Land redistribution of the kind envisaged by the ANC and its SACP ally will empower the state, not provide redress for past land injustices.

Speaking on Heritage Day earlier this week, President Cyril Ramaphosa called once again for South Africa’s land ‘to be returned to the indigenous people’. But redistribution of the kind envisaged by the ANC and its SACP ally will empower the state, not provide redress for past land injustices.

In addition, many of the key ingredients for successful land reform have been brushed aside in the July 2019 report of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture. Instead, the panel’s report is very much in line with the objectives of the socialist-orientated National Democratic Revolution (NDR) to which the ANC regularly recommits itself.

The presidential panel seeks large-scale land redistribution, saying this should continue until access to land is demographically representative. Effectively, it wants some 80% of the country’s land to be acquired by the state. Despite disclaimers to the contrary, it also favours expropriation as the primary means of land acquisition – and proposes that compensation should range from ‘zero’ to ‘minimal’ to ‘substantial’ or ‘market-related’, depending on the circumstances. 

But redistribution on this basis will vest vast tracks of land in the state, not disadvantaged individuals. In addition, the 80% target ignores the fact that half the black population is under the age of 25, while relatively few have adequate farming experience.

The panel also urges an ‘agricultural revolution’, in terms of which redistributed land held by the state will be allocated primarily to ‘farm dwellers, labour tenants, and subsistence farmers’ as well as ‘smallholder farmers producing for local markets’. The panel sees these small-scale farmers as ‘the backbone of rural livelihoods and food production’. 

To reinforce the primacy of small-scale farming, the panel recommends that water rights should be ‘re-allocated to smallholder farmers’. It also wants a comprehensive assessment of optimum land ‘ceilings’ in different regions, so that ‘surplus’ land can be ‘compulsorily acquired’ by the state or ‘punitively taxed’. 

The panel’s report effectively assumes, among other things, that:

  • millions of inexperienced small-scale farmers will succeed in meeting their own needs and generating surpluses to sell;
  • commercial producers, despite their loss of water rights and economies of scale, will still be able to help feed rapidly expanding towns and cities; and
  • the resulting reduction in agricultural exports will have no adverse impact on the trade deficit or the value of the rand. 

The panel’s proposals, in short, overlook a host of practical obstacles to their success. The changes it suggests, however, are in keeping with key NDR objectives as set out by the SACP and the ANC over many years.

In its 1962 programme, The Road to South African Freedom, the SACP urged ‘drastic agrarian reform to restore the land to the people’, saying this would help ‘lay the indispensable basis’ for the country’s ‘advance to a socialist and communist future’. The party also sought ‘the widespread development of…co-operative and collective farms’, along with measures to ‘avoid the accumulation of land once again in the hands of the rich’.

Much the same thinking was evident in the ‘revolutionary programme’ adopted by the ANC at its Morogoro national conference in 1969. According to this document, the farms of ‘land barons, absentee landlords, [and] big companies’ are to be confiscated and redistributed to ‘small farmers, peasants and the landless of all races who do not exploit the labour of others’. At the same time, farmers should be prevented from ‘holding land in excess of a given area, fixed in accordance with the concrete situation of each locality’. 

The underlying aim, according to Professor Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land, and Agrarian Studies (Plaas) at the University of the Western Cape, was to put an end to the ‘private ownership of land for commercial production that involved the use of hired labour’. In this ‘vision of family-based peasant agriculture’, the two ‘central tenets’ were ceilings on land holdings and the prohibition of hired labour.

In the late 1980s, the ANC further developed its ideas on agricultural transformation. In keeping with the NDR, as Professor Hall writes, it sought ‘redistribution to the peasantry’ in an initial phase, and the ‘collectivisation of these peasant beneficiaries’ on the transition to socialism.

Most South Africans have little desire to be pushed into peasant and, in time, collectivised farming on state land. Yet these ideas are already being translated into policy – and the panel’s report is likely to give further impetus to this process.

A push towards peasant farming – on a ‘co-operative’ basis for now – is already evident in the One Household One Hectare (1HH1HA) policy adopted in 2015 by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. This is to be supplemented by the ‘One Household Two Dairy Cows’ (1HH2DC) policy the department has also proposed.

According to these policy documents, large swathes of rural land (including all land acquired by the state for redistribution) should be divided into one-hectare plots, each of which will become home to one household and two dairy cows. 

Despite its inability to discharge even its core crime-fighting obligation, the government will (supposedly) then supply the millions of households living on these one-hectare plots with all they need – from irrigation, implements, fencing, and pack sheds to seeds, fertiliser, chickens, and cows. 

All one-hectare households are to be organised into primary co-operatives, which in turn will be organised into secondary co-operatives. These, in turn, will jointly own a 70% share in the agri-parks being established to give small producers access to agro-processing and marketing. 

These ambitious plans are neatly laid out in diagrams and organograms in a June 2017 briefing document compiled by the land department. Agri-parks are already being established (at a cost of some R2bn), while close on R300m has been budgeted to settle an initial 6 700 households on their one-hectare sites. 

Land ceilings are also in the policy pipeline. Having been recommended by a land reform green paper in 2011, they were a key feature of the Regulation of Agricultural Land Holdings Bill of 2017. This poorly worded measure indicated that ‘ceilings for agricultural land holdings’ would be decided in each municipal district, within a regulatory framework laid down by the minister. 

The panel’s proposals – for extensive land redistribution, widespread expropriation, an emphasis on small-scale farming, and land ceilings on commercial farms – seem calculated to strengthen these policies. Yet these interventions have their roots in the NDR, not the need to turn land reform from failure to success.

Far from helping the disadvantaged, these NDR measures are likely to reduce agricultural production, push up food prices, and worsen poverty and hunger. They will also erode business confidence, along with any realistic prospect of greater direct investment, faster growth, or diminished joblessness. 

Cosatu has been more upfront about the real objectives, saying in January 2018: ‘We want to see government using its expropriation powers more aggressively… We need state ownership of all the land in this country in order for the democratic state to break the power of white capital.’  

  • By Dr Anthea Jeffery, Head of Policy Research at the IRR and author of ‘Reaching the Promised Land: An alternative to the report of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture’, published by the IRR in its @Liberty policy bulletin last week.

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