Op-ed by Andries du Toit
What on earth is going on with our land reform process? Recently, South Africa has experienced another of its periodic spasms of concern about the ‘land question’ – this time brought about by the unveiling of a sheaf of controversial new legislation and proposals by the Minister of Land Reform and Rural Development (DRDLR 2014b).
After a year or two of relative quiet, we at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies are once again besieged by journalists seeking comment from experts who can help them make sense of the new proposals. The experts, it has seemed, are as stumped as the rest of us – or even more so.
Over the years, we have become used to trying to explain the ins and outs of land-related questions to baffled urban South Africans – but the policies that are being proposed are so ill-conceived, so dangerous, so cockamamy, that they seem to emanate from cloud-cuckoo land. The groupings affected by the proposals – farm workers, farm owners, land claimants – have not been consulted in any meaningful way. The debate during the Department’s Budget vote on 23 July this year did not cast any light on the matter and swiftly degenerated into political posturing and extremist buffoonery (Davis 2014). How does one make sense of what is going on?
Certainly the concrete policies and measures that are being proposed are nothing short of disastrous:
Is there method in this madness? It is easy to see that the policies proposed are unconstitutional, ill-advised, impractical and in many cases simply impossible to implement. But why are they on the books in the first place? Why is the ruling party apparently set on enacting them? Why the railroading of objections and the riding roughshod over the protests of rural people themselves, white and black? What’s happened to our democratic policy process? What, for that matter, about the National Development Plan, with which the proposed measures are deeply out of kilter?
More to the point, what is the political logic of what is happening here? Is what we are seeing simply policy-making, or political fantasising, completely out of touch with reality? Is there a sinister political logic at play? For example, is the ruling party indeed getting ready to tear up the Constitution and go for a Mugabe-style land-grab? Or is this simply cynical political theatre: land reform as an inconsequential side-show, smoke-and-mirrors intended to catch votes, but with little chance of implementation?
The truth appears to be more complicated. The current situation is the messy and chaotic outcome of a complex set of interlocking factors that have together produced a crisis for land reform, rural development and agricultural policy. Like all ‘wicked problems’ its permutations and ramifications are complex and often obscure – but some of the key underlying factors can clearly be spelled out.
Firstly, part of the context for the current mess is the policy incoherence at the centre of South African politics more broadly. The presidential hegemony that we saw during the Mbeki years – with the Union Building exercising an iron grip on the ruling party, defining what could be debated and how (Gumede 2007) – has given way to a laissez-faire process in which multiple factions war for control within the state, with little or no leadership from above (Marais 2011). In such a time, all manner of morbid symptoms will appear; with land and rural development, indeed, being but one of the theatres of action.
A second contextual factor is that the problems of rural development are genuinely deeply rooted and difficult to resolve. The poverty of rural people in South Africa today is not simply a legacy of the past; it is not simply the result of rural ‘backwardness’ that can be addressed by the infusion of a shot of ‘progress’. Rather, it is the result of the nature of the growth path of the present-day South African economy as a whole. The pressures of economic growth and competition have created a dynamic which millions of people are being pushed out of land-based employment with little chance of finding formal or informal employment in the non-farm sector. Expensive and complicated ‘rural development projects’ won’t help if it is the ship as a whole that has to change direction. So the Department has an all-but-impossible task to begin with.
To make matters worse, there is a vicious circle. The challenges of rural development are exacerbated by the failure of 20 years of land reform and agricultural policy to resolve the racial legacy of the past. If agriculture is to provide sustainable employment and food security, commercial farmers need coherent programmes of support from government. But deep political mistrust and antagonism has made it impossible to extend meaningful support to the small number of white farm owners who produce most of the food and provide most of the jobs in agriculture. This legacy of suspicion has contributed to the large-scale adoption of policies of liberalisation and deregulation. The bigger and better-positioned players have benefited. But in general, this has unleashed processes of concentration and consolidation. Agriculture is increasingly under the control of agribusiness, processors and powerful supermarkets. This further intenstifies the marginalisation of small and emergent black farmers who are hard pressed to compete on these uneven playing fields – leading to a further loss of livelihoods and employment in our rural areas, and deepening rural poverty and inequality.
