One of the fundamental challenges facing land reform is ownership or the best form(s) of tenure systems, says agricultural economist Thulasizwe Mkhabela.
One of the fundamental challenges facing land reform is ownership or the best form(s) of tenure systems, says agricultural economist Thulasizwe Mkhabela.

OPINION: Land and land tenure reforms for agricultural transformation in Southern Africa

By Thulasizwe Mkhabela Time of article published Jul 9, 2020

Share this article:

JOHANNESBURG - There is consensus that land reform is an indispensable yet complicated process often overloaded with multiple objectives including economic, social and political underpinnings. 

Land reform in Southern Africa has been seized with the need to balance the tension between governments’ tendencies to rationalise land acquisition and redistribution based on historical injustices and political demands, on one hand, and economic and technical reasons of land reform, on the other hand. 

It should be stated that although the former reason for land reform is legitimate, it needs to be counter-balanced with the latter.  

Land reform in Southern Africa can be construed broadly as having three distinct, yet related pillars.  

This article is concerned with land reform as it pertains to agriculture and agricultural transformation. 

The first pillar of land redistribution deals with the skewed access to and ownership of land. The second pillar seeks to return land ownership to people who were previously dispossessed of their land, particularly during colonisation and displacement by settler communities. The third pillar seeks reforms of existing land tenure systems to facilitate increased security of tenure and an increased sense of land ownership for self-determination of the people.

Despite a declining share in gross domestic product, agriculture remains a key sector in southern African countries’ economies, a major employer and foreign exchange earner. 

The majority of people in Southern Africa reside in rural areas and their main economic activity is agriculture.

Land tenure reforms must, therefore, address problems brought about by colonisation and dispossession. Moreover, pressures of population growth, deteriorating natural resources, increasing localised food insecurity incidents and conflict over land use, have given impetus to the raging debate and contestation on land reform. 

Tenure, ownership or access to a piece of land has long been recognised as a critical factor for security, agricultural transformation, investment and conservation because it determines the linkages between responsibilities and authority over land and natural resources and incentive structures for sustainable use. 

Land tenure refers to the terms and conditions on which land is held, used and transacted, whereas, land tenure reform refers to a planned and deliberate change in the terms and conditions of the terms of contracts between landowners and tenants or the conversion of more informal tenancy into formal property rights. 

The fundamental goal of land tenure reform is to enhance and secure people’s rights, essential to avoid arbitrary evictions and landlessness. Furthermore, enhanced security of tenure is necessary for land rights holders to invest in the land and use it sustainably.

There can be no doubt that tenure security matters, and that tenure insecurity adversely affects agricultural productivity thereby constraining transformation in sector. 
Land tenure in Southern Africa may be divided into two categories, namely communal land tenure and private land ownership (freehold or title deed). 

Current land tenure systems need to take into consideration physical, socio-economic, political and cultural background, and context of society as a whole. 

Land tenure priorities for households is complex because land rights, and land tenure reform by extension, are a continuum rather than a discontinuity process. Moreover, there is a prevalent coexistence between formal customary system of land holding and statutory land rights, which has given, rise to multiple, parallel, and often, even overlapping and contradictory land tenure regimes. 

Communal land tenure in Southern Africa is premised on traditional leaders administering land in trust for the benefit of traditional communities for the promotion economic and social development of the people. 

Generally, communal land tenure system is biased against women and is perceived to carry substantial patronage thus is subject to abuse by traditional leadership and the rural elite. Furthermore, rural folk find it difficult to raise capital for investment into agricultural production and on the land that they do not own. 

There has been attempts to remedy land tenure insecurity in the region. Some traditional leadership have been issuing permission to occupy (PTO) certificates. PTOs are legal documents used to regulate business establishments, but these are now being phased out and converted into Rights of Leasehold, which are more secure and can be used as collateral by holders to acquire loans if the lease is for periods of 10 years or more.

Land reform, including tenure reform, can be used as a policy instrument to engender inclusive agribusiness value chains by changing the ownership structure of land, thereby affecting access to land and produce. 

Land reform and tenure policies should include:

• Security of tenure rights over individual and public lands;
• Redistribution of land possession, to include the poor and deprived majority;
• Improve land governance; and
• Enhance transparency

Governments and policy makers should look at innovative approaches to land tenure reforms that respond to security of tenure and agricultural transformation. 

For instance, Botswana has made considerable progress through the integration of traditional tenure with a modern system of land administration for both customary and commercial forms of land use. 

In KwaZulu-Natal, rural people are finding other innovative ways of dealing with land tenure issues. There is an emerging approach where people exchange communal tenure rights for a fee, with the traditional leadership endorsement. 

Countries with more equitable land distribution achieve growth rates two to three times higher than their counterparts with less equitable land distribution. Furthermore, there is no doubt that successful land creates rapid economic growth as it has been demonstrated elsewhere around the world. A redistributive land reform would help reduce rural, and even urban, poverty.

There is a caveat. A poorly designed and implemented land reform process intended to unlock the economic assets of communal land by activating dead capital should be demand driven. An indiscriminate supply of tradable tenure in the communal areas can result in unintended destitution of the majority of rural people.  

One of the fundamental challenges facing land reform is ownership or the best form(s) of tenure systems.  The misunderstood notion is that the best and only recognisable form of land tenure systems is that of outright ownership, especially as it relates in the main to agricultural transformation.  

Ownership takes different forms but is best represented when the owner is recognised as having a registered title to the land. The majority of mainly rural- based indigenous South  Africans, however, does not share this theory.  This population is crying for enfranchisement and recognised access to and rights to land at the heart of their most basic of rights, and the lack thereof is a serious impediment to agricultural transformation.

Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is the group executive: impact & partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]


Share this article: