Opinion: South African land reform in a cul-de-sac
By Agri SA deputy president and land policy committee chairman Dr Theo de Jager
When Robin Barnsley, Agri SA’s General Affairs Chamber chairman and arguably one of the most gifted leaders in agriculture, last year reported on the state and impact of restitution at Kwanalu’s conference, he quoted Rudyard Kipling from Three Soldiers, calling it "a lamented tale of things done long ago, and ill done".
This is how South Africa will for always in future talk of restitution. It has nothing to do with the principle of restoring land to those who have lost it without proper market related compensation, nor with the 1994 act on which all stakeholders agreed to, and which governs restitution. It has everything to do with the way it has been implemented by a Restitution Commission whose endeavours over the last 12 years have caused South Africa nothing but embarrassment and losses.
State of disrepair
Their work has not improved anything for the beneficiaries of restitution who are all left poorer than before, torn apart in internal conflict and strife in artificial government-created "communities", or for commercial farmers who are being bullied and intimidated into accepting less than half the value of their land. It had a devastating impact on agricultural production, draining the economies of many rural towns to the point of collapse, and leaving a trail of destruction on abandoned farms which will cost more to repair than what the infamous commission paid for when they were still productive.
After a a visit to a ZAR65 million (US$7.5 million) land transfer in Limpopo, Business Day journalist Neels Blom, wrote: “These were not farms where production had simply been halted as a consequence of land claims and neglect had taken its toll; these farms had been destroyed beyond redemption. The last time that I saw such wrecked buildings and the wanton destruction of showcase farms was more than 30 years ago in the aftermath of the South African Defence Force’s invasion of Angola. Here, as in the war zone, the degree of vandalism had gone far beyond the force needed to rip out usable items. It is hard to imagine the level of rage that would motivate someone to break every window pane in a building and knock others down until no two bricks remained on top of each other."
He has not been in the position of a land owner (seller) or a claimant whose fate is in the hands of officials who are not accessible, nor does he have any comprehension of the effects of their actions (or lack thereof). With any exposure to this commission, he would have understood.
From a commission who still doesn’t have a final list of the claims they received 14 years ago, and doesn’t know how many farms they have gazetted since, or how many claims they have processed, one can surely not expect to have kept a record of the number of jobs and value chains it has destroyed, the decline in production output it has caused, or the investors it has scared off.
Now the government wants to reopen the opportunity to file claims "because communities say they did not know they could claim".
Land reform and rural development minister Gugile Nkwinti (who is really doing his level best to get over the advantage line, if only he had a capable department behind him) once explained that some community members are disgruntled with successful claimants with whom they grew up, and while they were in the same position as them, they are now left with nothing.
What he does not understand is that the disgruntled knew that they could file a claim, but they did not know that the validity of claims would not matter at all. They never anticipated that the commission would give up on the research on validity of claims altogether, and that all land of willing (and often desperate) sellers will be transferred, as long as there is a claim on it. It became a free for all, with the only criteria a claim form on a file. Now everybody wants it.
Red tape fiasco
Such a circus it became, that the department reported in April in parliament that they now have substantially more outstanding claims than the number they reported to parliament in 2009.
But it is all a very expensive political game of course. If there were legitimate cases where potential claimants missed the opportunity to file a claim, it would not be necessary to open the whole process again, and cause even more havoc than the current process which has been described in foreign media as the biggest man-made disaster to have struck South African agriculture since the Anglo-Boer War. Such potential claimants should simply be allowed to approach the court for condonation for filing a late claim. The officials would not settle for that, because it would not suit their idealogical agenda.
It is is nothing different from the blind drive to scrap the willing seller principle. Even though senior ANC leaders such as Motlanthe and Manuel have conceded that it was the incompetent buyers rather than unwilling sellers who have failed meaningful land reform, the department insists that the principle should be scrapped, because it was adopted as a resolution at the 2007 ANC Conference in Polokwane. No one stood up at that conference to inform the delegates on the corruption, maladministration, ineptness and nepotism which had became the hallmark of this department, and its role in the failure of land reform.
The services of two successive directors generals, the National Land Claims Commissioner and all but one of the provincial land claims commissioners, along with several senior managers in the department, have since been terminated, and yet the blame for poor implementation is consistently being passed on to everyone and everything but the human capital of the department.
Banking input crucial
Agri SA has since 2004 pleaded with government to involve the banks and other agri-business in solving the problem, as the massive outflow of investment in the sector had just started to take its toll. Banks also run the risk of financing on inflated values, and theirs is no less than the risk of government. Banks have designed instruments to mitigate that risk though, and there is absolutely no reason why government should not be able to tap into those instruments.
If a bank is prepared to finance land at a certain value, the government’s risk to pay too much at that value is minimal. In eight years the department has not responded to any of the numerous repeated calls for the involvement of the banks, probably because it would force transparency, and limit opportunities for officials themselves to benefit from transactions.
They would rather scrap the willing seller principle, kill agricultural financing in the process, and then rub it off their shoulders as an "unitended consequence".
Blaming greedy farmers for inflated land prices although the department alone appoints valuers, senior managers in the commission (with party membership as the only qualification) decided in August 2007 to offer only 60% of the value of a farm in restitution transactions. With no understanding of the consequences, they made it so hard for land owners of claimed farms to obtain production financing, that production in the Northern provinces took a nose dive.
Only desperate sellers on cash-strapped farms would surrender 40-50% of the capital value they have built up through their lifetimes, so beneficiaries were delivered to failure from the onset. The very practice of transferring land for political reasons at below market related prices, which has compelled South Africa to embark on the restitution process in the first place, is being employed again. Exactly what do they think they will achieve?
The sad part of the story of land reform in South Africa is that, in spite of all the goodwill, pure intentions, a committed minister, excellent constitutional and legal framework and workable plans, we do not have the capacity in the department to implement it meaningfully. We sit with activists and revolutionaries in senior positions, and those do not make good administrators. Until they are removed, and replaced by proper professionals, the failure of land reform is bound to worsen.