THE Special Investigating Unit (SIU) is probing more than R100 million worth of land reform deals in KwaZulu-Natal that allegedly benefited crooked officials. File photo: Siphiwe Sibeko

Action on land and political honesty will serve us better than electioneering, says Max du Preez.


When the ANC hinted, as its president, Jacob Zuma, did last week, that it might want to change the constitution, it was interpreted as meaning it was talking about fiddling with the constitution’s clauses guaranteeing private property rights.

This was underscored by another hint coming from the ruling party’s ranks last week that they will propose “radical” new solutions to speed up land redistribution.

I can’t see it happening, though. It is probably just electioneering talk. The seizure of land is one of the pillars of the election manifesto of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and has proved to be a popular one. Vague promises by the ANC are probably just an attempt to counter this.

Whatever the results of the election, it is highly likely the ANC and the EFF together will get two-thirds of the vote, which means it would be possible to change the constitution if the two parties co-operated.

Perhaps the renewed attention given to land redistribution in the run-up to the elections provides a good opportunity for South Africans to gain a better understanding of the issue. Few other political issues are as widely misunderstood and abused by populists.

Getting aspiring black agriculturalists on land is probably the simplest part of land reform.

A lot of progress has in fact been made with this, although many of these new farmers have failed, mainly because the state didn’t do proper training, didn’t finance them properly to get going and didn’t back them up with support and advice once they started farming.

The National Development Plan (NDP) already has a “radical” proposal to speed up land redistribution – a proposal that makes a lot of sense and one that has been accepted in principle by organised agriculture.

It proposes “district lands committees” for all districts consisting of agribusiness, banks, national and provincial departments, the Land Bank and other stakeholders that would identify 20 percent of the farm land in the district for redistribution.

That land should be obtained through the state at 50 percent of market value. The NDP says: “The 50 percent shortfall of the current owner is made up by cash or in-kind contributions from commercial farmers who volunteer to participate. In exchange, commercial farmers are protected from losing their land in future and they gain economic empowerment status. This should remove the uncertainty and mistrust that surrounds land reform…”

Land restitution – giving communities and individuals back the land they once owned – is also fairly simple and a lot of progress has been made with that too. Significantly, the overwhelming majority of the successful restitution applicants preferred financial compensation instead of getting the land back – R6 billion was paid out to them.

This is the key to the more complicated part of the land issue. Opinion surveys have shown that only about a third of black adult South Africans actually want agricultural land, and most of those want only a few hectares.

The simple fact is that South Africa is the most urbanised society in Africa and most urban people want better jobs, better homes and better education for their children rather than to go and struggle on a farm. This is why land reform in South Africa simply cannot be compared to that in Zimbabwe.

“We no longer have a peasantry,” Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti said in this regard last year, “we have wage earners now”.

But this hasn’t stopped politicians, activists and many ordinary people from demanding that “the land be given back to the original owners”. Few people view farming as a purely commercial enterprise. Many people find the fact that white commercial farmers still own most of the agricultural land offensive and a sign that black people have not been properly liberated after 1994. There is a palpable need for the symbolism around the 1913 Natives Land Act to be reversed.

However much one would want to rubbish this emotion as sentimentality and as irrational, there is no getting away from the fact that it is a political reality. As ANC intellectual Pallo Jordan remarked some time ago: “Every national movement claims its inspiration is the struggle to reclaim land lost to oppressors or conquerors. Virtually all the nationalist slogans in the South African freedom struggle invoke the land and assert its primacy among the objectives of the struggle itself.”

This is the real challenge of land reform: how do we satisfy this symbolic need for land to be handed back to black South Africans without dishing out valuable, productive agricultural land to people who actually don’t want to farm?

Political honesty and a public recognition of this reality would be a start, as would speeding up and streamlining the existing land redistribution programmes, and implementing the NDP proposals and other innovative measures such as workers co-owning the farms they work on.

* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Indepent Newspapers.

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