The at times bitter debate about land reform in South Africa is far from over and a cabinet minister has given notice that the issue will come up for “close and careful” interpretation of "the implementation regime of the policies” to be discussed by the National Conference of the African Nation Congress in December. Judged by international experience, it is unlikely that the final word will be spoken on the issue in Mangaung.
In his closing remarks at the recent general meeting of the African Farmers Association of South Africa Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti, said the National Policy Conference of the ruling party “adopted institutional and political processes which must be implemented by the state to achieve a radical change in the systems, patterns, ownership and control of land and landed assets". The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, working with partners in the sector, has advanced a great deal towards achieving the goal.
“The biggest challenge we are faced with is how we reverse the legacy of the 1913 Natives Land Act in such a way as to effectively decongest the 13% of land which is plus minus 57% of the population,” the minister said.
He also said that land is a fundamental source of wealth and economic growth. A radical redistribution of land and landed assets is the surest way of growing the economy and fighting poverty, unemployment and income inequality.
But, in a constitutional democracy you must do that through institutions and laws which are not in conflict with the constitution, he added.
At the same occasion president Jacob Zuma also proposed a new land reform plan. "This is an innovative proposal that needs to be tested," he said.
The plan proposed a district-based approach to land reform and its financing. "It proposes that each district should establish a district land reform committee where all stakeholders are involved. This committee will be responsible for identifying 20% of the commercial agricultural land in the district and giving commercial farmers the option of assisting its transfer to black farmers."
Some elements of the president's proposal, among others that land should be procured at 50% of its market value for redistribution, was met with sharp reaction from farmers organisations and other political leaders.
Eugene Brink, political analyst at the Solidarity Research Institute (SRI), said the plan, in terms of which the land reform committee will arbitrarily identify 20% of the commercial agricultural land in each ‘district' and the state will buy it at 50% of its market value, is not a win-win solution.
"The plan will benefit upcoming farmers at the expense of established farmers - who are already under pressure - and only if the new farmers are successful. This plan presupposes that farmers who cooperate will not be targeted for land reform again. It sketches a scenario that if commercial farmers assist upcoming farmers to make their farms viable, they will be left alone in future, which amounts to blackmail,” he said.
It can also be expected that elements of the “new” land reform plan will be met with stiff opposition through the courts if it infringes on the rights of existing commercial farmers.
Generally South African commentators on emotive issues like land reform tend to be very inward looking. The South African situation, however is not as unique or even typically 'African' as is often thought.
A search on the issue of land reform internationally brought the following to the fore:
•The Scottish government recently set up a Land Reform Review Group "to find ways to enable more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership and use of land which puts radical land reform firmly in the national interest.” A £6 million Scottish Land Fund would support rural communities in their efforts to exercise the right to buy land and gain a more significant stake in the land that they live and work on;
•Earlier this month in the Philippines at least 2 000 farmers from the Northern Mindanao Region marked the 40th anniversary of the “Presidential Decree 27” or the Farmers Emancipation Act by the then strongman Ferdinand Marcos, with a 15 kilometre protest march. The decree entrenched the concentration of land ownership in the hands of rich families;
•In Pakistan all political parties have recently been asked by civil society activists to support land reforms and distribution of state land among landless peasants and strive for the provision of social security benefits to all labourers especially agriculture workers. Civil society activists deplored the fact that the process of land reforms, started in 1950, has come to a standstill;
•In India a multi-ministerial task force was set up earlier this month to draft a national land reform policy. The Indian government is on a six-month deadline before protests by the landless poor resume in March next year;
•In Colombia, a year after president Juan Manuel Santos signed a Victims and Land Restitution Law (a vast land titling and redistribution programme),the issue of landreform remains the most intractable problem in that strife-torn country; and
•In Paraguay landless farm workers are pushing for land reform and protests are gaining momentum.
If Scotland, some centuries after the end of the feudal system, is to this day still battling with land reform it might be expecting too much to think that the debate on this issue in South Africa will end any time soon.