Land Reform will remain a pivot in dealing with inequality

IN DEMAND: As elsewhere in the world in struggles for independence, the land question has always occupied a central place in the demands of the oppressed, says the writer.Picture: Leon Lestrade

While South Africans call for the renewal of the ANC and for it to return to its roots, it is useful to recall that there is no coincidence with the formation of the ANC in 1912 and the promulgation of the 1913 Land Act. As the ANC contemplates on its future, its history must assist it in re-focussing the path that the organisation must tread in order to pursue the goals of the national democratic revolution. 

 Going back to basics includes looking and re-looking at those questions that sit at the very heart of why the ANC was formed. The question of land remains integral in that introspection. 

The Land Act, one of the most devastating for African people in particular, came as a direct result of the unification of South Africa in 1910 and laid the foundations of segregation and later Apartheid.

Today as the ANC embarks on the second phase of the transition and as it implements radical economic transformation it is imperative to understand why the question of land is fundamental in unlocking inclusive development.

Last year the World Bank, in its exposition on sustainable development, in the light of the sustainable development goals (SDG’s), highlighted the crucial role that land plays in addressing the challenges of development. The issue of land relates directly to poverty reduction, inclusive growth, ensuring food security, addressing viable urbanization, climate change and guaranteeing that the voice of the marginalised is heard while all of these pertains to effective land governance.

Food security, for example, remains one of the underpinning factors of beating poverty in South Africa. In 2005, the National Food Consumption Survey indicated that half of South African households reported that they experienced hunger. Only 20 percent of households were said to be food secure. Nutrition has direct impact on human capital adversely affecting education and health and, again, access to land directly addresses the challenge of food security. 

The reality though is not that there is not enough food for everyone. Rather, food distribution remains grossly unequal resulting in somewhat 9 million tons of food going to waste per annum. At the same time, South Africa is a country where obesity and unhealthy eating is a problem. Needless to add that through land redress issues of environmental sustainability are also addressed.  

Access to land and holding its title deeds therefore not only speaks to these questions of nutrition but also allows the poor to convert the land into an economic opportunity while being able to access loans. But the World Bank report does warn and suggests securing collective rights, land rights for women and other vulnerable groups rather than that of individuals. In order to meet sustainable development goals, the World Bank insists that property rights become one of the key areas of opportunity. Even more so, securing tenure on a mass scale is envisaged and encouraged by the bank.

The World Bank itself, through its developmental programmes, supports initiatives by national governments to ensure people receive title deeds. In Indonesia, said to be the 4th top economy in the world by 2050 by PwC, over 200 thousand title certificates were awarded; a third going to women. In Brazil, the world’s 5th top economy by 2050 according to the same PwC Report, over 55 thousand poor families were given access to 1.2 million hectares of land. 

The Freedom Charter is clear about land. It shall be owned by those who work it. The ANC’s discussion document on economic transformation for its upcoming national policy conference suggests a number of measures that must be discussed and implemented. 

Firstly, it suggests that legislation must be passed in order to facilitate a process where ‘just and equitable’ compensation, as envisaged by the Constitution, is codified. Yet the document also suggests that government, and by implication the national legislature, should ensure that the cost paid by government for land for land redistribution purposes is justified and fair, as per the recent ConCourt judgement.

However, redistribution remains a key challenge; if not the biggest one. In 2013, the Land Audit, released by the Department of Land Reform and Rural Development, indicated that 79 percent of land in South Africa was in private hands. State land only accounted for 14 percent. In other words, the state itself does not have vast tracts of land to distribute but rather attempts must be made to redistribute the land from private ownership.  

By 2012, the ANC led government had redistributed nearly 8 million hectares of land to Black ownership. White commercial farmers though continue to enjoy 67 percent of the land of South Africa. 

At time same time, another major challenge remains urbanization. Nearly two-thirds of the country’s population reside in urban areas while, of this number, 37 percent reside in metropolitan areas alone, the mega cities, which account for only two percent of the total land mass of South Africa. It will therefore be hard to allocate land to people in urban areas. 

A thorough relook at Section 25 of the Constitution is maybe what is needed and the ANC would do well if it was to engage this Section at the national policy conference. Though this is not suggested in the discussion document. 

Secondly, in advancing land redistribution, the discussion document couples land redistribution with ensuring access to farming equipment, oversight of land and the necessary technical skills needed to develop the land. In other words, a direct developmental approach is adopted in the task of land redistribution. 

People should not simply be acquiring land for the sake of possessing it. Rather there must exist mechanisms which empower them to till the land. Irrigation and water rights are also seen as a priority in this respect.

Finally, the discussion document suggests institutional reform in keeping record, especially within the public sector. 

The redistribution of land cannot be based on the notion that individuals receive vast tracts of land but rather that land, together with the developmental support of government, should be allocated to communities. Communities together will therefore have the responsibility of developing the land and using it to explore further economic opportunities collectively. 

Unfortunately, hitherto we have seen the practice whereby beneficiaries of government programmes have often had to resell what they received because of financial constraints. We see this happening mostly in housing where beneficiaries would sell their state granted houses and move back into informal settlements because they needed the money received from selling the house. This simply perpetuates the poverty cycle. 

Land reform and the redistribution of land is therefore seen as one of many strategies to economic transformation. Yet one could easily argue that without a deliberate attempt to prioritise land redistribution and ensure collective rights to communities for land, we would not be achieving radical economic transformation.

Given the current climate in our country, the ANC will therefore do well to go back to the drawing board and evaluate its position on land redistribution of the last 23 years. The national policy conference therefore comes at an opportune time where such critical decisions could be made in order to address this pivotal question.

The return of the land to the people of South Africa therefore is an imperative not only to readdress past injustices, as envisaged by the Constitution, but also as a means to unlock radical economic transformation.

Wesley Seale is a lecturer at the Politics & International Studies department, Rhodes University