OP-ED

Land reform report is a flawed document

By William Beinart and Peter Delius 12 August 2019
Caption
The issue for land reform, as the land reform report recognises, is a lack of capacity to implement, say the writers. (Photo: EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA)

The President’s Advisory Panel on Land Reform’s report is big on suggestions but short on actual progress.

In 2018 amid the furore about land expropriation without compensation, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land which included many skilled and talented individuals. Sadly, it was given an overambitious brief and far too little time and resources to do justice to its mandate. The outcome is bristling with interesting suggestions, but is also a patchy, sometimes contradictory document which is far from a blueprint for progress.

A central weakness in the report is its failure to locate its recommendations within the current fiscal crisis, which will place severe limits on state expenditure in the foreseeable future. It recognises the severe capacity constraints and pervasive corruption within the state but makes recommendations rooted in the idea that the state will be able to fund, initiate and oversee complex legislation as well as a host of new agencies and other initiatives. Long lists of desired outcomes are provided without clear priorities. With two decades of administrative failures and scores of failed projects behind us, the question is: what real progress can be made on what specific fronts?

 There are recommendations that we strongly support. The panel emphasises the importance of including urban areas within the framework of land reform policy and practice. The major movement of people within South Africa is still from rural to urban areas. The strongest demand for land continues to be in the urban and peri-urban areas, where there is more access to employment, informal sector opportunities, services and retail outlets. Unsurprisingly, most land occupations are in these areas.

The report also includes a number of valuable strategies for urban land acquisition and financing. But a great deal more work needs to be done before a holistic policy for urban land reform is in place.

 We fully support the panel’s proposals which reflect those of the high-level panel (HLP) for speeding up and concluding the process of restitution. And we completely concur with the recommendation that the Ingonyama Trust be abolished or radically reformed. Beyond this, the report is rather ambiguous about the role of traditional leaders in land reform and administration  

 The report underestimates the significance of commercial agriculture both in the economy as a whole and in the food supply. This affects its understanding of land and agriculture in South Africa. The figures given in the report indicate the “value of the agricultural sector has grown by almost 50%, from R50.5-billion to R74.2-billion” over the last couple of decades. This is a very specific meaning of the term “value” – the figures refer to operating surplus.

The total value of commercial agricultural production for 2017-18, according to government figures, was R281-billion, and it grew by more than 4% over the previous year. Agricultural exports also grew substantially in 2018 to about $10.6-billion (R150-billion), roughly 10% of exports. The idea that an annual increase in the growth rate of agricultural production of 3.1% over the past two decades is “modest” is also a great understatement: this would put South Africa among the fastest-growing agricultural economies. This figure also exceeds the overall growth rate in GDP since 1998.

Despite the ending of subsidies and the uncertainty of government policy about land reform, commercial agriculture, no longer only white, has flourished and generally been highly innovative in the post-apartheid era. Organised commercial agriculture was initially suspicious of land reform but has increasingly put its weight behind projects and schemes. Some of these are mentioned briefly in the panel’s report, but more could have been made of the promise shown by some of the public-private partnerships that have developed in sugar, forestry, wool, dairy, beef and tomatoes. They may have absorbed up to 80,000 smaller black farmers, who connect with commercial producers, sometimes facilitated by state funding.

The critical objective surely must be to keep investment, capital and skills on the land, using these as the basis for production-oriented land reform. The panel report says, “Most importantly, the success of land reform must be linked to South Africa’s productive and sustainable use of land, and the vibrancy and competitiveness of the economy, open to all to participate and benefit at all levels.”

Although the private sector is profit-driven, in many instances it appears to be doing projects more effectively than the state, which does not have equivalent expertise. Nevertheless, the government can assist in financing and land acquisition and in helping to leverage capital, skills and equipment from the private sector. Some of the schemes have been constrained by the lack of certainty of state support and settled policy. But it is government money well-spent in that it has a productive outcome that can enhance the value of funding to poorer families. We are not suggesting the private sector should be the only agency. A multi-pronged approach is essential. But, certainly, the implementation capacity of the private sector can be drawn on much more effectively.  

