Land reform policies should not put the country on the edge of agricultural precipice


A cursory review of the ANC’s National Policy Conference Report, alludes to a decidedly different land reform landscape post its elective conference in December, at which these proposals are expected to be adopted.  

Among the report’s interesting observations about land reform in South Africa is its strong sentiment that not enough progress has been made to-date. It specifically states that:  “The programme of land redistribution has been inadequate. Not enough productive   land has been transferred into the hands of the black farmers and producers.”

In responding to this challenge, the report proposes that the conference should consider the following two options.

“Option 1: The Constitution should be amended to allow the State to expropriate land without compensation; and

 Option 2: The State should act more aggressively to expropriate land in line with the Mangaung resolution based on the Constitution’s requirement of just and equitable compensation. “

At its Mangaung conference in 2012, the ANC resolved to replace the willing buyer willing seller approach with the “just and equitable” principle in the Constitution. Since then, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) has worked to implement the resolutions of the Mangaung Conference by introducing a plethora of land reform policies through Parliament, the most recent of which is the draft Bill on Communal Land Tenure, whose overarching objective is to transfer ownership of land by the State to communities. This, notwithstanding the slow pace of land reform and the dismal failure of government to meet its land reform targets which were set in 1996, is an issue the Policy Conference Report bemoans and one which it seeks to table at the forthcoming National Elective Conference.

Accurate official information on just how much land has been redistributed since 1994 is difficult to come by, including information on how much of this land is now productive. A recent land audit by AgriSA, however, confirms that very little progress has been made to radically transfer land to historically disposed blacks in general. According to this report, both government and previously disadvantaged individuals (PDIs) bought 8.9 million hectares of land between 1994 and 2016. In terms of land ownership, the report shows that in 1994, South Africa’s agricultural land totalled 97-million hectares of which 82.5-million hectares were owned by white commercial farmers and only 14.5 million hectares by government and previously disadvantaged individuals (PDIs).

The report goes further to show that in 2016, South Africa’s agricultural land declined to 93.5 million hectares, of which 68.5-million hectares are owned by white commercial farmers and 25-million hectares are owned by government and PDIs. This represent a slight increase of 9.7 million hectares between 1994 and 2016.

The biggest challenge facing the land reform program in South Africa today are the millions of hectares of unproductive land that have been given to rightful owners as part of the restitution process. It is widely acknowledged by sector players including Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) that a major part of this unproductivity is due to the lack of capacity and skills of those who have received land as well as a lack of access to finance.  This is a barrier that actually serves to reverse agricultural transformation in South Africa.

The issue of unproductive land is something the upcoming conference ought to seriously deliberate on with a view toward a clearer policy direction. The ruling party would be wise to recognise that any calls for redistribution without also addressing the issue of unproductive land would be fruitless. Furthermore, with agricultural land declining, issues around food security and agricultural production become more critical to address, and with any policy response, attempts should be made to fully understand the extent and causes of these problems in order to begin to properly address them.

The caveat, however, is that  the ANC does not have the requisite two-thirds majority to effect any change or amendments to Section 25 of the Constitution in order to implement its 2012 Mangaung conference resolution or its national policy report which is to be tabled at this conference. This begs the question as to how the ruling party intends to overcome this hurdle given the downward electoral trajectory it has experienced since 2009. Will it consider the Economic Freedom Fighter’s (EFF’s) offer to vote with it in support of this constitutional amendment?  It remains to be seen how the conference will move forward on this matter and the likelihood of this option being adopted at this stage, seems low.  

The often competing and conflicting demands for land require a careful balancing act from a policy perspective. The phenomenon of in-migration continues to pose a serious challenge to the country’s land reform and urbanisation processes, particularly with the increasing demand for residential land in urban centres. Local municipalities are faced with these challenges every day and Human Settlements programmes are compromised in the process. The state ought to be in a better position to mitigate these often conflicting and competing demands for land.

Additionally, the challenge of access to finance that Black farmers and producers face requires special attention. The ANC Mangaung conference resolutions proposed the establishment of a cooperative bank and rural development agency, which the national policy report does not echo.

An integrated agricultural development finance approach spearheaded by DAFF as part of its operation Phakisa Programme would go a long way in addressing this challenge. The shifting of the recapitalisation programme from DRDLR to DAFF has been a positive step, as this will eliminate the problem of double-dipping that is often perpetuated by small farmers and producers. An integrated agricultural development finance mechanism will enable farmers to get financial support from one source of funding.

It is doubtful as to whether the creation of additional financial institutions will add any real value to the transformation imperatives of the sector. The most important thing to do is to enhance and strengthen the development capacity of existing government development finance institutions (DFIs) whose mandate it is to grow the sector in a more inclusive and equitable way.

A transformative approach to land reform in the agricultural sector need not jeopardise food security and agricultural production. Instead, this policy could act as a catalyst for real agricultural reform, provided that all the issues at hand are thoroughly considered.


Zamikhaya Maseti is a Policy Analyst with significant experience in government, development and the agricultural sectors