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South Africa: Land Reform Moves Slowly in Post-Apartheid Era
Rebecca L. Weber
30 October 2009
Cape Town — Land reform has always been a popular part of political rhetoric for a democratic South Africa, but agrarian transformation has not been realized in the post-apartheid era. The vast majority of agricultural land is still owned by whites. Black landowners tend to have tiny plots in the former homelands.
While land rights and agricultural development would seem to dovetail, the opposite is often the case. "What shall we talk about first, land or agriculture? " asked a facilitator at a recent development conference, according to Karin Kleinbooi, researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape. "There's a lot of pressure to develop a new vision for agrarian transformation, " said Kleinbooi. "Land reform isn't featuring as a priority. It's scary."
One crucial component of land reform is the restitution of land to people who were displaced under white minority rule, which is provided for by legislation passed by the country's democratically- elected government. About 94 percent of the land claims made under the legislation have been settled, according to the Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights. Notably, however, most of those claims were settled by a cash payout rather than the transfer of land back to its original owners.
The wider redistribution of land has been slow going. While the target is for 30 percent of the country's agricultural land to be redistributed by 2014, only 5.2 percent had been transferred as of March 2009. More to the point, much of that redistribution has not successfully alleviated food security or poverty. In fact, numerous farming projects have been poorly supported and collapsed within a couple of years.
AllAfrica contributor Rebecca Weber discussed the issue in more detail with Michael Aliber, senior researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.
How would you characterize land reform in South Africa over the past 15 years?
Redistribution policy is still in the process of finding itself. It's never really worked. There have always been diverse interpretations of why it's not working. From 1995 to 2000, people tended to come together as a group [to farm land]. They carried on with the same crops, the same technology. If the previous farmer was growing maize and a few livestock using two tractors, the beneficiaries would attempt to do the same thing-in contrast to dividing it up into small farm holdings. It didn't work. It's inaccurate to say that this was always the imposition of the government. A lot of beneficiaries did want this. If you're used to farming on your own in a communal area, you realize that you don't want to go into a communal farm.
Grants started being revised-instead of R15,000 (U.S. $1,900), now it's R111,000 (U.S. $14,300) per individual. It's possible for single households to acquire entire farms, but the performance hasn't been dramatically better. Very few people benefit at all: 3,000 or 4,000 per year. What we're doing now is symbolic.
Some of the newer generation projects are okay, but we're not really targeting people with appropriate skills. It's first come, first served.
What about now, in the third cycle?
Planning is under way now. The emerging approach is that we need a much broader range of financial and other mechanisms to help people who just want a tiny homestead and sustenance.
Redistribution is falling far short of its intended goals. Is there any chance of meeting the stated 2014 targets?
There's pressure on officials to acquire land regardless of how projects are designed. There's a sense of urgency, but to try to accelerate delivery without improving outcomes is just irrational.
Has South Africa learned much from neighboring countries, such as Zimbabwe?
It's drawing the wrong lessons. [Zimbabwe's former policy, and South Africa's current policy of] "willing seller, willing buyer" can be done well. In the first 10 years Zimbabwe spent very little money.
The delivery of municipal services and job creation are key issues in South Africa right now. How do these affect land reform concerns?
If you drive through the former Transkei [in South Africa's Eastern Cape province], you see a lot of underutilized arable land. What is our understanding of why people aren't using it? It's low-hanging fruit, with potential of making a difference.
Redistribution is political. It's not clear if it's the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Land Affairs that should be taking the lead.
To what extent does food security-real or imagined-slow the pace of land redistribution?
There's a fierce debate, but nobody's done a proper analysis.
On the one hand is poor performance. Half the land stands idle, another section is hardly managing. Obviously this impacts on gross agricultural production. But that's within the very small envelope of land that's been transferred. A lot of land acquired was not particularly productive.
The other side says: you had a white commercial farmer exporting mangos-now you have 100 households at least partially providing for their own nutritional needs. That's a good thing.