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Land and “radical economic transformation”

Land and “radical economic transformation”


A general view shows Alexandra Township, an informal settlement for thousands of South Africans who lack the means to get a proper home, located near the upper-class suburb of Sandton in Johannesburg, South Africa July 28, 2016. Picture taken July 28, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko - RTSKAJ0

A general view shows Alexandra Township, an informal settlement for thousands of South Africans who lack the means to get a proper home, located near the upper-class suburb of Sandton in Johannesburg, South Africa July 28, 2016. Picture taken July 28, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko –

Land has moved to the centre of political discourse in recent months. At the same time, allegations of state capture by the Gupta family have created a storm of controversy and placed the presidency under immense pressure. Leading politicians from the ruling African National Congress portray land as a key focus of so-called “radical economic transformation”. One common measure proposed is expropriation of land without compensation. Others within the ANC disagree. This is a symptom of internal disarray within the party.

At the same time, the ruling party has refused to support a proposal by the Economic Freedom Fighters that the constitution be amended to remove the requirement for compensation. What on earth is going on? How should these developments be interpreted?

One way to understand the ANCs increased emphasis on the land question is in terms of political tactics and the 3 “Ds” – Distract, Deceive and Divide. Distract citizens with an issue that takes attention away from your own misconduct. Deceive society using fake information or false promises. Divide your opponents (such as opposition parties and alliance partners) by focusing on an issue that they will never agree on.

No more “consultation” (9)This helps, but it is not the whole answer. Land in Africa is fundamental, even in countries that are relatively industrialised and urbanised. It resonates powerfully because of widespread and chronic poverty and the continuing significance of both rural and urban land in the livelihood strategies of migrant workers, small-scale farmers and petty entrepreneurs in the informal sector.

In South Africa, our bitter history is of dispossession of land by a state serving the interests of white settlers. It includes recent experience of forced removals. The “land question” strikes a chord for many people, and serves as a potent symbol of persistent poverty and structural inequality. These are legacies bequeathed to the post-apartheid era but only partially addressed since 1994.

The widely acknowledged failure of land reform means that land remains a key political resource, available as a key grievance for mobilising political constituencies. This will be the case for as long as the distribution of land continues to be racially skewed. Whichever party or alliance of parties holds power, the land question will have to be addressed, like it or not. Unfortunately for the ANC, its land reform programme is in deep trouble, and vulnerable to accusations of incompetence, elite bias and corruption.

No more “consultation” (10)In 23 years, land reform has barely altered the agrarian structure of South Africa. It has had only minor impacts on rural livelihoods. The national budget for land reform has never been much more than 1% of the total, and is usually less. Around 9% of farmland has been transferred to black people through a combination of land restitution and redistribution, but many “settled” restitution claims (perhaps 15,000) have not been fully implemented. Post-settlement support has been absent or ineffective.

No systematic data on impacts are available. Case study evidence suggests that around half of rural land reform projects have brought improvements in the livelihoods of beneficiaries – but often these are quite limited.

Tenure reform has been badly neglected. Farm workers and farm dwellers remain vulnerable to eviction. Thousands of labour tenant claims have been ignored for the past 17 years, and only court action brought by an activist NGO, Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA), has forced the department to commit itself to resolving them.

Communal tenure reform policy continues to be focused on the transfer of land ownership to traditional leadership structures and chiefs, with new policies proposing to offer community members only “statutory use rights”. The lack of accountability of such structures is not addressed. Nor is the fundamental problem that apartheid-era boundaries are being imposed.

No more “consultation” (12)Some problems are due to poor management and incompetence. The current land reform programme is ad hoc in character, lacks coherence and is poorly co-ordinated. The relevant government departments are well known as some of the weakest amongst the weak. Agricultural and land policies have not been clearly linked, and water reform and land reform have barely touched sides. Little support for black smallholder farmers is on offer, and no land reform farms have been officially sub-divided.

Informal agricultural markets are ignored, despite the fact that they offer real potential for market-oriented smallholders taking possession of redistributed land. There has been no spatial targeting of land and people in zones of opportunity and need (e.g. farms for sale that are located on the edges of densely settled communal areas, or land at the urban edge).

No more “consultation” (13)Research findings point to the capture of the South African land reform programme by aspirant elites. For example, the “Pro-active Land Acquisition Strategy” (PLAS) and the State Land Lease and Disposal Policy of 2013 replaced all previous forms of land redistribution. These are openly oriented towards medium and large-scale black commercial farmers. They assume that there will be only one lessee per farm, and farms will not be subdivided. The beneficiaries are often relatively well-off and hold other business interests, but strategic partners and mentors in fact gain much more than beneficiaries.

