Your article (“Eviction of black farmers raises questions about readiness for land reform”, March 23) brings to mind the parliamentary debate in February 2018 on the EFF’s motion to change section 25 of the constitution. Parliament having delivered a vote to investigate an amendment — effectively putting the country on an official path towards expropriation without compensation — much of the detail of what was said was ignored.

Key here are the comments by former land affairs minister Gugile Nkwinti. He made it clear that the ANC and the government it headed had no intention of conferring ownership of land holdings to the beneficiaries of its land reform programme.

Private ownership, he said, would lead to land being “lost”. Rather than endangering it by granting people title, “a progressive revolutionary government ought to then have land and allocate it to people”.

By denying title, Nkwinti said, “we kept the land and we made it available for our people to work it”.

And this has been the operational principle of land redistribution policy for years. The Land Lease and Disposal Policy, for instance, limited the possibility of ownership to those able to produce, to the satisfaction of officials, on a significant commercial scale and then only after some 50 years (though this time frame has reportedly been quietly shortened).

This is not surprising. The high-level panel into transformative legislation chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe argued that policy on land ownership “defaulted” to colonial- and apartheid-style thinking that denied property rights to black people.

Nkwinti’s comments, framing the government’s intentions for its conceptualisation of land reform, are firmly within this frame of reasoning. So too was the unconscionable refusal by the state to honour an agreement to sell David Rakgase the land he had worked successfully for decades. Echoing Nkwinti’s words, the state’s papers in the Rakgase case explained that policy proceeded from the “principle that black farming households and communities may obtain 30-year leases, renewable for a further 20 years, before the state will consider transferring ownership to them”.

Altogether, this has kept awesome power and discretion in the hands of the state; and where the state was compromised — it didn’t matter whether this was a case of venality or incompetence or both being on display — this was a fearful thing. The consequences have played themselves out in respect of these unfortunate farmers. In the Rakgase case, this was compounded by what the state failed to do, which was to protect the property from a land invasion; though his own interests were directly imperilled, not being the owner, he lacked standing to intervene himself.

The direction of policy being what it is, it’s hard to see any of this changing significantly. Pending legislation ensures this. The Upgrading of Land Tenure Rights Amendment Bill seeks to vest considerable discretion in the minister as to whether to tenure rights into ownership. The Expropriation Bill defines expropriation in such a way that the deprivation of property is not necessarily going to count as expropriation — a mass custodial taking of land perhaps? — and structures the expropriation process in a manner that favours the state.

This is a cruel reality for millions of South Africans who dream of securely owning the properties they hold, be they large or small. Titling does, of course, come with challenges — though current arrangements are beset by problems.

Meanwhile, minister of public works & infrastructure Patricia de Lille recently said in reply to a parliamentary question: “It makes no sense that a democratic government will revert to apartheid-style practices of taking homes or business premises away from people.” Whether it makes sense or not, she might wish to discuss the matter with those who have fallen victim to it already.

Terence Corrigan
Institute of Race Relations

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