Taking Land is Pointless if it Won't End Up in the Right Hands
In a country where land reform has dominated headlines, it's surprising that we haven't debated the real challenges behind land redistribution. The "land expropriation without compensation" debacle has been reduced to a dispute about whether to change the constitution or not. Few South Africans actually understand the intricacies of the government's land-reform policy; how it planned to implement it; how it then failed to achieve its own targets; and how it now believes that the "magic wand" of changing the constitution will miraculously "bring back the land".
In basic terms, the main objective of the land-reform policy is to transfer non-government land, mostly owned by white people, into the hands of black people.
The government tries to execute this by asking black people to approach the department of rural development & land reform (DRDLR) for help. However, a little-known fact is that a large proportion of the land acquired by the DRDLR for black farmers has eventually been transferred back to the state.
While the government is on record as acknowledging the lack of delivery by the DRDLR, we are still none the wiser as to how this is being resolved.
For obvious reasons, the land debate is a very emotive one. There are perhaps two parcel types in the debate. The land currently "owned" by white people that was "stolen" from black people is the emotional parcel. Then there is the practical side of the discussion, which is the land already owned by the state that could easily be transferred to black people. The "land expropriation without compensation" discourse is incomplete if it only ends with moving the land from white ownership into government hands. If those who must ultimately distribute the land to black people are incapable, we need to ask ourselves whether changing the constitution will necessarily lead to a transfer of land to black hands.
I have heard a few horror stories about officials appointed to ensure the transfer of land in accordance with policy. These include the friends and family of officials receiving land to which they have no claim; officials misrepresenting potential beneficiaries in the application process; and officials colluding with property valuers and sellers - all of which ultimately leads to the rightful black beneficiaries of these land parcels being left out in the cold.
Take one black farmer in the Free State, for example. In 2008, he used his life savings to purchase a commercial farm with the support of the DRDLR. The land was transferred to his family trust, with plans of building generational wealth for his family. But support - such as "access to markets", appropriate finance and mentorship for a new farmer - was critical.
In 2010, he became a beneficiary of the Recapitalisation and Development Programme, DRDLR's way of providing support to mainly black farmers and co-operatives.
Like any new farmer, this gave him faith that his investment had been a wise one. But his experience would prove otherwise. After broken contracts, lack of follow-through, cancelled arrangements, dodgy dealings, and a lack of empathy from DRDLR officials appointed to work with him, 10 years and his life's savings later, his farming business was liquidated and the land subsequently transferred back into the hands of the state.
You may think this is an isolated incident. The truth is there are many black farmers who have suffered a similar fate in the hands of government officials who were supposed to help them.
So here we are debating how the state should get power to expropriate land without compensation, yet that same state cannot sustainably distribute to its own people the land it already has. It's time the government took a leaf from Jim Collins and got the right people in the right seats on the land bus.
This article first appeared in the Business Times section of The Sunday Times on 28 April 2019