The Recapitalisation and Development Policy Programme (“Recap”) of 2014 replaced all previous forms of funding for land reform, including settlement support grants for restitution beneficiaries. Recap beneficiaries must have partners recruited from the private sector, as mentors or “co-managers”, who write their business plans. The Presidency’s mid-term evaluation of the programme reveals that large sums are spent on relatively few beneficiaries, few jobs have been created, and access to markets for produce remains limited. In the six provinces assessed, around R3.5 million was spent per project, around R520,000 per beneficiary. Job creation cost R645,000 per job.

A policy on “Strengthening the Relative Rights of People Working the Land”, also known as the “50/50”policy, is now being piloted. Each farm owner is to retain 50% ownership of the farm, ceding the other 50% to workers. While couched in “radical” language, this in fact offers workers very little. It is unlikely that dividends will ever be paid, and wages will remain at the legal minimum at best. In contrast, farm owners will receive massive windfalls of public money to prop up their businesses.

The re-opening of the land restitution claims process in 2014 was clearly aimed at catching votes in that year’s general election. But it also opened the door for chiefs intent on expanding their control of territory and resources. In February of that year, they were openly invited to submit large land claims by President Zuma.

No more “consultation” (14)Corruption in the land sector is increasing. This is clearest in relation to traditional leaders who enter into crooked business deals with mining companies in the platinum belt. Government remains intent on transferring communal land into the private ownership of unaccountable traditional councils under chiefs. Current policy documents explicitly envisage these institutions striking business deals with investors.

A number of recent newspaper stories report cases of dubious deals for redistributed farms. One has it that Minister Nkwinti introduced a Luthuli House comrade to one of his officials at a land summit. Eight months later‚ Bekendvlei Farm was bought for R97 million and handed over to Errol Present and a business partner. The senior official had bypassed required procedures. A day after the deal went through‚ Nkwinti was the speaker at Present’s lavish wedding.

No more “consultation” (15)The argument that the key constraint on land reform is the property clause rings very hollow, given government’s record of weak leadership, a tiny budget, poor planning, incompetent implementation, increasing capture of the programme by emerging elites, and corruption. The current turn to radical populism is an attempt to divert attention from the ways in which the budget for land reform is being used as a resource for political patronage, rather than as means to address structural inequality, as well as to divide the opponents of state capture.

The current focus on the land question is much like the call for “radical economic transformation” by those elements of the ANC intent on lining the pockets of a class of “tenderpreneurs” (or aspirant bourgeoisie). It is meant to deceive the population into thinking that the dominant faction in the ANC remains concerned with social change. But land questions cannot be manipulated quite so easily – they are more likely to blow up in your face. The ANC may not be able to rely on its rural vote for very much longer.

Ben Cousins holds a Research Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape, funded by the National Research Foundation.

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2 comments on “Land and “radical economic transformation”
  1. Sharmla van Wyk says:

    As much as I agree with Professor Cousins on his argument about the failures of land reform, I’ve yet to see a workable solution provided by Plaas and other land experts. Providing secure tenure in communal spaces will not solve the problem of poor, degraded and limited land in communal areas. Has he or other experts visited the more than 1000 farms that have been redistributed through the various programmes and can he claim all have failed? Instead can they not study the successes under the programme and looking for scaling up lessons?

    I am aware that the Department is also supporting community driven land reform through district based committees and land rights management structures to strenghthen the rights of farm workers. We should rather concentrate on how we can make these structures work for development.

    It’s time we tell a good land reform story because there are many out there.

  2. TO Molefe says:

    Like many others who opine on this topic, prof Cousins conflates two separate but interrelated questions:

    1. Is the design of the Constitution, including section 25 in the Bill of Rights, appropriately suited to the stated objectives of the land reform programme, such as repairing harm from historical dispossession and eliminating poverty and racial inequality?

    2. Has the governing party designed, implemented, monitored and further refined policies that make the most of achieving these objectives within the current constitutional framework?

    Few of those who opine on this, including prof Cousins, engage with question 1. They, as this article does, collapse it into a discussion of 2, which is easier and more straightforward to answer, and convince themselves that their work here is done; appeals to amend the constitution have been shown to be empty and unnecessary.

    I suspect that they do this because they fear the answer to 1 will be a no, and will open up a can of worms that further call into question the terms of the transition. Or maybe they don’t get it. Because, if we are indeed recognising the wrongs of the past, how is it morally right and in the interests of justice for the state to be made to pay even one red cent for property that people were unjustly dispossessed of and forcibly removed from—and then excluded for generations on the basis of their race from the market for that property?

    The political resonance of the appeal to amend the constitution comes from a sense that this requirement for payment is a manifest injustice, more so when you consider that the resources the state mobilises to make these payments come from a population that includes those dispossessed and forcibly removed and their descendants. The appeal will continue to have resonance and the power to distract, no matter how deftly those who’ve been opining on this topic duck it. The only way is to engage with it directly and honestly.

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