State neglect and elite capture are the real face of land reform, according to a landmark field study of farms in the Eastern Cape. And though many state officials have visited the area to see the problems at first hand, almost nothing has been done to fix them.

The chief finding of the three-year field study by University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Rhodes University researchers is that poor families and communities who have accessed state land are being left with insecure tenure and livelihoods while established agribusiness is cashing in.

This makes a mockery of the state’s avowed intent of using land reform to address poverty.

Land reform is failing to achieve tenure security or poverty reduction; not even small black businesses seem to be benefiting

"Though the land question has become prominent in the rhetoric of political parties, none of them attend to the urgent challenges that are evident," says one of the researchers, Prof Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land & Agrarian Studies at UWC. "The contrast between what land reform was meant to produce and what we see on the ground is absolutely shocking."

Having engaged over several years with government, from district officials to rural development & land reform minister Gugile Nkwinti, and with parliamentarians in the national assembly and Eastern Cape legislature, the researchers, Hall and Prof Thembela Kepe, who represents the universities of Toronto and Rhodes, have come away empty-handed.

Refused access by Nkwinti’s department to data to broaden their study to other provinces, the researchers have gone public. In the academic journal, Review of African Political Economy, they summarise what they found at 11 randomly selected farm projects in the Eastern Cape.

Their study was conducted at the request of the portfolio committee on agriculture in the Eastern Cape legislature. The researchers say it is the only publicly available information in SA on the actual state of land redistribution under state leasehold.

Much of the confusion the researchers found in the field stems from policy changes not communicated down the chain.

Not everyone realises that, after 2011, there was a shift away from state-assisted land purchase and transfer of title to beneficiaries (the model adopted by the ANC in 1997), to one in which the state buys land for redistribution to beneficiaries under leases but does not transfer ownership.

In a further twist, in 2013 Nkwinti’s state land lease & disposal policy made it explicit that small-scale and subsistence farmers may not become land owners but must remain tenants of the state. Only medium-to large-scale farmers have the option to buy farms, but only after having leased the land for 30 to 50 years.

The rent payable to the state is meant to be 5% of any profits generated, but in many cases officials refuse to sign leases with farm-worker tenants on the assumption that they will not be able to afford rent. Instead they allow them to stay and watch over the land on the basis of "caretakership" agreements that lapse after three months.

Though land policy promises that farm tenants should be able to upgrade their tenure, their rights are being downgraded to those of informal caretakers — a polite term for squatters. They stay on as glorified security guards in the belief that it is just a matter of time before the farms are given to them.

"This unpublicised policy about-turn suggests political risk in the future as large numbers of people around the country discover that their expectations of gaining ownership of the land they now occupy will not be met," conclude the researchers.

Some, like the 32 families on the 448ha Nangkoos farm, which the state bought in 2009 near the small coastal town of Alexandria, barely subsist, abandoned without employment or farming support. By July 2016, they still did not have a lease or documented tenure rights, though they still believed they would one day become the owners of the farm.

"We cannot invest here when it is not clear what will happen next year," said a community representative, whose family has lived on the farm since the 1930s. "[In the absence of long-term tenure] we can’t go forward and we can’t go backwards. Now we are just stuck with this chaos."

Hall and Kepe had no joy explaining to officials that there is no justifiable reason in policy or law to withhold leases from poor tenanted farming communities. Though these groups typically want just a modest piece of well-located land with minimal start-up support to buy basic implements and fix broken equipment, this is at odds with the commercial-farming thrust of the policy model.

In practice, the only way for poor communities to obtain leases is to produce an approved business plan and secure a commercial partner, like an agribusiness — something the researchers say is ill-suited to their capacity as farm workers and ignores their desire to just be left alone to do a bit of small-scale farming.

But only those with valid leases are able to access anything from the recapitalisation fund of the department of rural development & land reform (DRDLR) to plough into their farms. Though these disbursements typically run into many millions, it can take years before a farm receives such a windfall, if at all.

In three cases, the researchers found that the strategic partners also owned downstream processing and packing factories to which they sold the farm produce, creating an avenue for transfer pricing to ensure that no profits or dividends were owing to the farm-worker beneficiaries.

In one case, no payment for the produce was made to the beneficiaries, who the agribusiness partner treated as mere employees and paid below the minimum wage.

"No details were ever given about being a beneficiary," a worker at this farm told the researchers. "We just see ourselves as labourers ... we have never been visited by, nor contacted by, a government person about land reform or our status as beneficiaries. We are just here, suffering."

In some cases the way in which these strategic partnership deals have been structured suggests collusion between agribusinesses and officials, say the researchers, citing examples where leases have been concluded directly with the strategic partners, bypassing the beneficiaries entirely.

"Such cases ... draw into question whether state funds for redistribution are being used to provide (white) agribusinesses with cheap or free access to land in the name of redistributing land to (black) rural people," they conclude.

In short, land reform has become so contorted that it fails to achieve tenure security, poverty reduction, gender equity or sustainable land use. Nor is it creating a smallholder class of black commercial farmers, which was one of its original goals.

"Elite white companies and black urban businesspeople are benefiting while the state is making it impossible for poor farm workers and small-scale emerging farmers to benefit from land reform," says Hall. "But without redistribution of power and wealth to those who are the ostensible beneficiaries, is it even land reform?"

On closer analysis, it seems few black urban businesspeople may be benefiting either because, without signed leases, they cannot access state farm-support services or raise the capital to work the farms.

Take the Spioenkop dairy farm near Alexandria. Two black brothers from Port Elizabeth have poured millions into the farm since 2008 on the back of a three-month lapsed caretaker agreement granted to their family trust. Everything has been funded through a construction company the brothers own in Port Elizabeth.

On the basis of intermittent government promises that they would eventually become the land owners, they sank two boreholes, planted fodder and grew their herds. But when they wanted to upgrade worker housing, the department stopped them because they were "not allowed to make fixed improvements to government property".

The research found that the department of agriculture in the province refuses to provide farming support on the grounds that this is the role of the DRDLR’s recapitalisation fund. It also points out that it cannot give support where leases are absent.

Hall traces this lack of co-ordination and oversight to the fact that for the purposes of accounting to parliament, the DRDLR is interested only in how much of its budget has been spent and how many hectares of farmland have been acquired. There is no incentive for officials to ensure that people have secured leases and are able to move ahead.

Though the researchers took officials from farm to farm in 2015 and specific commitments were made, still no leases have been signed with farm workers and no beneficiaries have received dividends on any of the joint ventures, as far as the researchers are aware.

In the absence of a national review to take proper stock of land redistribution, this means more than R2bn of taxpayers’ money is being spent annually on a programme of which there is no effective oversight and that appears to be failing to meet its own aims.

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