picture: Gallo Images/Netwerk24/Jaco Marais
picture: Gallo Images/Netwerk24/Jaco Marais

The Freedom Charter of the ANC, adopted on June 26 1955, reads: "We, the people of SA, declare for all our country and the world to know … the land shall be shared among those who work it! Restriction of land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land redivided among those who work it, to banish famine and land hunger."

But public debate and discourse on land has rarely centred on precisely who should benefit from the land reform programme.

This absence of a clear policy has cost the country 25 years of shoddy implementation of haphazard and illogical policies adopted by the department of agriculture, rural development & land reform.

And it has often chopped and changed these policies. The state has had a skewed focus on farmland and agriculture, notwithstanding the need for land and livelihood in urban and metropolitan areas.

So what does the draft national policy for beneficiary selection and land allocation, published on January 3, say?

For a start, it implicitly recognises that over 65% of South Africans live and work in cities and metropolitan areas, and that the developmental needs of the country have shifted drastically since the Freedom Charter, and most certainly since the adoption of the 1997 policy.

It has widened the scope of potential beneficiaries to all previously disadvantaged SA citizens who are black; Indians, coloureds and Khoisan over the age of 18 years; women and people with disabilities; military veterans, especially those who are unemployed; and spouses of public servants.

It is admirable that the policy seeks to widen the scope of land reform beneficiaries, rather than to limit it.

But the inclusion of spouses of public servants is a peculiar addition.

Land benefits in the context of marriages would ordinarily follow marital regimes, so the express inclusion of this category appears self-serving.

No efforts have been made, until recently, to legislate on who should benefit

Similarly, the inclusion of military veterans may have unintended consequences.

Other categories include communal farmers, township dwellers, and individuals living on state-owned and communal land who depend on subsistence farming, as well as rural poor municipalities with a low revenue base.

It is not clear why the draft policy does not categorise women as a standalone category, given the prevailing statistics that demonstrate women as being in the majority of people who not only work the land, but who also suffer the most in the context of illegal evictions.

Importantly, the policy introduces a land allocation panel, an independent body aimed at fast-tracking land redistribution applications.

The panel is intended to ensure that the application process is transparent, and will serve as a dispute resolution body where parties have an opportunity to appeal decisions.

It’s clear that there has been a shift from a policy of land reform as a tool to alleviate poverty, concerning itself with subsistence and small-scale farming, to one which recognises the linkages between urban and rural life and livelihoods.

The inclusion of cities, municipalities, property developers and metros also denotes a realisation that land reform is not only capable of delivering social justice and cohesion, but has a critical role in the unlocking of commercial value.

It is a welcome step in the right direction to lift the veil of secrecy regarding the way land allocations are made.

But its success hinges on the ability, capacity and resourcing of the envisaged land allocation panel.

It will have to tread a delicate line between prioritising the most vulnerable members of society, and supporting and transforming the agrarian and property economy for growth and inclusivity.

Mabasa is director and head of the land reform, restitution & tenure practice at Werksmans