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Land reform is at a crossroads -South Africa

South Africa needs to redistribute rural land in a way which is truly transformative and thus large in scale – but is also practical, affordable and feasible, with well-designed programmes that are adequately funded and staffed. Conservative responses fall short on the former, populist stances on the latter.


The Pan South African Language Board declared “land expropriation without compensation” as the Word of the Year 2018, reflecting its salience in the media and the term that captures the philosophy, mood and obsessions of our nation. Land is part of our zeitgeist. Everyone is debating it. Everyone has an opinion. But South Africans often speak past one another, captive to their assumptions and biases.

Legal and policy processes are afoot. There is a parliamentary process to amend the “property clause” and a Presidency’s Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture.

Expropriation and compensation are topics that have provoked much debate. But there are also wider, and profound questions, being asked about how and to whom land should be redistributed, at what scale, for what purpose, and what outcomes we can expect for the economy and for society at large. The policy space is now wide open.

For this reason, the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) is convening a national conference entitled Resolving the Land Question on 4-5 February 2019 at the University of the Western Cape, in partnership with the University of Fort Hare and Rhodes University. It will bring together a broad spectrum of about 140 people, including key thought leaders, with diverse experiences and opinions, to thrash out some concrete ideas. The primary focus will be on rural land, not urban land.

We see volatile debates about the powers of private landowners and chiefs, and the entitlements of landless people, farm workers and those in informal settlements. These debates threaten to polarise us, but it is also possible to rise above the extremes of deep conservatism on the one hand (think: Afriforum) and racial populism on the other (think: Black First Land First). Neither offers us a helpful way forward.

Surely, between these polarities, the majority of South Africans want land redistribution to take place, for the benefit not only of those who might get access to farmland or to residential land, to improve their lives but also for the benefit of society as a whole. How can land reform contribute to reduced inequality, less conflict, more integrated cities, and more decent livelihoods for those in rural areas?

What kind of land redistribution do we need?

In our view, South Africa needs to redistribute rural land in a way which is truly transformative and thus large in scale – but is also practical, affordable and feasible, with well-designed programmes that are adequately funded and staffed. Conservative responses fall short on the former, populist stances on the latter.

We frame the debate in this way. First, land redistribution must lead to changes in patterns of land ownership, in relation to race, class and gender, which fundamentally alter the unequal and disempowering structures of the past.

Second, land redistribution must also transform patterns of land use and agricultural production, so that land reform contributes in significant ways to eradicating poverty and uprooting the dire levels of inequality we live with.

Third, this means we need to find ways – as government, civil society and private sector – of offering practical support to land reform beneficiaries so that, following the transfer of land, they can get access to adequate water, extension services and markets.

Fourth, those receiving land must hold their land rights in a secure manner, either in the form of freehold title, long-term leases that are responsibly administered, or collectively owned land.

Land restitution (where people get back their land on the basis of historical claims) and tenure reform (securing rights in a variety of systems) are important – but they cannot in themselves alter the inequalities bequeathed by centuries of colonial and apartheid rule.

Redistributing land – from white to black, from rich to poor, from men to women – must be at the core of SA’s land reform programme if we are to become a more equal society. But there is little consensus on precisely what should be done and how.

The key questions that the conference seeks to answer

Who should benefit from land redistribution in rural SA? How should land for redistribution be identified, acquired and transferred? What kinds of rights should beneficiaries hold on redistributed land? What kinds of support should be provided to beneficiaries? What are the desired outcomes of such redistribution?

In thinking about new directions for policy, we need to recognise there may well be some difficult trade-offs to be made. Answering all these questions and developing a coherent set of policies and programmes is not straightforward. Given the need to start from present realities and transform them reasonably quickly, hard choices need to be made.

For example, should some of those white large-scale farmers who supply the bulk of our food and export earnings be given a degree of protection and certainty, while at the same time land is redistributed on a large-scale to black farmers? Where should the focus be, in terms of what land is to be targeted? Should the structure of the agricultural sector be changed, via subdivisions, to make available smaller plots for small-scale farmers? Or should bigger black farmers be supported? What should be the focus: industrial agriculture or agroecological alternatives?

The conference will not seek to achieve an overall consensus. Instead, we aim to stimulate informed discussion of alternative policy options and models for land redistribution in rural South Africa and help to clarify the costs and benefits of different choices, and the trade-offs involved. The outcomes will be communicated widely, to the media, to policymakers in government, and to the Presidency’s Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture which is due to produce its final report and recommendations by the end of March.

South Africa’s land reform is at a crossroads, once again, and it is imperative that our society brings its resources to bear to tackle these inherently political issues with a firm grasp of the nature of the choices to be made and the potential impacts of those choices.

The conference is by invitation only, but a public briefing will be held at the School of Public Health at UWC at 11 am on Wednesday 6 February, where the outcomes of the conference will be presented. DM

Professors Ruth Hall and Ben Cousins are based at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape. Ruth is also a member of the Presidency’s Advisory Panel.


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