By Katlego Ramantsima

‘Minister Thoko Didiza announces over 700 000 ha of state land will be redistributed.’ This made headlines on almost all media platforms this past week. Land reform has generally been slow, and many, especially those who need agricultural land, were in cheerful spirits about these developments. This is a significant number of hectares in comparison to the usual estimate of about 100 000 ha redistributed per annum. This was an important announcement as it demonstrates an effort by the government to deliver on president Cyril Ramaphosa’s promise (made in February this year) to release state land for agricultural purposes. At the same time some are curious and want to know more about this decision as land reform was put on halt since lockdown while other relevant key debates related to land such as food security dominated the sector. Finally, something is starting to happen. Could the thuma mina moment be upon us? If so, then what could the redistribution of state land really mean? 

On 1 October, Minister Thoko Didiza said 896 farms will be redistributed. The president’s weekly letter to the public on 6 October, affirmed the redistribution of state land to black farm beneficiaries. The Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS) is the current implemented redistributive policy in which individual farmers are presented as emerging black commercial farmers to convey a prescriptive trajectory for commercialisation. The state owns the land and leases it out to farm beneficiaries to rent for 30 years. Things that caught my attention about the minister’s announcement were:

  1.     The number of hectares to be redistributed in the various provinces.
  2.     The application process of state-land.

Of course, other aspects of the announcement evoked more questions than answers, but the purpose of this blog is to focus on the two listed items. At this stage there are questions about how the government is going to support all those new farm applicants when there was a stark decrease in the supplementary land reform budget. Especially after spending and losing funds during the pandemic and lockdown. Where is the budget for training, recapitalisation and many other costs involved in the redistribution process going to come from? Or could this announcement be another political strategy to win the people’s favour for the next elections? Especially since the president has been involved in making arrests, and doing a lot of damage control to save the ANC from its corrupt status.

Redistribution of state land in the various provinces

In the announcement Minister Didiza stated that state land will be redistributed in the following manner:

  •   Eastern Cape will have 43 000 hectares available
  •   Free State will have about 8 333 hectares available
  •   KwaZulu-Natal with have about 3 684 hectares available
  •   Limpopo will have 121 567 hectares available
  •   Mpumalanga will have 40 206 hectares available
  •   Northern Cape will have about 12 224 hectares available
  •   North West will have about 300 000 hectares available.

What is of concern is that this is not ‘new land’. It is land already owned by the state. In fact, most of the land to be redistributed is in North West and Limpopo provinces, which tells us that its land acquired for homeland consolidation which was not incorporated into the homelands. There is no land allocated for distribution in the Gauteng and Western Cape Province as this is land that was not designated as homeland by the former apartheid government. In fact, most of that land is privately held.

This kind of redistribution is not new as the PLAAS research team came across more such farms in Dr Ruth Mompati District in the North West during the elite capture research in the year 2018. Most of the farms that were previously held in trusts under the Bophuthatswana government were transformed into redistributive PLAS farms and counted as land reform. This would be the state getting into leases with people who are already on the land. In certain cases, the titled black beneficiary would be evicted for them and the land allocated to others.

The Rakgase case is also an example of how the government lures beneficiaries with the promise of ownership. It is also an example of why the security of tenure is important for farm beneficiaries. In conversation with farm beneficiaries, most of the farmers alluded to the rent to buy option, but we are yet to see a successful case of this. At this stage, the requirements for this are not known, and many farm beneficiaries still do not know when or how they qualify for ownership.

The statement by the president clearly states that, ‘land ownership is still concentrated in the hands of the few, and agriculture primary production and value chains mainly owned by white commercial farmers, the effects of our past remain with us today’. He also mentions that this is a major milestone in the agrarian reform process, indeed this is a milestone depending on which side of the fence you are on. Therefore, it would be worthy to see a lot of privately-owned land redistributed to poor black beneficiaries who are currently disadvantaged in one way or another. Instead of land that is already titled to a black owner being transferred and leased out to another black beneficiary. This begs the question: is this the land reform we imagined? What are we reforming about the current land status if this is merely the transferal of land from one black beneficiary to the next.

Other questions regarding the redistribution of state land in the various provinces is, what happens to land reform applicants within the Gauteng and Western Cape province who wish to farm within their provinces? Does this mean that there are no interested applicants there? How does the government aim to ensure equitable access to the state land it redistributes? It is understandable that broadening access to land and opportunities for farming will support job creation and enterprise development, and also improve the market for food, agricultural goods and services. However, before one talks about the prospects of land reform in job creation one should ask the ministry questions about where this land is redistributed and whether that land is arable and usable for farming purposes. Is the government really reforming the agricultural sector and is this the type of land reform that the general public would like to see?

Application process for state-land

The purpose of agricultural land reform in South Africa is to deliver on the promise of land restitution to empower farm workers, women and other marginalised and landless groups with an opportunity to become farmers and reduce inequality of access to land. There were expectations that the criteria which qualifies land reform applicants as beneficiaries would change more especially since on 3 January 2020, the new Department of Land Reform and Agriculture gazetted for public comment a draft on the National Policy for Beneficiary Selection and Land Allocation. But, listening to the minister and reading the president’s letter, it was that the application process used is still the same as the one used in the first phase by Gugile Nkwinti’s ministry.

Research findings from the elite capture in land reform found that the PLAS application process was exclusionary of women, the landless and farm workers, yet biased to the elite business men with political and economic connections. Applicants followed the same process in that farms were advertised in districts and the District Land Reform Committees (DLRC) who were constituted of multiple stakeholders such as agribusiness, farmers, the department and members of the community played a role in the selection process. What is concerning is that, at this point it is not clear whether the District Beneficiary Screening Committee (DBSC) will be democratic and involve the farming community as the DLRC did or this will be strictly a government process.

Although, this participatory role by the DLRC was not entirely successful because of internal politics and other factors. In application for the advertised farm DLRC’s had to ensure that one has to have some readily available resources and knowledge to carry out farming. As a result, the poorest applicants with no resources are excluded from the process. If poor applicants are appointed as beneficiaries, then they struggle more—especially if they are missed by the recapitalisation and post-settlement support opportunity. This is a common struggle for most farm beneficiaries as there is usually inadequate budget, corruption in the distribution of funds and other forms of support including other institutional problems. The elite business men who acquire farmland on the other hand would go on with farming since they have some financial muscle to carry out farming even if they are missed by funding. Without sufficient budget how do you ensure financial support for farmers? How different is the DBSC committee from the DLRC and will it be able to screen and ensure that the poor deserving farmers benefit from this redistributive process?There is certainly a backlog of farmers waiting to be considered for farmland but there was no mention of whether those applications will be considered or if they have to start the application process afresh.

There are four main issues for the government to consider if it has real concerns over the performance of land reform. First, priority should be given to priority should be given to the redistribution of privately owned land in order to foster meaningful change by transforming the racially skewed land ownership inherited from the apartheid government. Secondly, the government needs to develop a beneficiary application process that is not biased, but one that is democratic in nature. One that equally recognises the importance of equitable access to land, thus women and all marginalised poor groups should be prioritised. Third, a sufficient budget is needed to ensure that all beneficiaries get the necessary support. Finally, in order to go ahead with redistribution, the government needs to be prepared and have the right mechanisms on the ground to ensure a redistribution process that is free of corruption to ensure an equitable and just redistribution process.