Thirdly, in this context, the terms of public debate about land reform have not been helpful. In fact, when South Africans consider the future of our farmlands, we tend to ignore the realities of rural de-agrarianisation, corporate control, and small farmer marginalisation. Rather than asking searching questions about how our agricultural and food system should be managed to ensure livelihoods and food security for us today, debates about the rights and wrongs of land reform tend to focus on ideological posturing about who stole land from whom in 1652 or 1848. Questions of equity tend to be framed as questions of restorative justice (how to redress the wrongs of the past) rather than question of distributive justice (how to ensure that everyone gets a fair share now). The caricature of the white Afrikaans family farmer – as an object of fear, ridicule and punishment – still shapes the depiction of a landscape long reshaped by large-scale industrial farming and urban corporate control.
Even more problematically, the discourse of land reform has increasingly served as a channel for the racialisation of South African politics and the articulation of a narrow, populist and chauvinist African essentialism in which the claims of indigeneity increasingly threaten an inclusive and cosmopolitan notion of citizenship. This is part of a broader and politically explosive process: the failure of the non-farm economy to create ‘jobs for all’ has led to the emergence of a large population of marginalised and justifiably angry black South Africans who feel excluded from the benefits of post-Apartheid growth. In this context the land question becomes increasingly conflated with the national question: Questions about whose land this is are becoming entangled with questions about whosecountry this is. This means that the notion of land dispossession carries a deep ideological charge; it symbolises and the marginalisation and disenfranchisement of our entire poor and black population – including those who have been urbanised for more than a generation and who have no prospect or desire of ever putting a plough to the ground. In this context it is not surprising that unrealistic and unimplementable plans are articulated.
A fourth factor is the incoherent institutional mandate of the Department of Rural Development itself. Here, it is important to remember that this department did not arise from a blank slate. It is the direct descendant of the Native Affairs Department (NAD) – the department created during the colonial period to govern Africans excluded from the provisions of white citizenship (Dubow 1986). Later (as the Department of Bantu Administration and Development) it was charged with implementing the ideology of separate development. It implemented forced removals, presided over the development of Bantustan policy – and, crucially, oversaw the incorporation of co-opted and often illegitimate ‘traditional leaders’ within the administrative apparatus of the Apartheid regime. Under the Mandela presidency, the remains of this bureaucracy were incorporated in the Department of Land Affairs under the Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs.
This history has created some recurrent problems. For one thing, there was from the beginning a ‘conceptual divide’ between the policies of land reform and those of agriculture. The splitting off of the department from agriculture and the creation of a Department of Rural Development and land reform (DRDLR) only deepened this divide. Another problem is that the DRDLR seems to have inherited antiquated notions of rural development similar to those that existed in the former Bantustans – notions built around clientelism and the channelling of state resources to localities (Phillips, Lissoni, and Chipkin 2014). In addition, this history has left the department with a fundamentally unclear mandate. Every aspect of the development remit of the DRDLR – jobs, services, agriculture, education, you name it – is already the territory of another, existing line department. The DRDLR, perhaps understandably, has decided that it therefore needs to play a co-ordinating role to ensure the ‘integrated’ delivery of services and projects to rural people. But, but lacking the constitutional mandate and powers needed for such a role, it has ended up merely replicating functions and adding another layer of bureaucracy to an already fragmented rural governance terrain.
The fifth and most troubling factor, however, is the resurgence of elitist, paternalist and patriarchal notions of rural governance in South African policy discourse. This, arguably, is what really sets the DRDLR apart from the DLA-that-was, and what distinguishes Gugile Nkwinti (and, arguably Jacob Zuma) from their predecessors. While previous ministers of Land Affairs have at times been very unclear about how to exercise the pro-poor mandate of their department, Nkwinti has abandoned the rural poor in favour of the elite. The stamp of a chauvinistic, sentimental, elitist, romantic and patriarchal rural paternalism is evident everywhere in the current policy proposals. It is evident, for example, in the Regulation of Land Holdings Bill, which seeks to regulate ‘foreign’ ownership of land even when all the available evidence indicates that the ownership of land by non-South Africans is not an issue and not a problem. It is evident in the stipulation that the strengthening of the relative rights of farm workers on commercial farms shall depend on ten or more years of ‘disciplined service’ – a notion that lacks any clear policy definition, but which is redolent of the paternalist discourse that shaped farm labour regimes for decades before the end of Apartheid. It is evident in the clear focus of current redistribution and land acquisition practice on creating opportunities for emergent black businesspeople rather than the poor. It is evident in the patronising policies that refuse to give even these emergent black farmers security of tenure until they have ‘graduated’ to become full-fledged farmers.
