NO COMPENSATION: EFF MP Nazier Paulsen and party supporters build the first shack on invaded land in the TR section in Khayelitsha. Picture: BHEKI RADEBE
Land has moved to the centre of political discourse in recent months.

At the same time, allegations of state capture by the Gupta family have created a storm of controversy and placed the presidency under immense pressure. Leading politicians from the ruling ANC portray land as a key focus of so-called “radical economic transformation”.

One common measure proposed is expropriation of land without compensation. Others within the ANC disagree. This is a symptom of internal disarray within the party.

At the same time, the ruling party has refused to support a proposal by the Economic Freedom Fighters that the Constitution be amended to remove the requirement for compensation.

What on earth is going on?

How should these developments be interpreted?

One way to understand the ANC’s increased emphasis on the land question is in terms of political tactics and the 3 “Ds” - Distract, Deceive and Divide.

Distract citizens with an issue that takes attention away from your own misconduct.

Deceive society using fake information or false promises.

Divide your opponents (such as opposition parties and alliance partners) by focusing on an issue that they will never agree on.

Land is fundamental

This helps, but is not the whole answer.

Land in Africa is fundamental, even in countries that are relatively industrialised and urbanised.

It resonates powerfully because of widespread and chronic poverty and the continuing significance of both rural and urban land in the livelihood strategies of migrant workers, small-scale farmers and petty entrepreneurs in the informal sector.

In South Africa, our bitter history is of dispossession of land by a state serving the interests of white settlers.

It includes recent experience of forced removals.

The “land question” strikes a chord for many people and serves as a potent symbol of persistent poverty and structural inequality.

These are legacies bequeathed to the post-apartheid era, but only partially addressed since 1994.

The widely acknowledged failure of land reform means that land remains a key political resource, available as a key grievance for mobilising political constituencies.

This will be the case for as long as the distribution of land continues to be racially skewed.

Whichever party or alliance of parties holds power, the land question will have to be addressed, like it or not.

Unfortunately for the ANC, its land reform programme is in deep trouble and vulnerable to accusations of incompetence, elite bias and corruption.

Awkward facts

In 23 years, land reform has barely altered the agrarian structure of South Africa.

It has had only minor impacts on rural livelihoods.

The national budget for land reform has never been much more than one percent of the total, and is usually less.

Around nine percent of farmland has been transferred to black people through a combination of land restitution and redistribution, but many “settled” restitution claims (perhaps 15000) have not been fully implemented. Post-settlement support has been absent or ineffective.

No systematic data on impacts are available.

Case study evidence suggests that around half of rural land reform projects have brought improvements in the livelihoods of beneficiaries - but often these are quite limited.

Tenure reform has been badly neglected.

Farm workers and farm dwellers remain vulnerable to eviction.

Thousands of labour tenant claims have been ignored for the past 17 years and only court action brought by an activist NGO, Association for Rural Advancement (Afra), has forced the department to commit itself to resolving them.

Communal tenure reform policy continues to be focused on the transfer of land ownership to traditional leadership structures and chiefs, with new policies proposing to offer community members only “statutory use rights”.

The lack of accountability of such structures is not addressed.

Nor is the fundamental problem that apartheid-era boundaries are being imposed.

Incompetence: some problems are due to poor management and incompetence.

The current land reform programme is ad hoc in character, lacks coherence and is poorly co-ordinated.

The relevant government departments are well known as some of the weakest among the weak.

Agricultural and land policies have not been clearly linked and water reform and land reform have barely touched sides. Little support for black smallholder farmers is on offer, and no land reform farms have been officially sub-divided.

Informal agricultural markets are ignored, despite the fact that they offer real potential for market-oriented smallholders taking possession of redistributed land.

There has been no spatial targeting of land and people in zones of opportunity and need (eg farms for sale that are located on the edges of densely settled communal areas, or land at the urban edge).

Elite bias: Research findings point to the capture of the South African land reform programme by aspirant elites.

For example, the “Pro-active Land Acquisition Strategy” (Plas) and the State Land Lease and Disposal Policy of 2013 replaced all previous forms of land redistribution.

These are openly oriented towards medium and large-scale black commercial farmers.

They assume that there will be only one lessee per farm, and farms will not be subdivided.

The beneficiaries are often relatively well-off and hold other business interests, but strategic partners and mentors in fact gain much more than beneficiaries.

The Recapitalisation and Development Policy Programme (“Recap”) of 2014 replaced all previous forms of funding for land reform, including settlement support grants for restitution beneficiaries.

Recap beneficiaries must have partners recruited from the private sector, as mentors or “co-managers”, who write their business plans.

The Presidency’s mid-term evaluation of the programme reveals that large sums are spent on relatively few beneficiaries, few jobs have been created, and access to markets for produce remains limited. In the six provinces assessed, around R3.5million was spent a project, around R520000 a beneficiary.

Job creation costs R645000 a job.

A policy on “Strengthening the Relative Rights of People Working the Land”, also known as the “50/50”policy, is now being piloted.

Each farm owner is to retain 50% ownership of the farm, ceding the other 50% to workers.

While couched in “radical” language, this in fact offers workers very little.

It is unlikely that dividends will ever be paid and wages will at best remain at the legal minimum.

In contrast, farm owners will receive massive windfalls of public money to prop up their businesses.

The re-opening of the land restitution claims process in 2014 was clearly aimed at catching votes in that year’s general election.

But it also opened the door for chiefs intent on expanding their control of territory and resources.

In February of that year, they were openly invited to submit large land claims by President Zuma.

Corruption: corruption in the land sector is increasing.

This is clearest in relation to traditional leaders who enter into crooked business deals with mining companies in the platinum belt.

Government remains intent on transferring communal land into the private ownership of unaccountable traditional councils under chiefs. Current policy documents explicitly envisage these institutions striking business deals with investors.

A number of recent newspaper articles report cases of dubious deals for redistributed farms.

One has it that Minister Nkwinti introduced a Luthuli House comrade to one of his officials at a land summit.

Eight months later Bekendvlei Farm was bought for R97 million and handed over to Errol Present and a business partner.

The senior official had bypassed required procedures.

A day after the deal went through, Nkwinti was the speaker at Present’s lavish wedding.

Incoherence: the various component parts of land reform (redistribution, restitution and tenure reform), as well as necessary complements, such as water allocation reform and agricultural support programmes, are poorly aligned to one another.

There is thus internal incoherence within the programme, but another problem is the lack of a clear alignment with economic polices more generally.

Agricultural policy, for example, is mainly focused on supporting the large-scale commercial farming sector, and in particular those segments of earning export earnings.

Without supportive policies, those smaller-scale black farmers who do manage to receive some land will continue to struggle.

Political misdirection and its come-uppance

The argument that the key constraint on land reform is the property clause rings very hollow, given government’s record of weak leadership, a tiny budget, poor planning, incompetent implementation, increasing capture of the programme by emerging elites, and corruption.

The current turn to radical populism is an attempt to divert attention from the ways in which the budget for land reform is being used as a resource for political patronage, rather than as means to address structural inequality, as well as to divide the opponents of state capture.

The current focus on the land question is much like the call for “radical economic transformation” by those elements of the ANC intent on lining the pockets of a class of “tenderpreneurs” (or aspirant bourgeoisie).

It is meant to deceive the population into thinking that the dominant faction in the ANC remains concerned with social change.

But land questions cannot be manipulated quite so easily - they are more likely to blow up in your face.

The ANC may not be able to rely on its rural vote for very much longer.

Cousins holds a Research Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, funded by the National Research Foundation.