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Land Reform: Confusion across the political spectrum

James Speirs is an urban researcher based in Kuala Lumpur

One thing is clear: until poor South Africans own their homes, be they in cities or rural areas, development will stall.

Cyril Ramaphosa was immediately hailed as a breath of fresh air after the decade-long Jacob Zuma debacle. The nation forgot, or ignored, his role in Marikana while his prowess as a businessman was lauded. A sensible, urbane politician who would save the economy.

His recent Cabinet reshuffle, however, reveals much of the same. The executive remains bloated and, with cronies retaining influence, his reputation for clean governance is shaken. The national conversation, however, has swung to expropriation without compensation.

The move is surprising. It seems more like the early Zuma presidency, the Zuma that Malema would have killed for, than the moderate mining magnate. A bill like this, however, is a master-stroke by Ramaphosa’s ANC.

It effectively cripples the opposition in two ways. Firstly, it breaks the uneasy partnership between the DA and EFF. Exposing their ideological contradictions was always the first step to divide and conquer. Secondly, it appropriates the EFF’s most popularist policy. If this is the ANC’s offering, what remains for the EFF to offer? In the next election we may see voters who left the ANC for EFF’s greener pastures return home.

There is a third, hushed, streak of brilliance in this. If opposition has grown anywhere, it has grown in cities. The ANC has vested interest in shifting the focus away from cities and appealing to its rural base. Ramaphosa promising “agricultural revolution” attempts to do this.

The move, however, seems dated and out of touch. No country has ever overcome poverty through agrarian reform. Millions of lives are not elevated by sowing and harvesting. They are uplifted through manufacturing, a service economy, and the expansion of the urban middle class.

Calls to amend the constitution to allow expropriation without compensation are an indictment of our cities. Globally, rural populations are moving to cities at unprecedented rates. Cities offer a chance to escape poverty and attain a dignified lifestyle. So why are South Africans looking away from cities to the pastoral dream?

One problem is that South Africa is already an urbanised nation with 65% of the population living in urban areas. In other countries, these levels of urbanisation have seen radical economic transformation. Cities provide proximity to employment opportunities, education, and health care. Urban residents should have unparalleled access to the necessary services and institutions which eradicate poverty.

This has not occurred for South Africa’s urban poor. The spatial legacy of apartheid ensures cities do not provide proximity to employment, education, and healthcare. Many are pushed to the urban periphery exacerbating sprawl and encroaching on arable land. Others within the city find themselves in increasingly crowded neighbourhoods, lacking services, and disconnected from the rest of the city.

The failure of our cities is a failure of property tenure. Millions of people living in our cities do not have secure tenure. Those in informal settlements are least likely to have title to their homes. This leaves them vulnerable to eviction and unwilling to invest in their homes and neighbourhoods. Additionally, residents cannot sell their property and relocate should opportunities arise elsewhere. This prevents vital restructuring and development from occurring.

While ownership is unclear it remains difficult for government to provide basic services. Further, as land is not formally regulated in these areas, businesses cannot establish themselves and employment opportunities do not filter to the communities that need them most. Security of tenure is vital to providing both housing and employment to our cities. Without these it is unsurprising the national gaze has returned to the fields.

While cities flounder, the rural situation is not altogether bright. The land reform process so far has been disastrous. Corruption and maladministration has left productive farms laying fallow. Many beneficiaries lack the skills and access to resources required to run a successful agribusiness.

Additionally, rural land tenure is a problem the country is far from resolving. While some advocate for expropriation without compensation the government sits on 4 323 farms it has been unable to transfer. Chief lands claim commissioner, Nomfundo Gobodo, explained that “tribes who are beneficiaries start disputing ownership amongst themselves once a claim has been concluded”. These disputes range from whether these farms are to be farmed or sold, who is entitled to benefit, and how benefits are distributed.

The cornerstone of this conundrum is traditional leadership and the throttle they maintain over the rural poor. The Ingonyama Trust holds 2.8-million hectares in KwaZulu-Natal – some of the most potentially productive land in the country. It is administered by King Goodwill Zwelithini under customary law which ensures a patronage network of wealthy chiefs and millions of poor subjects without title to their land.

The Ingonyama Trust was established by FW de Klerk before the 1994 election to appease the IFP. Former President Kgalema Motlanthe headed a panel investigating the trust and recommended repealing it. This opens the possibility for thousands of families to own land. Giving title to poor South Africans is a crucial step towards land reform. This would shift substantial wealth from the Zulu monarchy and place it in the hands of ordinary citizens.

The backlash has been fierce. KwaZulu-Natal House of Traditional Leaders warned that “the Zulu nation is ready to die for this land”. Which is to say, the amakhosi are open to violence to keep the land from belonging to their subjects. Pandering to the Monarch, the DA’s top leadership in KZN visited the Nongoma palace where Mmusi Maimane assured the king that the DA supported the trust.

This leaves property in a confused state across the political spectrum. Nationally, the ANC call for expropriation of private property while the DA believe private property is crucial to development. In the case of tribal Trust land, however, it seems the ANC are not in favour of communal tenure while the DA will support anything that that may garner votes.

One thing is clear: until poor South Africans own their homes, be they in cities or rural areas, development will stall. DM

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