Q&A: Land Reform in South Africa

POV: In 1994, at the end of apartheid, almost 90 percent of the land in South Africa was owned by white South Africans, who make up less than 10 percent of the population. The government led by the African National Congress (ANC) vowed to redistribute land, but as we see in the film Promised Land, implementing land reform policies has been a struggle. Recently, government officials announced that the 2014 deadline for shifting one third of the country's land from white farmers to black residents has been postponed until 2025.

What is the state of land reform in South Africa today? How much land has been reclaimed? How many active land claims are there? Do claims continue to be filed?

Edward Lahiff: Land reform has fallen far short of expectations -- and official targets -- in every respect: in the amount of land redistributed, in the alleviation of poverty and unemployment, in the restructuring of the agricultural economy to create opportunities for previously disadvantaged people and in protecting small farmers and farm workers from eviction. Less than 7 percent of land has been redistributed to date, and if current performance continues there is no likelihood that the target of one third will be achieved even by 2025. Additionally, that one third figure was always intended as an interim target, with the idea that the ultimate target should be in line with the country's demographics. To push that interim target back to 31 years after liberation is to abdicate responsibility for fundamental change and to condemn a whole generation to continued landlessness and poverty.

Most of the land that has been transferred lies unused because of a lack of capital and skills on the part of the new owners, greatly exacerbated by the imposition of unworkable "business plans" by state agencies, coupled with a dire lack of support services.

Legal claims on specific portions of land (i.e., restitution) are no longer being filed (this process was implemented only from 1994 to 1998), but people can still apply for grants to allow them to buy land on the market (i.e., redistribution). There is no time limit on the latter process, although it has been hampered by insufficient budgets and bureaucratic delays. Government has tended to blame intransigent white landowners for the slow performance of this program, but that is only a small part of the problem.

POV: The South African government began the land reform process using the "willing buyer/willing seller" approach, which depended on voluntary market transactions. However, this approach has been criticized as one of the causes of the slow land transference. What happened in the past when white owners didn't want to sell or black claimants lacked the resources to buy land at market prices?

Why has the "willing buyer/willing seller" approach been considered unsuccessful? What alternative approaches are being implemented?

"Claimants" refers only to those with verifiable legal claims to specific portions of land under the restitution program. The great majority of these claimants (who totaled approximately 80,000 individuals, families and community groups) settled for cash compensation, so no land changed hands. A minority have gotten back their land -- a total of 2.6 million hectares by 2009. In such cases the state has threatened some owners with expropriation (i.e., compulsory purchase at full market price), but it has only used its power to follow through on this threat in a handful of instances.

More important is the land redistribution program, which refers to voluntary transactions through the market, assisted by grants from the state. This "market-led" approach is in line with the spirit of reconciliation that flourished around 1994 and was actively promoted by the World Bank as an alternative to the more traditional "state-led" land reforms of the 1960s and 1970s. In my considered opinion, the South African government under the ANC has taken the most conservative route possible under the Constitution, which could undoubtedly be interpreted to support a much more interventionist approach. The property clause in the Bill of Rights was designed to balance different groups' need for land but has been interpreted by many parties (incorrectly, in my view) as granting strong protection to current landowners and restricting government's power to intervene.

Black applicants are awarded grants to allow them to enter the land market, but these have been quite limited in value. Many landowners have expressed opposition to selling to land reform beneficiaries (as is their right under current policy), and when would-be buyers lack sufficient funds to meet the asking price for land, they are simply squeezed out of the market. No measures are taken against uncooperative landowners, as all transactions are required (by policy, not law) to be voluntary.

Some recent alternative programs include Area Based Land Reform and Proactive Land Acquisition, under which the state will now approach landowners on behalf of would-be buyers, rather than leaving them to fend for themselves in the land market. These programs may lead to overcoming some of the problems of unequal power relations that have characterized the land market to date, but it is worrying that no measures have been adopted that would increase the availability of land (owners still have the freedom not to cooperate) or push down prices. Indeed, now that the state is taking more direct responsibility for land purchases, officials have begun complaining loudly about the "excessive" prices they end up paying to savvy landowners. In other words, officials have had no more success than poor landless people in making the land market work to their advantage.

POV: What is the government agency that oversees land reform in South Africa? What kind of resources -- financial and personal -- are available to this agency? Does the agency have enough resources to buy land, process claims and support sellers and buyers?

