Land reform: what is the real agenda?

John Kane-Berman says Jacob Zuma's new line on the matter doesn't make that much sense

What is President Jacob Zuma's government up to with land reform?  Not only Mr Zuma, but also his minister of rural development and land reform, Gugile Nkwinti, have on several occasions this year spoken of restitution without compensation. The deputy minister of public service and administration, Ayanda Dlodlo, has done the same.  

Yet both Mr Zuma and Mr Nkwinti say a "pre-colonial audit of land ownership, use, and occupation patterns" must be completed before a single law is developed to address the issue of restitution without compensation. Presumably this is why the African National Congress (ANC) at the end of last month rejected proposals in Parliament by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to set in motion a process for the necessary constitutional amendment. Apart from trying to seize the initiative, the EFF was jumping the gun.

The "pre-colonial" land audit could drag on for years. A promised audit of privately owned land has already dragged on for years. An audit of state-owned also has yet to be completed. Some 20 000 land claims lodged in terms of the restitution process launched shortly after the ANC came to power have still to be finalised.

The promised reopening of land claims has been put on hold because the Constitutional Court last year declared that the necessary legislation had not been properly enacted. When and if Parliament gets around to re-enacting it properly, as many as 379 000 new claims could be lodged, according to the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.

When reopening was first mooted, at least one major agricultural organisation suggested that  the intention was to bog the whole process down in red tape for years on end. In a speech three weeks ago in which he spoke of the "pre-colonial audit", Mr Nkwinti also gave a long list of problems with implementing land reform. Among them were "incoherent institutional transformation", incomplete and inaccessible records, and the "racial declassification" of records.

These, he said, were "but a few examples of the complexity of land reform". Moreover, "land reform is not just about taking land from one racial group and giving it to another". Last year, when Mr Zuma was promising to speed up land reform, Nr Nkwinti said the government wished to ensure that future redistributed land remained productive.

What is going on? Is the government trying to move away from its cherished policy under the guise of speeding it up? If it seriously wishes to speed up the policy, why introduce yet another audit? Exactly how far back is "pre-colonial"?  Jan van Riebeeck? The 1820 settlers? Where are the records?  

It is also difficult to speed things up when some of the legislation falls foul of the procedures laid down in the Constitution and winds up in the courts, as happened to the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Act of 2014 and would probably also happen to the Expropriation Act of 2015 unless Parliament now sticks to the rules in re-enacting it. 

Mr Zuma in his state-of the-nation address last month complained that 90% of land claimants accepted financial compensation rather than land. Mr Nkwinti has voiced the same complaint in the past, while also stating that the 30% redistribution target is a waste of money.

All of this suggests that "radical economic transformation" as applied to land reform means not mass redistribution, but patronage involving more limited transfer to selected beneficiaries and friends. After all, most claimants want money rather than land anyway.

This does not exclude the possibility that cumbersome audits and other "complexities" will be used as a pretext for legislation that cuts all the red tape by taking all land into state "custodianship", and then leasing it back. The pre-colonial audit would be abandoned as unnecessary on the grounds that all the land before the whites "stole" it when they arrived can only have belonged to blacks anyway. Such legislation may also fall foul of the courts. But mass transfers of land from white to black farmers seem increasingly unlikely.  

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.