At the birth of our democracy the incoming government ambitiously stated they would redistribute thirty percent of agricultural land, 25 million hectares, by 1999.
When it was obvious the goal could not be met, the delivery date was shifted to 2014. Today we are not even a third of the way to achieving this limited target.
The question of redistribution, restitution and broadened access to land remains a powder keg. The jobless and hopeless are increasingly receptive to this explosive rhetoric in already fragile situations.
Perceptions of incompetence render the state a legitimised target of anger when playing the blame game. Demagogues like Julius Malema have and will continue to seize this failure, both as vote grabber and power play.
An efficient, orderly and participatory land reform process could help to address the frustrations and expectations of both rural and urban dwellers. Land not only is the foundation of wealth; it is the source of our food, it defines us.
The Native Land Act of 1913 was no less than the legislative stripping of dignity and wealth by colonial capital interests. Addressing this theft was given constitutional priority, both for historical and for practical reasons, under Section 25 of the Constitution.
However the latest legislative conditions proposed for our land reform process threaten to exacerbate rather than improve the practicalities of land reform, ownership and inequality.
Many of the initial attempts to reform land ownership failed mainly because beneficiaries were not suitably supported after land transfer. Consequently land fell into disrepair or was sold, prompting cynical responses about the inevitable failure of land reform.
Other restitutional land transfers, particularly those dealing with conservation of land have been seriously criticised. Some, such as Makuleke in Limpopo have largely succeeded; others like Mier in the Kalahari, less so. The recent case of Mala Mala, where the owners received just shy of a billion Rands, nearly a third of the total annual budget for land reform, was particularly controversial.
The Constitutional Court was due to hear argument on this case but the state withdrew before it could proceed. There are perceptions that the owners were compensated not only for land and improvements but for the value of a going concern. Many felt this to be a wasteful use of limited available funds.
Why did this occur? The Minister stated his decision to withdraw from legal action was informed by expert advice. Was the government unwilling to further compromise its already fragile image as an investor-friendly destination by opening the door to what may be perceived as aggressive land reform policies if the courts ruled accordingly?
Section 25 of the Constitution grants the state the right to intervene in land reform in the public interest. Is the public interest determined by perceptions of investor relations or is it about restoring the inequalities of land holding in South Africa? And is the state the government of the day or the legal process that controls it? Resolving these questions and conflicts is central to improving land reform.
More importantly we need to ask what we really need to achieve through land reform. Is it about dignity and restitution? Is it about feeding our nation? Is it about investor relations? In reality it is about all of these things, and more.
Because it has not adequately prioritised its land reform agenda, the government of the day continues to flounder in its compromises around land deals.
The current thrust toward reforming the process revolves around the State Land Leasehold and Disposal Policy (SLDP). This stands to exacerbate already messy policies by replacing existing land and agricultural reform policies with what can best be described as a paternalistic, neo-colonial model.
The SLDP states those occupying small farms be excluded from freehold title, unless they graduate up to larger land parcels, through following prescriptive, interventionist business plans.
Even large land units will retain a complex state oversight mechanism for a lengthy period. The process is to be adjudicated by regional boards, leaving it open to incompetence, political interference and corruption. It appears unworkable.
The SLDP is proposed to be complimented by the Recapitalization and Development Policy Programme (RDPP), which offers subsidies, controlled by the SLDP boards.
This is further complicated by a poorly defined land size holding redistribution process called the Agricultural Landholding Policy (ALPF) which proposes to bracket land holding sizes between minimum and maximum viable area, per district.
This entire land reform package contradicts other policies like the National Development Plan which promotes improved tenure and support for women, micro- and small farmers.
To date smallholders have relied on a deeply dysfunctional extension service, focused on assisting conventional, commercial agriculture. Why mimic the failed bigger-is-better model, proven to be inherently unsuited to new entrants? Why not link subsidies to production delivery, not to speculative business plans?
The high-cost, high-risk and high-impact industrial farming model is responsible for erosion of soil, security and tenure, while consolidating farm sizes. Its impacts include rapid urbanisation, skill losses and deterioration of food security.
This model has failed wherever it has been linked to agricultural and land reform. Let big agriculture practice big agriculture. Small farmers cannot compete.
What is required are extension services that move us toward sustainable, modern agro-ecological consideration. We need resilience to climate change, fuel price shocks and economic instability.
Integrated land reform and agricultural policies as practiced in Brazil and Ghana can reinforce the linkages between rural, peri-urban and urban agriculture, as well as between the human, energy, water and nutrient flows between the hinterlands and the cities.
These models focus on attracting people to the land, not driving them off through failed attempts to replicate large-scale, industrial farming models.
In Brazil family farmers, using a quarter of agricultural land, are responsible for nearly 40% of total agricultural production value. This includes fruit and vegetable staples, subsidised by the state to support food security.
South Africa lacks a cogent food security policy, let alone an urban food security policy, even with two thirds of our people living in cities, most of them food insecure.
Instead our emerging policies appear to follow concepts that have failed elsewhere. It is unrealistic to expect them to magically succeed here.
The increasing emphasis on anachronistic traditional leadership structures that panders to a narrow, often non-mandated constituency, further undermines the already tenuous status of women and security of tenure. Big government, big agriculture and traditional leadership have repeatedly failed to deliver. The most recent proposed reforms are just more of the same.
In short the SLDP and its associated legislation is antithetical to food security. If we are to succeed in land and agricultural reform we need to adopt a far more inclusive and participatory approach. We simply no longer have the luxury of fiddling around the edges of land reform.
Several well informed experts have suggested that in order to reshape the land reform process we urgently require a broadly participative national discussion, following Codesa type principles.
These complex, multifaceted problems cannot be solved using the non-consultative, top-heavy approaches presently on the table. Continued failure is not an option. It condemns the most vulnerable amongst us to further uncertainty and hunger which in turn threatens the very fabric of our society.
Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at www.ekogaia.org.
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