Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti addresses the National Assembly. Photo: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS

Cape Town - Government will encourage new land claimants to return to where they were dispossessed instead of opting for pay-outs, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Gugile Nkwinti said on Tuesday. 

"The restitution of land rights is about just that... getting people back to the land," Nkwinti told reporters about the new five-year claim period that opened on Monday.

"We have worried about this thing, that people are going in again for money, because it tells you that poverty, unemployment... there is a problem, there is a lot of work we have to do."

Restitution claims lodged between 1994 and 1999 resulted in the return of 1.6 million hectares of land to South Africans who were dispossessed after 1913 when the Natives Land Act was passed.

Government spent R24.4 billion on the process up to March this year. However, of that R7bn was paid out in compensation to successful claimants who preferred a cash payout - roughly half the amount the state actually paid out on land acquisition.

Nkwinti said his department hoped to finalise a few thousand of the roughly 80,000 land claims lodged before December 31, 1998 and were still outstanding, within the next six months.

The second round of claims, made possible by the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill signed into law this week, should be settled much faster because claims would be lodged electronically, he said.

"This time we are going to register electronically... and they won't get lost unless we really make a mess of things. We think we will settle them much faster than before."

Nkwinti, who has been land reform minister since 2009, refused to put a projected figure on the cost of processing new claims and dismissed a suggestion by the Democratic Alliance that it could come to R279bn as indicative of a failed understanding of the process.

"It is a wrong interpretation," he said, adding that June 30, 2019 was the deadline for new claims, but that land restitution was a long-running process to correct past wrongs.

"It is the timeframe, it is not a time when all the claims could have been settled. We have to disabuse ourselves of them. So the budget thing should not be an issue, it is a political issue."

Nkwinti conceded the department had fumbled at times, including excluding claimants in the Eastern Cape because it was "misinterpreting the law".

But he said ultimately the decision to re-open the claim process was motivated by the knowledge that too many people were excluded the first time.

"I started with the ones that said 'We have got our land back but there are many of our neighbours who were removed with us and they are not enjoying this with us'."

He conceded that the department lacked the research capacity to verify claims and said it would in future lean on universities to help it.

Nkwinti said the department was busy finalising land claims in Claremont and Constantia, both of which had dragged on for years. Chief land claims commissioner Nomfundo Gobodo said it was possible that the new claims process could result in more former District Six residents finding succour.

The DA on Tuesday insisted that the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill was flawed and said Zuma should have signed neither this legislation nor the Property Valuation Bill in their current form.

The restitution law would "overload a corrupt and incapacitated restitutions process even further, leading to longer delays for the dispossessed and stagnation in the rural economy", DA land spokesman Thomas Walter said.

The Property Valuation Bill ignored the real problem with land expropriation as it was not the willing buyer, willing seller principle but the lack of support the state gave to new owners.

"It is important to note that a vast majority of successful claimants up till now have chosen not to take up the land. Unfortunately, claimants who do have land returned to them are provided with no support to keep the land productive once it has been transferred."

The bill did nothing to address this, but would deter investment in the agriculture sector and therefore threaten jobs, Walter said.