SA: the land war continues

Johannesburg – South Africa, whose land tenure system has been in the past described as a ticking time bomb, is moving to put controls on foreign access to the resource. The government is soldiering on with plans to restrict foreign land ownership in the country and to prescribe conditions for land use to keep South Africa’s prime land — relatively cheap by international standards — from being snapped up by foreign buyers who can then push prices higher. With the country’s land reform programme based on the willing-buyer/willing-seller model, it is in the government’s interest to keep prices down. But even with prices said to be lower than international standards, the government has admitted it cannot meet its 2014 land redistribution targets as white farmers price the resource out of the state’s reach. Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti has said rather than preventing foreigners from owning land, a policy on “precarious tenure” for land ownership by foreign nationals would be developed “to determine the basis on which foreigners can lease or use land”. Nkwinti, tabling his budget vote in Parliament recently, said the Land Protection Bill would be submitted to the cabinet this year. President Jacob Zuma announced in January the state was reviving its plan to limit foreign land ownership. This initiative stalled after a government probe in 2006 found only about five percent of land in South Africa was foreign owned. It emerged last month that Nkwinti plans to ask the cabinet to permit more land claims by black South Africans who lost their property before 1913. Legislation providing for land claims, which has cost the fiscus billions of rand, had as a cut-off date for restitution the promulgation of the 1913 Land Act, which removed the right of black South Africans to own land in more than 80 percent of their own country. The procedurally complex claims process is administered by the Land Claims Commission, which has to battle with bureaucratic headaches that have made land transfers a nightmare for the black majority. Analysts say it has largely benefited those forcefully removed by apartheid laws from urban areas, rather than rural communities. Liberal economists also claim that the process discourages investment in agriculture, implying that land should not be transferred from the minority to the majority. The restitution of claimants is a separate programme from the government’s drive to redistribute farmland to black South Africans through the problematic willing-seller/willing-buyer policy. Deputy Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Thembelani Nxesi told South Africa’s Parliament last week that the government wanted to guard against the danger that South African prime land would become more expensive due to an influx of foreign buyers. “We need to make it very clear that these measures are in no way motivated by anti-foreigner sentiment,” he said. Instead, the government planned to encourage foreign investment in land in a manner consistent with “national interests”. Nxesi said the policy would endeavour to thwart “undesirable” land use practices such as prime agricultural land being “converted into game farms and golf estates”, as was happening in parts of the Western Cape and Eastern Cape. He warned those in the real estate industry who rejected any form of regulation which reduced their profits that they would not prevail. He said Australia had introduced legislation seeking to control foreign purchases of real estate, while encouraging investment in building new housing, thus benefiting its building industry. The South African Property Owners Association said afterwards that while it was sensitive to the need to redress past injustices in the property market, the future performance of the economy was connected to the country’s ability to attract foreign direct investment. Its CEO, Neil Gopal, called for a predictable and “nondiscriminatory” regulatory environment for foreign and domestic enterprises, and regulations that were in accordance with international law. Gopal said an absence of undue administrative impediments to business, including an impartial system of courts and law enforcement, would be “ideal”. The land hungry, however, say such language has been used in the years following the fall of apartheid to protect the tenure systems that were created by the race-based system and only systematic affirmative action that takes into account that today’s inequalities are discriminatory can result in any meaningful changes for the poor majority. A three-tier system of land tenure that sought to restrict foreign land ownership and also suggested limited freehold for South Africans was proposed last year in a green paper on revising the policy for land reform and rural development. The resultant furore caused Nkwinti to separate land reform from rural development and to produce two green papers. Both, he said, are now ready for debate by the cabinet. Nkwinti also told Parliament that R1.3 billion had been allocated “for making all land reform farms fully functional and 100 percent productive” through his department’s recapitalization and development programme. “This should cover an additional 387 farms, and revitalize 27 irrigation schemes, which have already been identified across the country,” he said. Nkwinti also indicated that another aspect of the review of land reforms – drafting legislation to protect the rights of farm dwellers and farm workers – was on track. “The Land Tenure Security Bill 2010 seeks to promote and protect the relative rights of persons working and residing on farms, as well as those of farm owners,” he said.

June 2011
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