Lahiff: Land reform is in the hands of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (formerly the Department of Land Affairs), and the specific branch within the department dealing with restitution is the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights. Separate national and provincial departments of agriculture are responsible for agricultural policy and (in theory) for support services for new and old farmers.

Overall, sizable sums have been allocated for land reform, but probably not enough to engage in a successful market-based program. State agencies have ended up paying high prices for what is often relatively poor land and they frequently exhaust their budgets before year end. The available budget has to be seen, however, in the light of the market-friendly policies that these departments have adopted. There can be little doubt that a more robust policy of intervention in the market -- e.g., compelling landowners with excess land or those in areas of extreme landlessness to sell a portion of their land at an affordable price -- could achieve a lot more within the available budget.

Support for land reform beneficiaries after they settle on their new land has been a consistent weak spot in the land reform program, due to under-budgeting but also due to a split in responsibilities between the national Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, formerly the Department of Land Affairs (responsible for acquiring land), provincial departments of agriculture (responsible for agricultural support services) and the inappropriate advice offered to resource-poor farmers (i.e., advice that is more suited to large-scale commercial producers).

POV: As we see in Promised Land, land transfer from a white farmer to a black claimant can sometimes result in the shutting down of the white farmer's successful business (which may employ any number of people). In this particular case, a black family that took over the land seemed to lack the skills and possibly the desire to continue the business. What kind of support is provided to black claimants once they reclaim land? Have there been any examples of white land owners and black claimants collaborating or working together?

Lahiff: Lack of capital and skills is a major problem in land reform in South Africa, and it is greatly exacerbated by the lack of support services from state agencies and the lack of effective planning for effective use of the land in question. Land reform has been plagued by the imposition of unfeasible "business plans" that require levels of capital and skills far beyond the capacity of most participants. Breaking up large estates into family-sized farms and adopting low-input labor-intensive methods would be much preferable, but these methods have been actively discouraged by state agencies determined to maintain the "commercial" nature of South African agriculture at almost any cost. This has often led to creation of large "projects," where upwards of 100 families are expected to run a single commercial operation along the same lines as its previous white owner.

There are plenty of examples of white and black farmers working together, but these are a small minority of all cases. A number of factors work against such cooperation. First, white farmers tend to sell "all or nothing," so they typically exit the area once the land is sold for land reform. If there is cooperation, it is more likely to be with neighboring farmers, but relations with neighbors are not always harmonious. Second, commercial farming as practiced by most white farmers in South Africa tends to be on a large scale with high levels of skill, technology and capital investment. Black farmers typically come from a very different background and tend to farm along very different lines. Hence, the possibilities for "peer-to-peer" learning are limited. White farmers also tend to be alienated by the arrival of large numbers of "strangers" on neighboring properties, especially if many of them appear to have little or no prior experience with agriculture. New black farmers may also be reluctant to become involved with people they perceive as conservative (and possibly racist) white neighbors. It must be borne in mind that the white farming belt of South Africa is quite a tense environment and killings of both blacks and whites are a frequent occurrence.

A number of different business ventures have been attempted by land reform beneficiaries and white businessmen working together. These have included both straight commercial ventures and concerted efforts by white farmers' organizations to reach out to new black farmers. There have been success stories in different parts of the country, but they are relatively rare.

POV: As land gets transferred from white farmers to black claimants, questions are being raised about the possibility of reduced food production, because the new owners of the land -- the black claimants -- are less experienced at farming. Is there evidence that agricultural production is down as a result of land transfers? If so, what can be done to reverse this trend?

Lahiff: As far as I'm aware this question has not specifically been researched, but my own experience tells me there is little threat of danger to food supply at the national level. First, the area of land transferred (less than 7 percent to date) is not greatly significant. Secondly, large-scale (i.e., white) commercial agriculture has for a long time (since the early 1990s) been undergoing a process of consolidation and concentration, with perhaps half of all white-owned farms now effectively falling outside of the core food economy. This is the land, much of it of marginal quality, that is in most cases being acquired under land reform. High value land, typically under irrigation, is priced beyond the means of most land reform beneficiaries and rarely comes on the market. Land reform would have to be on a much greater scale and target core productive areas before food production would be in question. It should also be said that the small minority of black farmers who manage somehow to acquire high value land -- through a combination of grants, loans and their own resources -- are probably in a position to maintain production at current or expanded levels. There is no inherent tension between land reform and food security -- the problem in South Africa is that land reform as currently structured does not enable agricultural production and/or is taking place on land that is so marginal as to be virtually irrelevant to the national economy.

