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Land Reform in South Africa Multi-Faceted


Land reform was a key promise made by the African National Congress when it won elections in 1994 – ending three centuries of white minority rule. Since then, South Africa had embarked on a range of reforms to change the face of land ownership, which, under apartheid, was vested almost entirely in the white community.

Changing the demographics of land ownership in South Africa is an ongoing and enormous challenge. Under apartheid, 87 percent of the land mass was earmarked for whites who comprised just 13 percent of the population.

The first challenge of the government’s five-part reform program was housing in and around towns and cities. Ownership of state-owned houses in so-called black townships was transferred to the occupiers and the government embarked on an intensive campaign to build some five million low-cost homes in 10 years.

Even so, huge backlogs remain with millions of South Africans still occupying shanties in informal settlements.

The next step was restitution of land taken from black South Africans between 1913 and 1994. A land claims commission and land claims court was put into place to administer and adjudicate some 80,000 claims. A little more than half have been settled.

President Thabo Mbeki has set December 2005 as the deadline for settlement of all restitution claims, but professor Ben Cousins says that target is likely to slip.

“And in our view, that’s unlikely to be met, because the great majority of rural claims have not been settled - because they usually involve land,” he said. "People are offered a choice, of either restoring their original land and that’s often their first choice; or, if that’s not possible receiving alternative land; or, receiving a cash compensation payout.”

Professor Cousins, director of the Program for Land & Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, says that the restitution program remains severely under resourced.

“We don’t think they can finish the program by the end of next year,” he said, “and we also think that they need even greater increases in their budget than they have received recently to do that and they also have to really take on the challenge of supporting people’s livelihood activities once they’ve had their land restored to them.”

The third element of land reform in South Africa is redistribution of farmland. Just 13 percent of the country’s landmass is suitable for crop production or animal husbandry, almost all of it owned by white commercial farmers.

It is this area of reform that has been lagging behind, even though more than half of white farmers support the government’s land reform policies. Wayne Jordaan of The Rural Action Committee in Potchefstroom says the slow pace of redistribution is hampering rural development and poverty relief.

“And for us that is a very big problem because land reform and appropriate rural development is one of the mechanisms in which our country can address the severe poverty problems that we are experiencing in our country,” he said.

Mr. Jordaan went on to say that in addition to delays in redistribution caused both by policy weaknesses and financial constraints, there are insufficient support programs to ensure that benefits reach surrounding communities.

“So in my opinion in the rural areas it will make significant impact, at the same time you need to have other programs in support of that agricultural outpoint that you desire,” he said. “For example the process of beneficiation that where not everybody can actually have a farm or work a farm, they can benefit from agricultural output by ensuring that beneficiation processes in rural areas rather than exporting the rural agricultural products.”

The fourth element of land reform is so-called tenure, which protects individuals such as farm workers who have lived for years on commercial farms. Professor Cousins says, as in the case of restitution, tenure is enshrined in the constitution.

“And also on the basis of clearly defined rights the need for tenure reform is laid out in the constitution so people whose tenure of land, whose land rights are legally insecure as a result of past practices and laws, are entitled to the extent provided by an act of parliament to either legally secure land tenure; or to comparable redress,” he said.

The longer a worker lives on a farm, the more rights he enjoys while the farmer’s right to evict workers decreases. As a result more and more farmers use part-time workers or contractors which allows them to fire and evict fulltime workers as surplus to their needs. In these cases, says Mr Jordaan, the law is actually being used against farm workers.

“Where we are trying to get farm workers security of tenure, often current landowners are using that legislation to get farm dwellers evicted,” he said.

The final element of South Africa’s land reform program is communal land, for which, in most cases, ownership is vested in the state. New legislation provides for transferring ownership to communities while protecting individual tenure.

But Professor Cousins says the legislation does not adequately address the rights of women and that administration of communal lands will fall under traditional leaders, many of whom are discredited. But, he says, the biggest challenge is going to be defining both the communities and the boundaries of the land they occupy.

While most analysts agree that the legislative framework for land reform in South Africa is generally good, they also agree that weaknesses are often to be found in policy and implementation.

The government appears to have taken some of these criticisms to heart. There is new legislation in the pipeline to address redistribution and management of farmland; and, this week the Land and Agriculture minister is holding a workshop to address issues of support programs for newly settled landowners.

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