Land Reform Only way to Solve South Africa's Inequality Problem

Monday, May 13, 2019

Having emerged as a free society in 1994, South Africa adopted a new Constitution that sought to redress the legacy of apartheid by enshrining a Bill of Rights for all South Africans. Twenty-five years on and one of those rights, the right to property, has recently set off new controversy. 

Photo credit: AFRA

Land redistribution in South Africa is not well adapted to the realities of land tenancy by the black majority. More than 60 per cent of the population, or about 30 million people, own land or dwellings outside the formal property system. These "off-register" titles are held by those living in communal areas, informal settlements and on the peripheries of towns and cities. The unregistered status of these rights relegates them to the margins of the property system, and they are widely perceived to be 'informal' rights with no legal status. Networks of patronage and corruption thrive in this environment, where institutions are disjointed, localised and prone to conflicts.

South Africa's National Engagement Strategy (NES), or LandNNES has identified weak land administration as a main cause of the state's inability to bring the landless majority into the formal property system. Land administration is needed to provide coordinated mechanisms for spatial planning and land use management, tenure and succession law, taxation and revenue, etc.

"The land administration system in South Africa is fragmented and poorly conceptualised," said Motlanalo Lebepe, the LandNNES steering committee member. "The challenge can be traced back to the making of the Constitution where there has been no provision for land administration. Instead, the three pillars of land reform have been restitution, tenure reform and redistribution. The thinking was that tenure reform encompasses land administration, and this is not the case."

Since 2018, the government has engaged in a Constitutional review, where an ad-hoc committee has conducted consultations with civil society organisations across South Africa on ways to facilitate land redistribution. LandNNES, has been actively coordinating with civil society to increase their capacities and present priorities to the government through the review process.

The slow pace of land reform is also due to the government's preference of redistributing land to serve the expansion of commercial farming, which has been a conspicuous failure. Few black farmers have the capital or technical capacities to manage large-scale farm enterprises, while those that remain outside the formal system don't have the opportunity to access credit or other means of government support.

According to Lebepe, "land redistribution should not only focus on land access for agricultural production but on security of tenure, promotion of access to basic services for farm dwellers and farm workers, settlement development for both urban and rural dwellers and livelihood improvement."

"This could be done through a holistic approach where the state invests in small-scale farming through capacity building, infrastructure development, access to finance, access to markets and storage facilities," she said.

Since  LandNNES  launch in 2018,  it facilitated  community workshops with civil society across the country to prepare them for meaningful participation in public hearings held to obtain the public's views on land expropriation without compensation.

"LandNNES has been engaging with the Department of Land Reform and Rural Development to discuss the national programme for farm dwellers and farm workers land rights.  The process has so far contributed to building trust between the government and civil society and acknowledgement that meaningful land reform can be realised through us working together," Lebepe said.

LandNNES meanwhile has presented the government with practicable steps for getting the policy direction right, such as drafting a White Paper on land administration that would lead to national legislation and an inter-ministerial commission to manage the reform process. As the national aspiration for accelerated land reform stalls, the government needs to act with decisiveness. Only by righting historical injustices and addressing the dissatisfaction of its poorest citizens can South Africa avoid a breakdown of peace and stability.


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