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Abandoning the land redistribution programme is not the answer, says Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi

A farm in Rysmierbult. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

A farm in Rysmierbult. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Aug 5, 2022

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Durban - Despite the many pitfalls and missteps that have been encountered in trying to address the issue of land in South Africa, Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi SC says abandoning the land restitution programme is not the answer.

Ngcukaitobi SC, a celebrated South African lawyer and author said this on Thursday evening at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Westville Campus) where he was addressing the annual Dr Phyllis Naidoo Memorial Lecture.

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The topic of the memorial lecture of Naidoo who was an anti-apartheid activist was, “Why Land Reform has failed in South Africa and what can be done about it?”.

During his address, Ngcukaitobi said not only has the South African land redistribution been a failure, but it has also immensely benefited only a few and in most cases, white land owners.

“Not only the land redistribution has been a failure, it has also benefited a small, tiny white land-owning elite. Why then do we have a pro-poor legal and policy framework but it is producing anti-poor outcomes? Why is the government spending so much money but achieving so little?

“Much has been written about inefficient institutions, embedded corruption and elite capture, but the structure of land reform has received little attention,” he told the gathering, saying the land reform programme “has become more urgent”.

He added that those owning the land still have a lot of power on which land should be sold, and at what price, thus creating a hindrance. He placed the blame on the system which was adopted by the country to address the land issue.

“Unlike the claimant drive programme of land restitution, land redistribution is driven by land owners. They decide which land is sold whether by direct negotiations, advertised sales or auctions. Land owners decide the conditions under which the land is sold through the willing seller, wiling buyer model.

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“This means that they set the price, not the buyer, nor the State. The buyer’s choice is to forego the transaction if they do not like the price. Owners also decided who the buyer will be, there is no compulsion to sell to the state.

“They also decide what land is used for, including type of farming that is to be undertaken on a particular piece of ground. In these ways, the entire redistribution value chain of land is dominated and controlled by land owners. Land owners have tended to act in their own interest, not the interest of the state or the beneficiaries of land reform. The problem of course is that the flaw is in the design, we have a market-driven land acquisition strategy.”

Furthermore, he said everyone in the entire chain of redistributing the land is corrupt and an SIU (Special Investigating Unit) report supported that by providing evidence in one of its reports.

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Despite all these pitfalls which could have been avoided in the first place, he said the project should not be abandoned.

“The restitution programme which I have been critical about in my lecturer, speaks directly to this injustice .... Not any act of injustice, a specific act of injustice, a forced removal of a person by a particular person at a particular time. It makes visible, it makes tangible, it makes human the notions of struggle. Land restitution gives dispossession a human face.

“And that is why a hundred years after the initial act of forced removals families still celebrate the return to the land. In this sense, land restitution is more than the benefit than the productive use of the land. It is about memory, it is about the affirmation that black people’s pain matters, it is about the restoration of lost historical identities.

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“And this is why the restitution programme of land remains the most contentious and yet the most important of the land reform projects and it is for this reason that even as we consider a needs-based system of entitlement to land, abandoning the land restitution programme is not the answer,” he said.

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