How a land reform agency could break South Africa's land redistribution deadlock

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has conceded that the country’s land reform programme is taking too long to address the challenge of land ownership inequality in South Africa. Bureaucratic delays, patronage and political influence, and opportunism among beneficiaries and landowners are among the challenges that have hindered South Africa’s land reform programme progress.

At the same time, the government’s farmer support programmes haven’t been agile and quick enough to provide the necessary support for beneficiaries.

In 1994 when South Africa became a democracy, White farmers owned 77.580 million hectares of farmland out of the total surface area of 122 million hectares. The new government set a target of redistributing 30% of the 77 million hectares within the first five years in government. This target has been consistently moved over the years, and now the aim is to reach 30% by 2030, in line with the National Development Plan’s agriculture and land reform objectives.

Our estimates, which include restitution, redistribution, private transactions and state procurement, suggest that 13.2 million hectares (or 17%) have already been transferred from White landowners to the state. An additional 3.08 million hectares have been transferred to Black owners and 10.135 million hectares through private and state supported transactions including land restitution.

Adding 2.339 million hectares of land that was identified for restitution but for which communities elected to receive financial compensation as the means for restitution brings the total area of land rights that were restored since 1994 to 15.56 million hectares. This is equivalent to 20% of formerly White-owned land.

We argue that things can happen much quicker if the arteries of land reform are unblocked.

One proposal is the creation of a Land Reform and Agricultural Development Agency. Ramaphosa announced the creation of such a body in his State of the Nation Address in February 2021.

Here, we outline how the proposed agency could accelerate land reform by removing the process from political and bureaucratic control. The state’s only role would be to create an enabling environment. The heavy lifting would be the task of landowners, agribusinesses and large corporates. Their job would be to facilitate equitable and sustainable land reform.

We believe that the model set out below, with the agency as proposed by the president as the starting point, would give South Africa another chance to get a meaningful land reform programme under way.

The model could be the vehicle through which farmland can be returned to the majority of South Africans, with two notable differences to previous efforts. Firstly, it would ensure that beneficiaries weren’t being set up to fail, as has been the case in the past. Secondly, commercial farmers, who benefited from the past injustices, would have an opportunity – in a non-politicised way and with little red tape – to contribute meaningfully to land reform.

ARTICLE BY JOHANN KIRSTEN AND WANDILE SIHLOBO

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