Reducing poverty through land reform and rural development: A need to engage locally

Reducing poverty through land reform and rural development: A need to engage locally

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South Africa’s poverty levels have increased sharply over the past five years with an additional 3 million people now classified as living in absolute poverty. This means that about 34 million people from South Africa’s population of more than 55 million people lack basic necessities like housing, transport, food, heating and proper clothing.
Much of the commentary on these sad statistics emphasises the poor performance of urban job creation efforts and the country’s education system. Little has been said about the role of rural development or land reform.
Yet, about 35% of South Africa’s population live permanently in rural areas. They are among the worst affected by the rising poverty levels.
Large tracts of land lie fallow in the country’s rural areas, particularly in former homelands that were fully integrated into South Africa in 1994 bringing with them large amounts of land under traditional authorities.

Rural development
Researchers investigating the land needs of marginal communities, such as farm workers and rural households in the former homelands, have uncovered a considerable desire for opportunities on the land.
But municipalities, government departments and banks are offering relatively little assistance to poorer would-be farmers seeking to improve their land and its value.

In the former homelands, many families reportedly felt opportunities existed on their doorsteps but they lacked the means and support to grasp them. A common response among young people is to pack up and leave for the cities.

The need to rekindle rural development in South Africa is widely recognised and the country has many policies that speak to the ideal of lifting the rural poor out of poverty. Some policies are just not implemented while others have proven to be inappropriate.

A split between policies
A fundamental problem underpinning successive rural development initiatives has been the split between the two main strands of government land reform policy: land restitution and land redistribution.
Land restitution is largely conceived as a means of addressing the colonial legacy of land dispossession while land redistribution intends to create a new class of black commercial farmers.

Neither has been successfully implemented. Land restitution has been painfully slow, while land redistribution has been criticised for becoming increasingly elitist.

To advance land redistribution, the government put in place a land acquisition strategy that acts as an enabler for entrepreneurs who want to get into large-scale, commercial agriculture. The poor are left at the margins.

In the early years of democracy, the government adopted a “do no harm” approach in relation to land tenure in the former homelands. The reasoning was that this land served as a bulwark against poverty.
But that policy appears to have shifted to focus on bolstering the power of local chiefs to oversee land use.

Land hunger
A two-day HSRC workshop in Cape Town on national land hunger and needs revealed that the government’s land reform programme appears to be failing to promote the widespread productive use of land to provide household food security and to strengthen agricultural markets. The workshop, which reported on family and community experiences in the Western Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, found that land hunger in many rural areas took the form of a groundswell of demand for small tracts that could be developed with relatively modest government help.

Struggles of small-scale farmers
In the Eastern Cape, many households look to town commonage land to be extended to enable them to raise goats, sheep or chickens or plant crops around their new homes on the urban fringe. They want local officials to work more closely with central government departments to help them gain access to land, fencing and water – with a common complaint being that commercial farmers outside the town boundaries were drawing off too much water.

Aspirant small-scale farmers are fearful of debt and in search of a flexible response from the state including incremental financial help, while acknowledging that, if their projects failed, they would willingly step aside to give others a chance. They want the department and the municipalities to be capacitated, versatile and responsive at the local level – demands that run counter to conventional land-reform practice, which is to fund big farm transfers.

Too narrow a focus
In Limpopo, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform was found to be targeting farms of 40ha or larger for redistribution to individual farmers, although aspirant farmers said they were looking for between 1ha and 5ha plots to start their businesses, many of which revolved around non-agricultural commercial activities such as brick-making. The department was accused of too narrowly focusing on the agricultural uses of land.

Informal deals
In KwaZulu-Natal, an informal market in land has been rapidly emerging with many families in the former homeland areas trading land without any exchange of deeds, thus bypassing formal land administration and registration systems. Many of the deals were witnessed by traditional leaders, who took a small cut. Such transactions raise important issues for those seeking to develop land. Without proof of title, rural households cannot leverage capital from the private sector and often remain dependent on family remittances or state aid for support to develop their land. This can also often leave them dependent on traditional leaders and officials, who might not have their best interests at heart.

Unworkable cooperatives
Meanwhile, cooperative projects were criticised for creating often unworkable partnerships among large groups with widely divergent interests, with some individuals merely seeking to raise cash thought short-term real-estate trading while others in the group sought to farm the land.
The preference seemed to be to keep things small or to work with family members and there was considerable curiosity about the new “one household, one hectare” programme which has been mooted by the government but not developed at scale.
High land values

In the Western Cape, land values were reported to be so high that breaking into the large-scale commercial sector seemed almost impossible for members of poorer farming communities. Even graduates from local agricultural colleges and trained wine-makers said it was tough to enter a sector which had become increasingly capital intensive and globalised. They viewed land reform as a potential means to assert their rights to inclusion and beneficiation from a vibrant rural economy and sought opportunities within agricultural value chains, including rural tourism.

Benefiting connections
In the National Development Plan of 2011, the ANC set its sights on placing 300 000 new black commercial farmers on the land by 2030 and creating upward of 130 000 agro-processing jobs. The plan also spoke of the urgent need for better water management to make agriculture less vulnerable to climate change.

However, as the state has sought to increase the percentage of land in black hands, it has focused increasingly on transferring large farms, often to established black businesses and commercial operators, rather than supporting smallholders and emerging new farmers.

At the same time accusations have mounted that rent-seeking officials and private elites are using the reform process to consolidate their control of land and economic privilege. Family favouritism in land allocations is alleged. Exploitation by owners only interested in profit-taking with no concern for their farm workers has been reported in the Eastern Cape. While in Limpopo, some of the new farms acquired by the state have gone to well-established, successful beneficiaries from previous waves of redistribution rather than to new farmers.

Use it or lose it
In addition to fostering graft and inequitable patterns of ownership and control, the current large farm acquisition model relieves the state of the responsibility of growing the agrarian economy through continuous, energetic intervention at local level. By declaring that new owners with capital should “use their land or lose it”, the state has shrugged off its accountability for the outcome of the programme, which can now be presented as a matter of personal rather than policy failure.

Anger on the ground
Meanwhile, after 23 years of often haphazard land reform efforts, poorer small-scale farmers seeking incremental, steady growth with state support remain largely ignored. The extension support in terms of capitalisation, mechanisation, seeds, and agricultural and business training offered by the department to small farmers was roundly criticised at the workshop as woefully inadequate.

Engage rather than enrage
To forestall a crisis, the government should consider fundamentally changing how it acts and thinks on the rural periphery, bearing in mind that engaged localism, rather than enraged African nationalism, may offer the best path to providing actual solutions for the majority.

Authors: Prof. Leslie Bank is the deputy executive director and Tim Hart a senior research project manager in the HSRC’s Economic Performance and Development research programme

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