The mistakes of the past two decades that have seen emerging farmers frustrated by lack of financial and technical support, must be a thing of the past if radical economic transformation is to be achieved. File photo: Siphiwe Sibeko

Many land claimants cannot afford to wait 10 years before they can get what are their rightful assets, says Pinky Khoabane.

Johannesburg - President Jacob Zuma, in his State of the Nation address mentioned that his next term of office would be underpinned by radical economic transformation, a point that was rebutted by Economic Freedom Front (EFF) leader Julius Malema.

“You cannot pay for stolen land,” Malema retorted during the parliamentary debate on the president’s address, a reminder, perhaps, of the conclusion of this country’s most costly land claim earlier this year, when the government paid almost R1 billion for the world-renowned Mala Mala Game Lodge as part of land restitution.

At R70 000 per hectare, the land has been returned to its rightful owners, the community of N’wandlamhlarhi in Mpumalanga at a hefty price, which the government has been quick to explain is fair and market-related.

The community will, in return, get their land back and the former owners will remain on the land until 2015, during which time they will pay R700 000 a month for the lease and share with the community the profits accrued during the period of the lease.

In that period, they will provide the rightful owners with capacity and technical support to ensure the sustainability and proper running of the business beyond the lease period.

Apart from the financial and more tangible aspects of the deal, perhaps, is the restoration of dignity and the emotional and cultural spin-offs that come with land ownership.

This seems fair; the land wasn’t developed at the time of the theft and certainly didn’t have the estimated R38 million brand value it supposedly holds today.

But cynics ask how land that was stolen and which has been extremely profitable for the expropriators, could be returned at such a price.

The policy of land restitution, which tries to be fair to both the expropriators and rightful owners, has stuttered largely on this issue of the price the not-so-rightful owners have wanted to charge for land they took for free while the rightful owners were shunted to poorer parts of the country.

The N’wandlamhlarhi community, for example, having been forced off their land, lived on the outskirts and in abject poverty while the Rattrays raked in millions of rand from the tourism trade. While 98 percent of the people who visit the lodge are international tourists, the owners could not visit their own land except as workers.

As is customary in these land claims, the apartheid-era owners, whose only claim to the land is the protection they receive from the 1913 Land Act, resisted restitution, dragging the process through almost a decade of legal battles – three courts, including the Constitutional Court, to be exact.

For those who are not familiar with the Land Act of 1913, it is through this piece of legislation that 87 percent of the land, largely lucrative, was reserved for whites, while the majority blacks were dumped on 13 percent of the most arid land.

Apologists for this horrendous law will no doubt be saying the owners would have done nothing with this land or very little in comparison with developments made by apartheid-era owners of Mala Mala. The fact is this land belongs to and was stolen from the N’wandlamhlarhi and they were entitled to do on it as they pleased.

Some will also point to stories of farms that have been left fallow after they were returned to their rightful owners – the “failures” of the land restitution process.

However, many will also be looking at this deal as the benchmark on which a successful land reform process should be built.

But can it be the benchmark? Can the ANC and the many land claimants afford to wait for 10 years while the process goes through courts before they can get what are their rightful assets?

Can the taxpayer afford to pay these exorbitant prices just so the rightful owners can have their land back?

The ANC is well aware that the progress made in the redistribution of land is slow.

In his State of the Nation address in February, Zuma mentioned that about 5 000 farms comprising a total of 4.2 million hectares had been returned to black hands since 1994.

These numbers reflect a gravely slow pace.

Nearly 80 000 land claims totalling 3.4 million hectares and benefiting 1.8 million people had been settled, he said at the time.

The introduction of new legislation to speed up the process is a welcome development.

While the amendments to the Restitution of Land Rights Act of 1994 will offer claimants another opportunity at getting their land back, questions must be asked about the imposition of these deadlines and whether they do not deny victims of apartheid laws the restoration of their rights, land included.

The amendments extend the window period for lodging claims to 18 June 2018.

The commitment to return land to rightful owners as enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic should outweigh any other factor.

The establishment of the Office of the Valuer-General, whose role will be to evaluate land and farms, will offer a much-needed reprieve in lengthy negotiations over price.

The government will now be able to pay what is recommended by this office.

Returning land to rightful owners alone is not enough to address the eradication of poverty and food security in this country. The restoration of dignity through ownership alone when the land is not productive yields nothing.

The ruling party will have to intensify its efforts to support emerging farmers.

The mistakes of the past two decades that have seen emerging farmers frustrated by lack of financial and technical support, must be a thing of the past if radical economic transformation is to be achieved.

Equally pleasing is the commitment by the Commission for Restitution of Land and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform to use mistakes of the past as lessons for the successful implementation of land reform.

Pockets of success have begun to emerge as the government moves to recapitalise and assist in the development of farms left fallow.

However, these lessons will have to be implemented at lightning speed for the true fruits of the land to be realised by the new owners.

The ANC in its second transition to an economic revolution would do well to heed the words of some of its former presidents.

Its first president, John Dube, said: “If we have no land to live on, we can be no people,” while Oliver Tambo in a 1985 speech said: “The land question must be resolved, if needs be the hard way.”

* Pinky Khoabane is an author, writer and columnist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent