THE prioritisation of land reform presents an historic opportunity for civil society and state to right past wrongs and build a more inclusive economy, experts told a recent public meeting in Cape Town.

But the issue can also sow division and undermine the agrarian economy, as some land reform efforts in Zimbabwe and South Africa have shown.

Attempts in South Africa to leverage reform through market forces and private property rights have so far failed to create a more inclusive agricultural sector or relieve the pressure for land in the cities amid rapid urbanisation, according to Professor Ben Cousins, DST/NRF Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.

The success of reform depends on well-planned and properly funded agricultural programmes, rather than potentially destabilising and ineffective political grandstanding, speakers told the meeting, which was hosted by the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR).

While acknowledging the huge historical inequalities in land ownership, which has been skewed along racial lines in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, land reform programmes should seek to right past wrongs through negotiation supported by comprehensive plans, in order to support inclusive economic development and prevent incendiary racial divisions.

In Zimbabwe, land occupations were launched in 2000 after a failed attempt by former President Robert Mugabe to change the constitution to sanction expropriation of land without compensation.

At a time of economic crisis, rising unemployment and food riots, and faced by intransigent foreign donors, the Zimbabwean government’s move to change the constitution signalled its political desperation after the British government, under its new Labour leader, Tony Blair, decided to end the financial support for land reform that had previously been given to right historical wrongs.

In the context of a liberation war that had been waged with land as a key grievance, given the slow pace of land reform since independence in 1980 and facing political pressure from civil society and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the Mugabe government had little choice but to go ahead with the simplistic notion that “if you put people on the land then everything will work out” under its Fast Track Land Reform Programme, according to Dr Prosper Matondi, Executive Director of the Ruzivo Trust in Harare.

The three-page summary of the policy, known as the Accelerated Fast Land Reform Programme document, basically said “we will take the land” and worry about issues of food security and water supply afterwards.

Similarly, Cousins advised against the South African parliament changing the country’s constitution, which already allows for expropriation and compensation at less than the market value of the land, in some cases possibly even zero compensation. He noted that reducing the amount of compensation was unlikely in itself to become a useful mechanism for speeding up land reform, given the need for thorough planning and post-settlement support.

Zimbabwean land reform targeted smallholders and black commercial farmers. In South Africa, market-oriented smallholders, who number between 250,000 and 500,000, should be the target of land reform, said Cousins.

With adequate support, such as subsidies and training, “these farmers could challenge those controlling the food economy”. Also with youth unemployment of 60-65%, small-scale farming could provide jobs and livelihoods.

In this regard, comprehensive planning is necessary to set in motion fundamental change, recognising the importance of labour-intensive enterprises and the spatial inequalities of apartheid, said Cousins.

For this to happen, it would need to address market realities. Historical patterns of economic control, which can dampen inclusivity must be overturned. For example, in Zimbabwe some former white farmers who have lost land have forged partnerships enabling them to control agricultural value chains in the poultry and livestock markets, said Matondi.

It can take time to overcome structural limitations on agricultural production that favour larger commercial farmers at the expense of smallholders.

In Zimbabwe, smallholders often focus on maize production. In the past, this contributed to national food security, freeing larger-scale producers to diversify into game farming and horticulture for export, while reaping the profits from cash crops such as tobacco.

It took several years from 2009 for more than 100,000 small tobacco farmers to start producing the equivalent of what 2,800 white farmers had produced, thus spreading the income-earning opportunities from this crop.

Appropriate support to smallholders would need a commitment beyond the 0.4% of the national budget currently allocated to land reform in South Africa. The small sums committed indicate that it had not been taken seriously enough, Cousins said.

Similarly, the model for tenure has failed to address the realities of property ownership for most South Africans, 60% of whom own land or housing outside formal systems.

In an informal system of “social tenure”, non-exclusive land rights are often based on need and recognised membership of a group, rather than payment of a purchase price. But these property systems are not adequately recognised in law. Accordingly, Cousins advocated the creation of a new land records Act to recognise and record such tenures.

He also criticised collusion between traditional leaders and the state to exploit local communities living on tribal land or around mines and advised that the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPDRA) and such bodies as the Ingonyama Trust in KwaZulu-Natal should be made subject to legislation to prevent dispossession by unscrupulous outsiders.

More broadly, Cousins and Matondi emphasised the importance of new laws, and judicial and dispute resolution processes to ensure equitable, inclusive access to land. In Zimbabwe, white farmers used their privileged access to the courts to block reforms, while the government used both political and legal means to enforce and legitimise its actions.

“The poor would be hit most by radical disruptions in food systems,” warned Cousins. “Our economy is highly dependent on a small number of commercial farmers. We are not in a revolutionary situation but one of reform, albeit radical reform.”

The government needs to forge a coherent, accountable national framework for land and tenure reform that gives legislative expression to the requirements of equitable access in the constitution and establishes plans and mechanisms that address the developmental needs of the agrarian, industrial and urban economies.

An August 2018 deadline has been set for recommendations to parliament on whether the South African constitution should be changed to ease land reform, said Solly Mapaila, First Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP), who chaired the meeting in Cape Town.

In the meantime, President Cyril Ramaphosa is holding extensive consultations on land reform and has suggested that a new Codesa-like summit should be held on the issue.

“The land question is full of injustice, brutality and denigration,” Mapaila told the meeting. “But it is also full of humanity and forgiveness and understanding.” Warning against attempts to use the issue to create division, he stressed the need for justice “to provide a solution to the people of our country … and build a new movement and a new goal”.

Mark Paterson is a senior journalist and communications consultant with a wide range of non-governmental, government and academic organisations.

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