FW de Klerk on land reform

Former president warns against abandoning ‘willing seller, willing buyer' principle


It would be a mistake to underestimate the emotional commitment of many black South Africans to the need for land reform. For them, the revolutionary struggle will not be complete until a substantial - and perhaps demographically proportional - area of South Africa has been restored to black ownership.

ANC statements on land reform almost invariably refer to the historic dispossession of black land by ‘colonialists'. Last week, in a speech to the National Council of Provinces, the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Mr Gugile Nkwinti, once again referred to the ‘colonialist' use of land to subdue the conquered population, to divide and rule them and to break down the traditional system of ‘ubuntu'. He repeated the remarkable statement that he had made in Parliament on 24 March that "all anti-colonial struggles are at the core about two things, repossession of lost land and restoring the centrality of indigenous culture to underscore all nation-building endeavours."

The Freedom Charter calls for the redistribution of land among "those who worked it" to end hunger and "hunger for land". The need for land reform has been a constant theme of the ANC government. It was renewed at the 2005 Land Summit which called for an end to the willing buyer, willing seller approach. It was again evident in the resolution on land reform that was adopted by the ANC's National Conference at Polokwane in December 2007.

The Polokwane resolution described organized commercial agriculture as "the outcome of centuries of dispossession, labour coercion and state subsidy for the chosen few". It renewed the call for "the redistribution of 30% of agricultural land before 2014" and demanded the abandonment of "market-driven land reform" and the immediate review of "the of willing-seller, willing-buyer" principle.

The Polokwane resolution found expression in the controversial Expropriation Bill in 2008 which, in effect, tried to by-pass the courts in determining fair compensation for expropriated property. Fortunately, the Bill was withdrawn after an outcry from civil society, organized agriculture and foreign and local investors.

In a speech to Parliament on 24 March 2010, Minister Nkwinti launched a new land reform initiative. He said that national sovereignty was defined in terms of land and that land was a national asset. It was therefore ‘fitting and appropriate' that his department had adopted a strategy of ‘Agrarian Transformation'. The goal was a ‘rapid and fundamental change in the ... systems and patterns of ownership and control of land, livestock, cropping and community.'

The new strategy would be promoted by the introduction of a three-tier land tenure system that would make provision for

  • state land under leasehold;
  • private land, under freehold with limited extent; and
  • foreign-ownership under "precarious tenure linked to productivity and partnership models with South African citizens".

Presumably "freehold with limited extent" means that there might be a limit to the number, or the size, of properties that South Africans can own. The position of foreign land owners would be precarious and would require them to enter into partnerships with South Africans if they wish to retain an interest in their land. These proposals were supposed to have been set out in greater detail in a Green Paper that should have been presented to Parliament by the end of April - but which has still not appeared.

In a subsequent TV interview, Minister Nkwinti made it clear that one of his goals was to break up large farms - despite the fact that they produce 80% of South Africa's food. The Minister's position was in line with the Polokwane resolution that called for the abandonment of all policies that favoured large-scale, capital intensive agriculture and proposed a special land tax to encourage the sale of under-utilised land and the deconcentration of land ownership.

Before the agricultural community could fully digest the implications of Minister Nkwinti's announcement, they were confronted with fresh and apparently uncoordinated proposals for another form of land reform from the Minister of Agriculture, Tina Joemat-Pettersson.

In an interview with Die Burger, she said that the ANC was considering a share scheme for black farmers in terms of which commercial farmers would relinquish 40% of the value of their farms to black shareholders. This would help the government to reach its land reform target which she said had been impeded by the ‘willing buyer, willing seller' principle. The proposal would apparently be set out in new Black Economic Empowerment legislation for the agricultural sector. This would presumably require the renegotiation of the agricultural sector empowerment charter, which was signed in March 2008 after exhaustive discussions. The proposed agricultural share scheme will apparently be discussed at the ANC's National General Council meeting in September.

Joemat-Pettersson warned that "If we did not break the deadlock and solve the land question together we were headed for a situation that would make Zimbabwe look like a teddy-bear's picnic." However, President Zuma subsequently denied that there would be "similar kinds of land invasions in this country, because we do things within the law." He said that the current land distribution method would have to be revisited and that significant changes would have to be made in the "willing seller, willing buyer" model. The government was looking for a less costly and more pragmatic approach.