Most of all, it is evident in the alliance being forged between elements in the ruling party and traditional leaders looking for a place in the sun after the demise of Bantustan policy. The proposed amendments to the Communal Property Act are a sop to disgruntled chiefs who feel the current act undermines their authority. Eliciting grandiose and fantastical land-claims from South Africa’s various royal families is clearly another attempt to cozy up to them. In fact, as Aninka Claassens and William Beinart have pointed out, one golden thread in current rural development policy is the re-emergence of notions of rural identity, communal tenure and rural governance based not on custom, but on the colonial and imperial misunderstandings of custom that typified Native Administration under Verwoerd and his predecessors. The traditional leaders are claiming back, not their ‘traditional’ role, but the autocratic powers bequeathed them by Apartheid (Claassens 2013; Claassens 2014; Beinart 2014). And our government is playing right along.
The resurgence of these conservative and traditionalist forms of rural governance is not an accident. At one level, it is clearly part of the broader rise of patrimonialist and clientelist politics, and the attempted capture of the state by elite and sectional interests that is one of the hallmarks of Zuma’s government. But this resurgence also has a broader political rationality. Here we have to look at the consequences of the failure of the South African economy to deliver ‘broad and inclusive growth.’ As I have mentioned, this has led to the development of a large, economically disenfranchised but politically empowered underclass – a class that rightly feels entitled to the benefits of economic growth and post-Apartheid liberalisation; but which finds itself marginalised and excluded. How should such a population be governed, and how can the political instability promised by its existence be contained?
Those questions are of course not new. They have been with us since the beginnings of the process of industrialisation and urbanisation that transformed our country since the late 19th Century. If modernisation and change were going to dislodge large numbers of black Africans from their traditional ways of life, how would they be incorporated within South African society? The political union created in 1910 was based (inter alia) on the decision to exclude the majority of black and poor South Africans from the rights and entitlements of citizenship. When the demands of an urbanising black population surfaced with new urgency during the 1940s, Apartheid emerged as a strategy to re-impose this exclusion. Apartheid was in many ways a strategy of ‘rural containment’ – an attempt to hold back the flood of urbanisation and what was at the time called ‘detribalisation’. Central to this was the Bantustan policy and the subjection of most poor black South Africans to indirect rule through autocratic and unelected ‘chiefs’.
That strategy failed, and the new South African polity that has come into being since 1994 has been built on the promise that all South Africa’s people – black as well as white; rural as well as urban – would be entitled to the rights of citizenship. That promise has been hard to fulfil, and the costs of that failure impact particularly harshly on poor black rural people.
No wonder, then, that dreams of rural containment seem to be re-emerging. Significant strands within our ruling party appear now to believe that the answer to poor black marginalisation and de-agrarianisation lie in the recreation of a rural idyll of ‘vibrant’ local economies, disciplined workers, benign farm owners, virtuous peasant farmers and omnipotent chiefs: an idyll that never was – and which never can be.
In this context, the political posturing associated with land reform discourse is not mere grandstanding in cloud-cuckoo land. It is effective political theatre. It defines the questions of land reform in racialised and ideological terms that seek to exempt the proposals from critical interrogation. It allows the Minister to portray himself as speaking on behalf of all black people and all Africans, when he is in fact doing nothing of the kind. It allows him to position himself as a champion of the wretched of the earth, when in fact he is creating enabling conditions for clientelism, pork-barrel politics, and elite enrichment. And it tries to set in place strategies of rural containment whereby poor and marginalised rural South Africans are once again subjected to autocratic and undemocratic control.
These politics need to be rejected outright. The critics on the left who have lauded the intention of Nkwinti’s plan, while suggesting that the ‘devil was in the details’ (Greenberg 2014) are wrong. Nkwinti’s vision is flawed from the ground up. National reconciliation cannot be achieved - and the ‘national question’ cannot be resolved - through a narrow and legalistic process of claiming back ancestral land rights. Redistribution cannot succeed if it is disconnected from a broader vision of inclusive agricultural development. Neither can it succeed if involves models unsuited to the real needs of small-scale commercial farmers. And ‘rural development’ cannot deliver social justice if it is based on an alliance with rural elites and a small handful of well-connected businesspeople.
What, then, are the alternatives? The pressures for land reform will not go away. But South Africa needs an approach that can deliver the inclusive and broad based growth government has called for. This means land reform should contribute to economic opportunities and tenure security for poor people - in the countryside as well as the cities. Land and rural development need to be situated within broader approaches to regional development that engage with the realities of urbanisation and economic integration. Most of all we need policies based on democratic citizens’ rights for all our people; not strategies for reinstating indirect tribal government in the former homelands. DM
Andries du Toit is the Director of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.