Apartheid legacy deeply rooted as focus turns to land restitution in South Africa

Progress on reform slow as landowners and state trade blame for delays

People watch as their dwellings are dismantled in Lwandle, an impoverished area about 45km from Cape Town, after the South African National Roads Agency Limited obtained a court order to  remove squatters from the land. Photograph:  Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

People watch as their dwellings are dismantled in Lwandle, an impoverished area about 45km from Cape Town, after the South African National Roads Agency Limited obtained a court order to remove squatters from the land. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images


South Africa’s picturesque landscape is about to take centre stage in the country’s efforts to address one of the worst legacies of apartheid: the forced and illegal removal of millions of black people from their land.

Tackling the issue of land restitution has been one of South Africa’s biggest post-apartheid challenges, but progress has been painfully slow, with white landowners and the state blaming each other for the delays.

But the African National Congress-led government intends changing this situation by introducing a range of new land policies to speed up the process.

Some of the reforms have raised concerns across the racial divide and have left investors uncertain about the future of property rights in the country. Of particular concern is a proposal to take half of every white-owned farm and give it to those who work on it.

Critics say this proposed reform – called the “strengthening relative rights of people working the land” policy – is unconstitutional and threatens the country’s food security.


Zimbabwe disaster

Commercial farmers’ group Agri SA has said it contains elements of Zimbabwe’s disastrous land reform programme, which began in 2000 and saw nearly 4,000 white commercial farmers evicted without compensation. Since then South Africa’s northern neighbour has gone from being the region’s breadbasket to a food importer.

However, farm workers such as Freddy Moholo (38) from North West province are fully behind the draft policy, as they believe it will bring a new level of stability to their lives.

“We have no rights as farm workers even though there are laws now to protect us. I was fired recently for joining a union. Giving us a portion of the land we work is a good thing. We can then have security and cannot be evicted,” he told The Irish Times.

Tabled by rural development and land reform minister Gugile Nkwinti earlier this year, the policy seeks to protect farm workers from eviction after long service, as well as to tackle land reform.

To do this, it suggests that as part of the restitution process half of a farmer’s land can be seized without compensation. While the state will pay for the portion that goes to the farm employees, the money will go into an investment and development fund jointly owned by the parties that become the new owners, rather than to the farmer only.

Nosey Pieterse, the president of the Black Association of the Wine and Spirit Industry, the country’s biggest farm workers’ union, said the policy was important given that more farm workers were evicted in the first 10 years of democracy than in the last decade of apartheid.

A survey published in 2005 showed 942,303 were evicted between 1993 and 2004, whereas from 1984 to 1993, under the apartheid regime, 737,114 were evicted.

“But the policy needs to be improved, as we are concerned this new proposal will kick off another round of mass evictions by farmers looking to protect their land,” Mr Pieterse said.

Another union that represents farm workers, the Building, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union, has also expressed caution in relation to the plan, saying that just giving workers land was not feasible unless proper training was provided.

“How will this benefit the people?,” asked union secretary Joan Dourie, “[Workers] know about land, but cannot become winemakers without years of training. The government gave farms in the past to workers but 90 percent of them failed because of a lack of skills. What is different this time?”

In 1996 some 60,000 white commercial farmers owned or leased almost 90 per cent of land classified as agricultural, much of which was illegally taken from black people during the apartheid era.

The post-apartheid ANC government pledged to redistribute 30 per cent of white-owned agricultural land, or about 24.6 million hectares, to black farmers by 1999 as part of the restitution process.

But by 2012 only around 7.95 million hectares had been transferred under the state’s land reform programme, which used the “willing-buyer willing-seller” principle to pay for the land.

Under this constitutionally protected approach, the government was obliged to pay “just and equitable compensation” to farmers, which so far has cost the state $3.2 billion.

This failure has provided new political parties such as Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters an opportunity to espouse radical policies involving broadly based expropriation without compensation as a way to deal with the problem.


Radical steps

In a bid to undermine his political opponents, President Jacob Zuma said in May his new government was in the process of taking “radical steps” to address the shortcomings in land reform.

Within weeks of his comments the first of these steps were realised when he signed the restitution of land rights amendment Bill into law, legislation that reopens the restitution claims process that closed in December 1998.

During this first attempt to tackle land reform, about 80,000 land restitution claims were lodged with the government, but it is estimated that up to five times as many legitimate cases could be brought by victims of forced removals.

The new amendment gives claimants a further five years to lodge fresh land claims. In addition, Nkwinti has said the old starting date for claims, which allowed people disposed of their land since 1913 to make a land claim or seek financial compensation, will be adjusted to an earlier time.

This is to allow the decedents of South Africa’s original inhabitants, the Khoi and San peoples of the Western and Northern Cape provinces to make claims. They were disposed of their ancestral lands in the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s.

Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini and other traditional leaders are reportedly compiling a land claim worth hundreds of millions of euro as a result.

Another Bill currently before parliament that deals with land restitution is the Expropriation Bill, which proposes that expropriation of all types of property may be used for the public interest.

The Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill, also before parliament, allows state intervention in investment processes, and provides for expropriation at less than market value, in the name of restitution.


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