The land reform conundrum

Jacob Zuma

Why is it that Jacob Zuma and the ANC consistently tie land reform to the eradication of poverty, inequality and unemployment?

It’s as if land reform is a magic wand that the ANC can wave, which will take care of these three ills that have bedevilled our society since long before the dawn of our democracy.

Aside from the fact that the ANC has consistently missed its own targets for land restitution, there is the simple matter of agricultural economics. One of the objectives of the agricultural authorities, is the adjudication of land sub-divisions to ensure economic sustainability. Below a certain size, a farming unit becomes economically unsustainable.

As emotive as is the issue of land, settling people on economically unsustainable farming units, will turn us into a nation of subsistence farmers, barely able to feed ourselves, never mind contribute to the national breadbasket though excess food production.

The other end of the spectrum – settling land claimants on sustainable farming units – has been less than successful, largely due to the lack of support needed by emergent farmers.

The dissolution of agricultural extension services, a vital link in the chain of agricultural development, is a prime example.

This of course presupposes that land claimants do actually want to farm, and Jacob Zuma’s desperate plea during his State of the Nation Address (SONA), that land claimants be encouraged to remain on the land instead of taking the cash option, suggests that many don’t.

It is clear however, that the ANC is serious this time, and rural development and land reform minister Gugile Nkwinti’s observation during the SONA debate is instructive: he wants a single piece of legislation that will enable the expropriation of land without compensation, but how likely is that to happen?

Section 25 – Chapter Two: Bill of Rights – of the South African Constitution makes provision for expropriation of land with compensation, in the public interest, which includes the nation’s commitment to land reform. Compensation can either be by agreement – willing seller willing buyer – or decided or approved by a court. There is more, but this is the essence of the matter.

The only way to sidestep Clause 25, is to effect a change to the constitution, which will allow the enactment of enabling legislation to facilitate land expropriation without compensation. Ignoring for a moment the conflagration that will result if that comes to pass, there is the small matter of actually getting the constitutional change through Parliament, and that is just not going to happen any time soon.

An amendment to Chapter Two of the constitution requires a supporting vote of at least two thirds of the National Assembly, and at least six provinces in the National Council of Provinces, according to Section 74(2) of the constitution.

Whereas the latter is easily achievable right now, the former is impossible, and if electoral trends since 2009 are any indication, the likelihood of that extent of support in the future is vanishingly small.

So, is this little more than vote-catching rhetoric by the ANC, with the foreknowledge that it is legislatively impossible?

That the land question must be resolved is axiomatic, but it is the manner in which it is approached by the ANC that is at issue. Land restitution is not a panacea for all of the socio-economic ills which beset the nation, and it most definitely will not help to haul the ANC back from the abyss over which it currently teeters.

The ANC wants the principal of willing buyer willing seller off the table, suggesting that land reform has largely failed thus far because of recalcitrant white farmers who simply refuse to accept an equitable land valuation.

Whereas such intransigence has played a role in the settlement of some claims, it is not the sole reason for the pedestrian pace of land claim resolution, but even if it were, Section 25(2)(b) makes provision for a court to enforce an equitable land valuation.

Since the ANC will not be able to amend Clause 25 and enable land expropriation without compensation, it would do well to proceed expeditiously with the backlog in land claims adjudication, making full use of the courts to impose equitable valuations.

But aside from the agricultural land in private hands right now – the land restitution bone of contention – the extent of which is not accurately known, the State owns vast tracts of land, much of which is agriculturally viable, but fallow. What is stopping government from settling people on that land? Nothing.

Aside from settling people on the land, government must also implement the support infrastructure needed to get emergent black farmers, who choose to settle on and farm restituted or allocated land, economically productive as quickly as possible.

Unless of course it prefers to use the land issue as a billy-club to beat the farming community, in an attempt to garner the votes it knows it desperately needs in 2019.

The policy uncertainty in land reform is as deleterious to progress in the agricultural sector, as is policy uncertainty in the mining sector, and only the government is in a position to fix it. Now is the time.