised, people are saying, ‘We want not only to be relegated to the periphery. We want well-located land. We want access to services and resources. We don’t want to spend 40% of our income on transport.’ I think that is why our debate about land in SA is partly about people wanting land for agriculture, but equally about well-located land for housing.

What are some of the other complications?

In SA, we could have done a lot more with land reform in the past 24 years. One of the big problems is that we are not agreed on who should get the land.

In the early days post ’94, the agreement was that land reform was only for the poor: modest parcels of land – somewhere to live and a little bit extra for a little farming, a little small-scale business development. It was never very clear. But we never subdivided farms. So even though there was this idea of pro-poor smallholder farming, what we did in the ‘90s was force groups of people who often didn’t know each other to come together in collectives and try to take on large commercial farms. That has been problematic.

At the same time, in the 1990s, when we were embarking on land reform [we introduced] a market-based land reform based on the advice of the World Bank at the time – deregulating land reform and removing subsidies from farmers. What this meant was that black farmers who acquired land didn’t get the same subsidies and support available to white farmers decades before. The idea that small scale black farmers could out-compete established white commercial farmers was simply ridiculous.

The ANC government has not been willing to provide the kind of support to black farmers that the apartheid government gave to white farmers.

Do you think that may change?

We do have the National Development Plan, which says rural areas are important. It argues for prioritising land reforms and that poor farmers must get support, but we have not yet heard clear plans from government for the kinds of systems of subsidies and support (which were used to create a white commercial farming class) to apply those same methods to support black farmers. In the absence of that, we are asking black farmers to beat people with decades of privilege and support at their own game.

You speak of the NDP. What elements of our current legislation are underutilised?

Parliament’s High Level Panel Report that looked into areas of legislation since 1994, and assessed the degree to which the executive has actually implemented those laws, is our best guide to what should be done about land reform. This panel was chaired by Kgalema Mothlanthe.

It commissioned multiple studies across the country. It heard evidence from experts and conducted hearings from ordinary people in every province. It said the problem with land reform was not the Constitution.

There has been no policy direction, no political leadership, almost no budgetary allocation, massive mismanagement, institutional incapacity, and corruption. Those are the arguments the panel put forward. It puts out several very powerful arguments of what should be done.

One of the most powerful suggestions is that there should be a new piece of legislation stating what is justice and what is equity across all categories: redistribution, restitution, tenure reform. We need to see whether the new dispensation under the new president is willing to take up this suggestion.

To return to what we spoke of earlier: agrarian versus urban land reform. What should urban land reform look like?

In the 1990s, when there was a discussion about the new dispensation and the need to transform property relations, it was clear land reform was both a rural and urban priority. Yet over time, the urban land reform agenda disappeared. Land reform became equated with farming, and this has become very evident now. Since 2009, the department of land affairs has become the department of rural development and land reform. The urban development land reform agenda disappeared.

In the current political moment, the urban land reform demand has become clearer. For instance, political parties like the EFF are talking about expropriation without compensation and land reform, but most of their constituents are not wanting to farm. They are wanting well located housing and plots in urban areas.

Across society we are seeing people mobilising, saying the City of Cape Town is sitting on well located land it is not developing, or selling to the highest bidder, rather than using that land to provide low-income housing for ordinary people.

What I see is that in the past few months, we are seeing a significant shift. People across the cities of SA are saying land reform is not a rural issue only. It is an urban issue. Land reform is a principle: we need to overcome spatial apartheid. It is intact in our rural areas between white commercial farms and communal areas and in the ex-Bantustans. It is intact in urban areas, in our CBDs and the outlying black townships. So let us look at land reform as a lens for how our cities and rural areas can look different. We are on the cusp of an exciting moment, where South Africans are saying, “we do not accept the status quo”. We are using this debate around EWC as a launching pad for a much more profound question around who should get land, where and for what.

Do you think concerns raised around amending the Constitution are warranted?

I don’t believe it’s necessary to change the Constitution. I have not heard any compelling reason why the Constitution has been an impediment to land reform. It clearly has not. The reason land reform has not advanced has been political, not legal and not Constitutional. It has not been prioritised.