It is clear from all these developments that we can expect far-reaching new land reform initiatives later this year. It would be wise for all those involved to consider the following realities:

  • Property rights are at the very heart of the negotiated constitutional consensus. Section 25 makes provision for expropriation in the public interest - which specifically includes land reform. However, compensation must either be agreed by the affected parties or approved by a court in a manner that reflects an equitable balance between the public interest and interests of the landowner. Any attempt to deviate from this principle will have very negative consequences for agriculture; for national unity; and for future foreign and domestic investment in the economy.
  • Although land reform enjoys high priority with the ANC, the great majority of black South Africans do not want to become farmers. According to a survey by the Centre for Development and Enterprise in 2006 only 9% of black non-farmers have clear aspirations to farm. Only 2% identified rural land as a priority.
  • Although less than 6% of agricultural land has been transferred to black South Africans in terms of government schemes, more than 25 million hectares are either owned by the Government or are in the former homelands. Private non-recorded land sales might have transferred as much as 7% of agricultural land to black owners. All this land added together is not too far short of the ANC's 30% goal.
  • 5% of agricultural land comes onto the market every year. The main problem is most often not that farmers are demanding exorbitant prices but that the state bureaucracy is incapable of effectively handling the transactions.
  • Food security is a national priority. It is essential that redistributed land should not result in reductions in food production.
  • Successful modern agriculture often requires large farms with high levels of capital, expertise and luck.
  • Small scale farming does not present a panacea for black development. The agricultural sector contributes only 2.6% to gross domestic product.
  • It is meaningless simply to set percentages as targets for land redistribution. Ten thousand hectares in the Karoo can support fewer people than 100 hectares in well-watered parts of the country.
  • By the end of 2009 29% of redistributed farms had failed and 22% experienced declining productivity. One of the main causes of the failures was the inability of government to provide the necessary support and assistance.

South Africa urgently needs successful and sustainable land reform. To achieve this we should consider the following approaches:

  • Everything we do should be consistent with the letter and spirit of our carefully balanced and negotiated constitution.
  • We need a comprehensive land reform audit. How much government land is available for redistribution? How much land has been transferred to black South Africans through normal sales? To what extent has the willing seller, willing buyer principle actually failed?
  • We need a rapid and effective approach to granting farmers in the traditional homelands proper freehold or leasehold title to the land that they farm.
  • Urgent steps must be taken to improve the effectiveness of the government departments and institutions involved with land reform.
  • We need genuine and effective consultation and cooperation between government and organised agriculture on workable approaches to land reform. Organised agriculture has proved repeatedly that it is willing to assist in this regard.
  • We must not abandon the willing seller, willing buyer principle as the first option for land reform. We cannot afford a situation where South African citizens - simply because of their race - are forced to abandon farms which their families might have developed over generations.
  • We must abandon ideological and racial approaches to land ownership. We need to give very careful to consideration to the implications of Minister Nkwinti's statement that "all anti-colonial struggles are at the core about two things, repossession of lost land and restoring the centrality of indigenous culture to underscore all nation-building endeavours."

We should pause for a moment to consider the implications of this statement:

1.    the first is that the anti-colonialist struggle is not over;

2.    the second is that white farmers are evidently still regarded either as ‘colonialists' - or as the beneficiaries of colonialists;

3.    the third is advocacy of the centrality of the indigenous culture. Presumably other cultures will play a peripheral role in the nation that Minister Nkwinti is endeavouring to build.

Such attitudes are entirely irreconcilable with our Constitution and with the need to promote national unity.

Just as it would be a mistake to underestimate the emotional commitment of many black South Africans to the need for land reform - it would equally be a mistaken to underestimate the emotional commitment of white farmers to their land, to their profession and to South Africa. Land reform remains an urgent priority for us all. We will not achieve success if we oppose one another as ‘colonialists' and ‘anti-colonialists'; as indigenous and non-indigenous; as those who claim a central cultural position - and those who are consigned to the periphery. To achieve success we will all have to work together as fellow South Africans, as equals and as fellow children of the African soil.

Issued by the FW de Klerk Foundation, June 1 2010

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