Policy Brief on Equitable Land Redistribution

Expert Policy Brief on Developing a Systematic Approach to Equitable Land Redistribution in South Africa

After 25 years of democracy, South Africa remains a highly unequal country with high levels of poverty and unemployment. Land reform policies have largely failed to reconfigure the inherited, highly dualistic and spatially divided agrarian structure. As a result, skewed land ownership patterns are a key feature of inequality in post-apartheid South Africa. At present, there are approximately 35 000 large-scale, mostly white-owned commercial farms. These commercial farms occupy the majority of the country’s commercial agricultural land and produce the bulk of the country’s marketed output. Available evidence also indicates that there are about 4 million small-scale producers, located in about 2 million households, and confined to the former homelands. Approximately 200 000 of these smallscale farmers produce for the market while the majority are engaged in farming for subsistence purposes. Success in land reform is predicated on the extent to which existing policies are able to reconfigure the dualistic and unequal agrarian structure to make it more inclusive and wide-ranging.

New Policy Directions in Post-Apartheid Land Reform? 

The current political discourse on South Africa’s land reform represents an opportune moment for exploring new policy directions in the land reform sector. However, much of the debate has centred on the slow pace of land reform and its failure to meet the set numerical targets. Significant political developments have been largely driven by growing public pressure on the state to accelerate the pace of land reform. Some of the key political and policy processes include: 

  • The appointment of the Expert Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture on the 18th of September 2018. This provided an opportunity to analyse the state of affairs in the land reform sector and to explore new policy directions. On the 4th of May 2019, the Expert Advisory Panel presented its final report, which makes important recommendations on the role of land reform in the social transformation of South Africa. 
  • The policy proposals in the Expert Report on Land Reform and Agriculture confirm some of the earlier recommendations by the High level Panel of Parliament Report on the Assessment of Key Legislation and Acceleration of Fundamental Change (2017). The High Level Panel (HLP) Report (2017) highlighted the failure of the state to develop appropriate laws to ensure social transformation through land reform as directed by the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights. 
  • On the 27th of February 2018, the National Assembly passed a Parliamentary motion to amend the Constitution so as to allow for expropriation without compensation (EWC). Subsequently, public hearings were conducted, culminating in the decision to amend the property clause in the Bill of Rights. Currently, a Constitutional Review Committee is finalising the amendment of Section 25 of the Constitution to clarify conditions under which the state may exercise EWC. 
  • An Expropriation Bill which is meant to be aligned to the Constitution is in the pipeline. South Africa has previously relied on the Expropriation Act of 1975, an apartheid-era law, which only considers expropriation for ‘public purposes’ and not for ‘public interest’ which encompasses land reform. Instead of just and equitable compensation as required by S25 (3) of the Constitution, the Expropriation Act of 1973 requires compensation at market price.
  • The Expert Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture has made some key recommendations in relation to EWC as one of the strategies for land acquisition. This includes circumstances where EWC may be immediately applied with nil compensation7.
  • The binary division between agriculture and land reform has undermined success in land redistribution. The sixth administration initiated a restructuring exercise and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform has now become the Department of Agriculture, Land reform and Rural Development. This new Ministry combines the land reform and agriculture components under one portfolio.
  • An Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) was set up to consider the implications of the recommendations of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture. 

These wider policy processes happen amidst growing evidence that land reform has shifted from its pro-poor precepts initially espoused in the White Paper on Land Reform (1997). The White Paper (1997) explicitly identifies the ‘rural poor’ as the target beneficiaries to be prioritised in land reform and sought to operationalise the transformation objectives contained in the Bill of Rights. However, there has been a shift in the ‘class agenda’ of land reform as the poor are increasingly underrepresented. Ironically, key questions on ‘what land reform is for’, ‘who should benefit from land reform’ have been peripheral to the ongoing political discourse on land reform. These questions relate to the ‘wider purposes and significance’ of land reform in South Africa10. Thus, such questions go beyond merely making land available but foreground the issue of equitable access to land.

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