POV: Zimbabwe has also undergone land reform since the early 1980s. Can you tell us about land reform efforts in Zimbabwe, and how they compare with land reform efforts in South Africa? What lessons can South Africa learn from Zimbabwe?

Lahiff: Land reform in Zimbabwe in the 1980s was much more effective than reform in South Africa to date, because the government there engaged robustly in the land market, acquired reasonably good quality farms, restructured them to facilitate small-scale family farming and provided high levels of support to new farmers. Those policies wound down in the late 1980s and in the 1990s under the pressure of structural adjustment and a growing economic crisis in the country. By 2000, a full-blown economic crisis intersected with a crisis of political legitimacy (the ruling party faced its first defeat in the polls) that propelled government and its supporters (including the so-called war veterans) to engage in extreme forms of land seizure. The long-term effects of these measures -- in terms of who benefits and the future of the agricultural sector -- will only be seen when a return to economic and political stability occurs in that country.

While the underlying problems of unequal land ownership are common to both Zimbabwe and South Africa, the political and economic crisis that engulfed Zimbabwe from 2000 is unlike anything that currently prevails in South Africa. It is therefore unlikely that South Africa will follow the Zimbabwean example. Among the lessons that various parties in South Africa might draw from the experience north of the Limpopo, however, are that state-led (as opposed to market-led) land reform (as in the 1980s) can be effective; that unequal patterns of landholding are unlikely to resolve themselves and have the potential to surface at moments of national crisis; and that radical land seizures are a possibility (albeit at a great price).

POV: Land reform in South Africa is obviously a complicated issue, rooted in history, politics, race, economics and more. Given the current state of the situation, what are some of your recommendations for land reforms as the South Africa government moves forward?

Lahiff: Urgent attention is required in two main areas: targeting (of land and people) and land use.

The state needs to find means to acquire land efficiently -- which could include purchases on the open market -- and use those means to meet the expressed needs of poor and landless people. Different mechanisms may be required in different parts of the country, depending on local conditions, and much greater skill and effectiveness will be required on the part of state officials in mediating processes between landowners and the landless. A degree of expropriation will be required in most areas. More effective differentiation is also required between beneficiaries with different levels of resources and skills, and with different needs -- e.g., land for small, medium and large scales of production.

The state agencies must get over their obsession with large-scale, commercial production and accept the need for a radical restructuring of current land units. The strategy of settling large groups of relatively poor and inexperienced people on large commercial farms and expecting them to manage those farms effectively has clearly failed. Land reform beneficiaries should be given the option to identify their own preferred means (and scale) of production and, within reason, given the support necessary. Less emphasis on production for the market and more on meeting household food needs would help greatly. Training and credit opportunities should be provided in a gradual way so that small farmers can expand production at a pace that suits their individual circumstances.

At a policy level, the state should abandon the laissez faire market-based approach that is not informed by any clear objectives or principles. Efforts should be made to involve the widest possible constituency in establishing the aims of land reform, the target groups (i.e., within the black population), the type of land to be acquired and the type of farming to be promoted. This would send a clear signal to both supporters and opponents of land reform and bring focus to the activities of state agencies.

Related Links
Policy Brief: Land Reform in South Africa: Is It Meeting the Challenge? (PDF)
This paper by Dr. Lahiff, from the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) in South Africa, presents an overview of the key challenges facing land reform in South Africa and suggests ways for the reform program to be accelerated.
Policy Brief: Budgeting for Land Reform (PDF)
Also from PLAAS, Ruth Hall and Dr. Lahiff outline the slow progress in land reform and recommend that substantial funding be allocated to land redistribution.
"Willing Buyer, Willing Seller": South Africa's Failed Experiment in Market-led Agrarian Reform (PDF)
Dr. Lahiff's article, written for Third World Quarterly, assesses land reform and finds that it has made little positive impact on livelhihoods or on the wider rural economy in South Africa.

Edward Lahiff received his Ph.D. in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 1997. He spent ten years in southern Africa working with rural NGOs. He was also a Senior Lecturer in Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape. In February 2009, he was appointed Doctoral Programme Officer with the Trinity International Development Initiative (TID) and Coordinator of the International Doctoral School in Global Health at the Centre for Global Health, Trinity College Dublin. Dr Lahiff has published widely on land reform, rural livelihoods and natural resources in southern Africa. He is currently engaged in capacity building partnerships with a number of universities in Africa.