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Land reform in South Africa is a complex matter and efforts to ensure sustainable land distribution and authenticated land restitution need to be supported. More funding, increased resources and efficient management of the land reform process will go a long way towards speeding up the land claims and redistribution processes as well as preventing corruption and maladministration. However, what is really needed is a fundamental overhaul of government land reform policy.

The policy needs to be imbued with a fuller, more comprehensive understanding of the historical processes of pre-colonial and colonial black South African societies which belie the notion of unified black peasant communities longing for a return to a pastoral way of life. In addition, policy makers need to understand that society is not static, and that trends such as increased urbanisation need to be taken into account.

Over the last 100 years the world has undergone a radical transformation. Economies have industrialised, and technological developments have created new employment opportunities while simultaneously rendering others obsolete.  South Africa’s poor, both rural and urban, have not been isolated from these developments, and would like to participate in the capitalist economy and have the opportunity to reap some of its benefits.

In an attempt to deal with the failures or unintended consequences of land reform, government has shifted and reworked land reform policy over the years in an effort to deal with matters of land restitution and distribution. Sometimes these policy shifts have worked but more often than not, they haven’t. Instead they have had unintended consequences or have resulted in land programmes becoming bogged down by laborious and inefficient systems.

Persistent efforts in recent years to bestow increasing powers on traditional leaders, does not augur well for attempts to get the land reform programme refocused on poor, black South Africans. These efforts provide opportunities for corrupt chiefs to develop patronage networks around communal tenure systems that will work to their own benefit, instead of the rural poor. The declaration of the Communal Land Rights Act of 2004 as unconstitutional in 2010 and provincial resistance in 2008 and 2011 to the Traditional Courts Bill, which subsequently lapsed in 2014, have helped to hamper these efforts, but for how long.

The reworked Traditional Courts Bill is due to be tabled in parliament in 2017, and there is still a need to be cautious about a policy programme which seeks to entrench traditional leaders’ authority over the rural population and communal land. Opportunists are on the prowl aiming to enrich themselves via authority over communal land restitution claims and control over mineral rights. Politicians too are seeking to entrench mechanisms that will protect traditional electoral bases.  It is vital that decisions are ultimately made that will enable growth and development for the benefit of the majority.

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As South Africa enters its worst drought in over 20 years, the balance of power in the food security versus land reform debate has shifted fundamentally.  Speaking at the 2015 Grain SA Congress in early March, the  Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Senzeni Zokwana expressed concern over the impact of drought on food production for 2015 and 2016 stating  that  “the scale of the drought and its impact will change quite a few of our priorities”.

As of March 2015, the maize crop is likely to be 32% lower than last year and the sunflower crop 31% lower. An Emergency National Drought Task Team Meeting has been set up to discuss the drought conditions in the affected parts of the country and other drought risk management related matters within the sector, with feedback expected shortly.

The expected drop in the 2015 maize yield and the anticipated higher maize prizes, will have an additional impact on food security as maize is a basic input for the production of other food items e.g. red meat , chicken, eggs and milk, leading to associated price increases for basic food products. The power crisis has also contributed to (and will continue to contribute to) heightened food production costs via load shedding and raised energy costs, which will in turn have further additional impacts on South Africa’s food security.

The Regulation of Land Holdings Bill, which President Zuma spoke about in his State of the Nation Address and which Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti said would be passed into law by September 2015, has the potential to further negatively impact South Africa’s food security via its proposal to limit agricultural land holdings to 12 000 hectares. Farmers have been quick to point out that the 12 000 hectare limit would have a dire impact on certain types of farmers in certain locations i.e. a sheep farmer in the Karoo. Fortunately the agriculture minister has also been quick to re-iterate that nothing is cast in stone on this matter and that more debate is needed.

In addition, the ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe reiterated a number of times at a land reform imbizo held on 26 February 2015 that the ANC fully recognised the importance of food security and the role of commercial farmers in ensuring food security. He also made it clear that the ANC was not in favour of changes that would destroy the agricultural sector.

While land reform does need to be addressed, it is vital that it should not be carried out at the expense of food security. Land reform initiatives need to enhance food security for South Africans by developing effective support programmes for land redistribution beneficiaries, and by supporting joint ventures between successful farmers and new-entrants. Monitoring programmes too are vital for tracking the progress of land claims, the effectiveness of beneficiary support programmes, the provision of adequate supporting infrastructure, and ensuring that adequate crop reserves have been retained for times of drought.

The geospatial community – whether via surveying, GIS, remote sensing, and/or mapping  – has the skills to ensure that all of this gets done. The powers-that-be, the ultimate decision-makers, the ministers, the director-generals, need to be made aware of the super-powers that reside within the geospatial sector so that they can adequately fund and make effective inter-departmental,  co-ordinated use of these skills.

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After a heated debate in parliament on 25 February 2014, the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill [B35 – 2013] (s76) was approved by the National Assembly and referred for concurrence to the Select Committee on Land and Environmental Affairs of the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). The committee is scheduled to hold a final mandates meeting on the Bill on 25 March 2014, and the NCOP then winds up its first term on 28 March 2014. Based on this information it appears unlikely that the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill will be finalised before 13 March when parliament goes into recess until after the elections.

The Bill, which amends the Restitution of Land Rights Act (1994), proposes to re-open the date for lodging claims for restitution for a five-year period until 31 December 2018. It aims to promote the effective implementation of the Act and provides for the simplification of the appointment process for judges to the Land Claims Court. It also prescribes new offences should a person unlawfully prevent a claimant from gaining his or her rights from this Act or should someone lodge a claim with the intention of defrauding the state.

Public consultations on the Bill have been held across the country since November 2013 to allow interested persons and stakeholders to make comments and inputs on the reopening of the land claims process that closed in December 1998. The varied range of interested parties that made submissions to the Rural Development and Land Reform parliamentary committee is testimony to the emotions that the land issue raises in the hearts of South Africans. In the run-up to the elections, the ANC-led government has been accused by its political opponents of using the Bill to drum up support for the ANC at the polls.

Whether the Bill is enacted before or after the elections is somewhat moot though. Budget is the biggest issue in the land claims process, and the more important question is who is going to foot the bill.

Since the inception of the restitution programme, the DRDLR has settled a total of 77 334 claims at a total cost of R16-billion, averaging R206 894 per claim. Of these claims, 71 292 were for financial compensation worth R6-billion.The Regulatory Impact Assessment prepared by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) in July 2013 estimates that an additional 397 000 valid claims will be lodged as a result of the re-opening of the claims process and that it will cost R129- to R179-billion depending on the settlement option selected by claimants if these claims are settled within 15 years.

DRDLR representatives assured the parliamentary committee in February that National Treasury was consulted prior to referral of the Bill to parliament, and that funding would be made available. However, Pravin Gordhan has only allocated R8,7-billion for land restitution claims in his 2014 budget.

This allocation is a mere drop in the ocean when measured against the projected costs of R129- to R179-billion to deal with the new claims that are expected to be lodged. There is also not going to be much of the R8,7-billion to spread around when taking into account the R1,1-billion the DRDLR paid out for the acquisition of the 13 184 hectare Mala Mala Game Reserve late last year.

So, where is the money going to come from?

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