 In marked contrast, the report obscures the reality that smallholders’ agriculture has not been expanding. It recognises that there is much under-utilised land and that there is massive unemployment in rural areas. However, it fails to ask why smallholders do not maximise their land and why unemployed younger members of households do not put their labour into that land.  

On page 40, the report states that: “More than 60% of the active population of southern Africa depend on land for their livelihoods, whereas rural and urban poor communities depend almost entirely on land as a source of food.” With reference to South Africa, this figure is profoundly wrong. Village surveys of agricultural villages and settlements in the former homelands suggest that smallholders produce perhaps 20% of food needs (more in relation to meat). Most families are dependent on purchasing most of their food. 

This context could provide a huge opportunity for rurally based producers. As a rough measure, the former homelands have a population of perhaps 18 million, a third of that in South Africa, and roughly 80% of the food supply of this population is available as a market for smallholders in the vicinity. The state should consider it a priority to engage more effectively with smallholders who currently hold land both in the former homelands and in the transferred land. As the report notes, post-settlement support has been a major problem.  

But this is it is not an argument for redistributing large amounts of the commercial farms to smallholders in the hope that they will suddenly become self-subsistent. The priority should be to facilitate intensification on existing smallholder land with gradual transfers in well-supported schemes. The state can play a leading role here in an effective extension.

 When the report deals with the issue of land tenure in communal areas it seems intent on closing down debate on critical issues rather than engaging with them. It recognises that strengthening these rights is a constitutional and economic imperative. It declares itself against private titling and of the view that a dualistic system of tenure is perfectly acceptable despite its echoes of the apartheid order. It tends towards, but does not conclusively prioritise, entrenching family rights to land in customary areas.

In our view, it is vital that family rights and, in some contexts, individual rights are buttressed so they are not vulnerable to the demands of rent-seeking intermediaries such as chiefs or shack landlords. The report strongly advocates a Land Register Act as a means of cementing land rights and facilitating land administration. This will have certain advantages for those, roughly 60% of landholders, whose land is currently unregistered. The cadastral survey will gradually be extended over the whole of South Africa and landholding registered. We are in support of this process as a long-term aim.

 But this proposal at present is based on unrealistic assumptions about state capacity to deliver an entirely new system. More thought needs to be given to how this initiative can be aligned with and connected to the existing system overseen by the Deeds Registry. Many people in communal and peri-urban areas want the certainty of title to their land and we cannot see why that ambition should be denied from on high. Some people are selling sites or improvements on sites. It is surely better to move, over the long term, through this process of recordal, to a single national system of landholding. Within this national system, the comparability and equivalence of different kinds of title can be secured. The amendments to the Deeds Act already permit a range of landholding, including co-ownership by family members.

 The report offers ambitious plans for new laws and new administrative bodies and calls for yet another restructuring of the Department of Land Affairs. Most of these proposals have admirable aims. But they gloss over the track record of immense delays, difficulties and rocketing expenses involved in new initiatives and institutions. The operation of the iron law of unintended and sometimes malevolent consequences is wished away. Given current skills shortages and incapacity in key roles, who will fill the new posts?

The issue for land reform, as the report recognises, is a lack of capacity to implement. Surely the major strategy should be to enhance funding, training, capacity and motivation for the key institutions currently dealing with the land rather than pass complex new laws which need extensive new bureaucracies? For example, strengthening the Deeds Registry and the surveyor-general’s office is critical to the future of landholding, administration, and land markets. A beefed-up Land Commission is essential for finalising restitution.

Our approach provides priorities: massive and more innovative urban provision; leveraging and facilitating private sector skills and capital; supporting beneficiaries of the 8.5 million hectares transferred so far, as well as smallholders in the former homelands; strengthening land rights of all landholders and improving capacity and performance of existing institutions. DM

William Beinart is Professor Emeritus at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford he researched on the Eastern Cape pilot land reform scheme in the 1990s and has served as an expert witness on restitution cases. Peter Delius is Professor Emeritus at Wits University and has written extensively on rural transformation.

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