Land transformation madness

John Kane-Berman asks what the ANC government is really up to

The method in the land transformation madness  

If anybody out there is wondering what "real economic transformation" as applied to land might mean, they could study three pieces of legislation currently being processed. One provides for the imposition of ceilings on the sizes of farms, the second for the new valuer general to determine their value, and the third for the processing of additional claims for restitution.

None of these proposed laws is new. However, the government is now due to assess comments on the ceilings and processing bills received by deadlines that expired last week; draft regulations on valuation procedures are open for public comment until 19 June.  

Two years ago President Jacob Zuma spoke of a ceiling of 12 000 hectares. The minister of rural development and land reform, Gugile Nkwinti, has suggested ceilings of between 1 000 and 5 000 hectares. The new bill lays down no sizes, however. Ceilings can vary by district, depending on various "land capability" factors.

Anything in excess of the relevant ceiling will be "redistribution" land. If the land commission disagrees with a farmer about which parts of his farm he can keep and which will be redistributed (mostly to the state), the dispute will go to an arbitrator paid by the state.    

The value of all property targeted for land reform will be determined by the valuer general. He will add "current use value" or net profit to market value, and then divide the total by two. The current value of any subsidies received in the past will be deducted from this figure.

The restitution bill is designed to provide for additional land claims after an earlier bill was invalidated by the Constitutional Court. Among other things, it will enable new claims to be lodged over land that has already been restored. Around 76 000 claims have already been settled in terms of earlier legislation. All of these black beneficiaries will now face as much uncertainty as white farmers.

Several thousand claims lodged in terms of the earlier legislation are still outstanding, but the implication of the new legislation is that additional claims over this land may now be lodged. More than 75 000 have already been lodged, but even more could be lodged by the new deadline of June 2021. How disputes between "old" and "new" claimants will be settled is not clear.

All three proposals chime with Mr Zuma's desire to dispossess white farmers. But he knows that demand for farm land among blacks is limited. Mr Nkwinti knows that most land reform projects have failed. Presumably this is why the director general of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, Mike Mlengana, said last week that it "is no use handing over the land to someone who has no clue what to do with it". Reform might not be as fast as people wanted, Mr Mlengana said, but "land grabs" were not the solution.

So one department warns against reckless handovers and land grabs, but the other seeks greater expropriation powers for the state  – even when it knows that demand for farm land is limited. In addition, the country will face a mass of conflicting restitution claims that will take decades to settle. Although Mr Nkwinti evidently wants government officials to determine "land capability" so that the appropriate ceiling can be laid down, they do not have the "capability" to do this. To put the future of agriculture into the hands of bureaucrats borders on insanity.          

So why do it? Possibly the motive is electoral. Possibly Mr Zuma just wants the satisfaction of boasting that he has finally avenged the injustice of the Land Acts. Possibly the agenda is simply to declare that the only way to resolve confusion and conflict about ownership is to take all land into the "custodianship" of the state, in which case no compensation need be paid. In Shakespeare's words, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it."                

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. His memoirs, Between Two Fires - Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, were recently published by Jonathan Ball.