What does the Constitution make provision for?

The Constitution in Section 25 – the property clause – provides a very powerful mandate for transformation, redistributing land, and restoring land to the dispossessed. It provides stronger rights to those who have weak rights. It has a very strong overriding clause which says that no provision of the Constitution that impedes the state from taking measures from embarking land reforms on overcoming the legacy of the past should stand in the way. I think we have a constitutional framework that is incredibly progressive. It provides a mandate, an injunction and an order to the state to embark on land reform. The problem is that the state to date has failed to do so.

The question is, if we were to change the Constitution, would things change? My view is no. The state has been redistributing land. There is ample evidence that the redistribution of land has been captured by elite interests. The state has bought farms and given farms to those who are already politically connected. Farm workers have been evicted and the state has not bothered to protect them. We must secure the rights of those who are insecure. This remains a very strong mandate for transformation. The question is whether the ANC in 2018 is up to the task.

Practically speaking, we have a major backlog. How are we going to ensure that the job actually gets done?

One of the big challenges for land reform is that there was a promise of restitution for people who had been dispossessed. This was that people in living memory had been removed and just wanted to go back. The result was an enormous number of claims. Of the 63,455 claims lodged by the end of 1998, there remain more than 15,000 claims not yet settled. These are mostly the big rural claims. A lot of the urban claims have been settled with cash or negotiations. The big, complicated rural claims remain.

At the same time, just ahead of national elections in 2014, government reopened the restitution process and allowed people to reopen new claims – 160,000 new claims that cannot be processed until the old claims are complete. Based on the current rate, we are looking at close on two centuries before resolving (all) these claims. This is politically intolerable.

A new plan must be made to address the land issue. A lot of people gave up on the redistribution process. Others also fall outside of the process – the Khoisan people say their claims are not being addressed. We cannot continue with business as usual.

There has obviously been a lot of coverage of the land issue recently. What do you think is the greatest misrepresentation?

I think the number one misrepresentation is the idea that any time land gets transferred from a white commercial farmer to a black farmer, that this is a net loss to the economy. There simply is not evidence to show this is the case.

It is true that in many cases government has failed to support these new farmers. This does not mean that when we transfer from large commercial farmers to small-scale farmers that there must be a loss to productivity and food security. In fact, we can see the opposite, and there are cases where small scale farmers have embarked on producing food for local markets, or more intensive production and use of land. We can see that land reform can provide a more efficient production of food or improve food security. There are a lot of myths floating about that land reform is at a cost to production and food security.

So if the public should pick something to worry about, what should they focus on?

The number one question the public should be asking should not be about how the state should get the land, but who should get it. In the past decade there is substantial evidence that under president Jacob Zuma there was elite capture. I have spent a lot of time doing field work in this area, and my view is that a lot of public money has gone on buying farms and giving them to people who are either already wealthy, middle-class or politically connected, and spending more money subsidising them while neglecting those in the most urgent need.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that I should have asked?

A lot of people worry about property rights and feel a sense of threat. I am more worried about what is the vision. I would love to think about if land reform were to work, what would it look like?

What kind of opportunities could it deliver? What kind of new rural and urban landscape could it produce? My view is this: in rural areas around the small rural towns there is an enormous demand for land. If we were simply to take a 5km radius and provide smallholdings, a secure place to live and produce food, kids can still go to school and access hospitals, this is the kind of thing land reform can produce.

In urban areas, instead of pushing people further and further out of metropoles, bring people into well-located areas into mixed income housing, reducing the barrier that exists between people who commute into the city and those who work there. What urban land reform can achieve is racial integration plus the possibility of reducing the tax put on poor people that requires them to spend much of their income on commuting into cities.

In both urban and rural areas, land reform is about overcoming spatial apartheid. It is about blurring the distinction those of white occupation and black occupation. Land reform is not only about agriculture but about giving all citizens the right to occupy land that is well located. We are in a very good position right now – better than we have been in 20 years – to articulate what the alternative will look like. DM

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity

Photo: Christopher Griner (flickr)

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