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From the Inside: Government’s failure to deliver on land restitution on full view in District Six

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

Anyone who still thinks that expropriation without compensation will hasten the glacial process of land restitution, should pause to consider the case of District Six.

The bare pocket of prime real estate that scars the starter-slopes of Table Mountain at the east end of Cape Town’s central business district, once housed almost a tenth of the City’s population in a vibrant cosmopolitan community. During the 1970s it became an international symbol of enforced segregation when more than 60,000 families were forcibly removed from the newly declared “white group area”.

Today District 6 is the symbol of another type of cruelty – the failure to deliver on the promise of land restitution to qualifying applicants who wish to return.

Most of the verified beneficiaries opted for cash payouts. But of the 1,201 families who wish to “go home” most have been waiting 40 years or more since being moved, and 23 years since District 6 was gazetted a restitution area in 1995. So far only 139 families have returned. At the current rate, it will take another 176 years to bring back the rest, by which time not even their grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to celebrate restitution in their life-time.

And if the claims of the 25,000 additional applicants (who lodged claims when the “window” was re-opened in 2014) are eventually validated, it would take 4,137 years for them to return at the current restitution rate!

Land ownership plays no part in the delay. The land has been in the custodianship of the state from the start. Bulk services have been installed by the City of Cape Town. And the province has delivered on its commitment of a state-of-the-art R104-million community health centre. Now, all that is required is for a viable development agreement that will enable the people to return.

So why isn’t it happening. What has gone wrong?

Almost everything.

The best way to illustrate this is to compare the stagnant District Six process with a restitution project where things have gone relatively smoothly, such as Protea Village, another prime piece of real estate from which people were forcibly removed, on the doorstep of the world-famous Kirstenbosch Gardens.

As in all land claims, it has also taken many years of research to verify Protea Village’s beneficiaries and reach agreement on the restitution process. Now (apart from the interminable red tape involved in acquiring land development rights and the allocation of the government subsidy), it is all systems go.

Why? The answer is a combination of several factors. The number of Protea Village beneficiaries is much smaller – about 80 in total. They are united in a well-led communal property association (CPA). They were open to the need for private sector investment to cross-subsidise the development. And the entire deal was facilitated by a competent and committed government official deployed to the Western Cape by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. During his all-too-brief four-year stint in the province, he worked co-operatively with the province and the City of Cape Town until a viable restitution plan was signed, sealed and delivered.

The agreement, involving all parties, provided for the CPA to sell a portion of the land to a private company that would develop the full property, including the restitution houses for the 80 families. Combined with the government’s subsidy allocation, the restitution will now be affordable and replicable.

It is the classic win-win outcome.

In contrast the District 6 beneficiary community is deeply divided between four competing organisations, that are either in conflict with each other or the national department, or both. Some of the contested issues are now before the courts.

From the outset, the project was captured by a patronage network, through a small group of politically connected activists, claiming to be the sole legitimate representatives of the people of District 6, even though they were not beneficiaries. This network had close historical and ideological ties with officials in the national department, and was able to sway development decisions and procurement procedures in their favour.

For years they rejected proper competitive tender processes, hiding behind a figleaf of ideological purity to block any further private sector investment to cross-subsidise the state’s contribution.

Eventually the national department, under political pressure, agreed to substantially increase the subsidy amount to provide the funding shortfall, which made the project unsustainable and non-replicable. But despite a substantially increased state budget, it still didn’t work because community conflict merely escalated, and the contractors appointed to develop each small portion of land failed to capitalise on economies of scale, or deliver within time or budget. The latest contractor (a company from KwaZulu-Natal) has now been fired from the job for poor performance. The project is back on the drawing board.

The mess is the result of a perfect storm of community gate-keeping, political patronage, government incapacity, and an additional dollop of financial illiteracy by a small group of ideological purists. In short a toxic brew that continued through the tenure of five national ministers. The only politician who really made an effort to break the stranglehold of the gatekeepers was Minister Gugile Nkwinti, and he is no longer in the portfolio.

In a situation like this, where it has proved impossible to find consensus on the way forward, it is essential for the law to provide guidance. Unfortunately, it does not. There is no clear legal directive as to which government entity should assume responsibility for the development, if a beneficiary community is unable to reach agreement on a way forward.

So it was with great relief that I read a recent newspaper article that seemed to offer a way out of the present conundrum.

Under a banner headline, District 6 in Cape’s Hands, (and the sub-heading Provincial government responsible for restitution in historic area), the newspaper reported that the national department had agreed to hand over management of the project to the Western Cape Government, together with the accompanying budget, during a “gruelling session” with the Provincial Standing Committee on Human Settlements.

The committee chair, Mathlodi Maseko, was quoted as saying she was “beyond elated” at the outcome of the meeting. I shared her excitement, despite the enormous challenges involved in completing the project. At least it would now be possible to break the impasse, I thought.

But our jubilation was short-lived. Within 24 hours the national Department of Rural Development and Land Reform had issued a statement denying it had agreed to the transfer. The only agreement that had been reached was to convene yet another meeting between all the role-players to “to craft a way forward”.

I have lost count of the number of meetings held to find a way forward for District 6, each one of which has landed in a dead end, after countless hours of consultation and hundreds of millions of rand.

The only way to break the District Six logjam is to contract experts to prepare a master plan for the area as a whole, which will attract private sector investors to cross-subsidise the restitution units, as well as additional affordable housing for many more people on this substantial piece of land.

This will require strong, cohesive leadership from the community and from government, transparent tender processes, breaking patronage networks, appointing competent officials, and ensuring co-operation between all stakeholders.

This is harder than it sounds, especially in the current context.

It is much easier to produce an irrelevant red-herring, such as expropriation without compensation, to deflect attention for the real reasons for the failure of land restitution.

If people fall for this ruse, they will only have themselves to blame if the country’s most significant land restitution projects continue to go nowhere slowly. DM


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