Land distribution corruption points to the key reform issues - South Africa

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The unearthing of a year-old report by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) into corruption in the land reform programme underlines where the real problems with solving SA’s land question lie.

The report looked at 145 farms between 2011 and 2017 where there was a reason to believe that corruption had occurred. It found numerous instances where beneficiaries who got farms were not entitled to them;  those who got farms to live on and work did not live there at all; prices for land was inflated by government officials and sellers; and weak systems and controls left the programme wide open to abuse.

Little has been done by way of corrective action since the report was handed over to President Cyril Ramaphosa in March 2018. The SIU, which has the power to investigate state corruption on the basis of proclamations issued by the president, does not have the authority itself to bring charges against people involved in wrongdoing.

That is up to the National Prosecuting Authority, which as we know has lacked both the capacity and the will to investigate and successfully pursue criminal charges. The NPA says that “the majority” of these cases are still under investigation. However, it has seized 24 farms and has orders to seize another seven.

The importance of re-establishing the rule of law through an effective prosecuting authority cannot be emphasised enough. With the new head Shamila Batohi starting work in a week’s time the prospects for that to happen will improve.

In the next few months, the ANC and the EFF will vote to amend the constitution to make expropriation without compensation more explicit. The two parties will also do their utmost to rev voters up on the land issue, promising that in the future their lives will be better because land reform will accelerate.

But it is doubtful that expropriation without compensation will speed up land reform. This is not because of the state’s inability to fund meaningful land acquisition for redistribution — weak and inadequate policy, inadequate support for black farmers and a weak and corrupt administration are the prime existing failings.

The problem, though,  is that SA cannot afford to have land reform fail. Land is an emotive issue. Dispossession is deeply etched into memory and identity. It has had devastating financial consequences as it was land dispossession that condemned African people to generations of poverty. Today, land ownership stands as a proxy for white privilege, casting doubt on the entire transformation project. It is deeply worrying that according to parliament’s high-level panel, only 5% of white farmland has been redistributed to black people.

It is therefore imperative to get land reform programmes working. Fortunately, we have a wealth of knowledge based on excellent research that indicates what must be done. Institutions for land reform must be strengthened. The land claims court and the department of land reform are weak and — as the SIU report shows — lack basic fraud prevention checks and balances.

Policies need to be clarified and rendered workable. Over the past 25 years, policy has zig-zagged between a focus on poverty alleviation through the allocation of plots to the rural poor, to an emphasis on the creation of a class of black commercial farmers and then to where we are now, where beneficiaries, opaquely selected,  team up with strategic partners on farms that are leased and not owned.

This last policy makes no sense and has undermined the ability of black farmers to capitalise their farms and farm successfully and made it easier for the politically connected to get farms.

As SA begins a fresh five-year cycle of government after the election, it is these problems that need to be fixed. There is a danger that once the election passes the momentum will be lost. It’s the responsibility of all to ensure that this doesn’t happen.