The Squatters

••• 100 years after Natives Land Act, black South Africans remain landless in their homeland

Windhoek – The South African government faces a herculean task in overhauling the country’s land ownership pattern, by restoring land to the majority and landless blacks who were forced off their birth-rights more than a century ago.

Land reform in South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, has become more pressing due to the failure of government’s willing-buyer, willing-seller principle.

It is a principle that failed to work in Zimbabwe and resulted in that country opting for compulsory acquisition of land. Similarly, it is a principle that is stuttering in Namibia.

The realisation among ordinary landless, peasant black South Africans that land reform in neighbouring Zimbabwe has largely been successful after teething problems, is a fuse waiting to ignite.

Tshwane’s inability to tackle one of the strongest legacies and pillars of apartheid – land ownership – is ushering in an avenue for a radical approach to land reform. And it is an avenue that the newly-formed Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by Julius Malema is gladly walking down as it pushes for expropriation without compensation.

South Africa’s government says it is opposed to a process of land expropriation as happened in Zimbabwe, but still at the same time candidly admits to the complete failure of the willing-seller, willing-buyer system – a principle under which the state can only wait for white land owners to offer farms for sale.

A key disadvantage of the willing-seller, willing-buyer system is that the prices of land – when offers are made – are usually inflated and negotiations are often protracted.

Despite offering to pay market value for farms, the government has only been able to transfer 4.2 million hectares to blacks; benefitting 230 886 people between 1994 and 2012.

The initial target was to transfer 30 percent of agricultural land to blacks within five years of gaining independence and currently, 2.5 million ha of private land has been redistributed, statistics from the Rural Development and Land Reform Ministry show.

On September 5, the Rural Development and Land Reform Ministry released an audit of land ownership patterns across the country.

The findings are set to pile more pressure on the ANC government to speedily implement land reforms before landless masses take the initiative as they did in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s.

The audit shows that almost all of South African land is owned by private individuals (including foreigners), companies and trusts.

While the audit fails to show land ownership patterns by race, its findings confirm traditionally held views that most of the verdant lands in South Africa are privately-owned and that blacks are by and large tenants in their own homeland.

At national level, the audit reveals that 79 percent of South Africa’s land – translating to 96.6 million ha – is in private hands.

The government owns a mere 14 percent of the total, roughly 17 million ha of land.

The survey says that it could not establish the ownership of the remaining seven percent, which is about 8.4 million ha though it is largely believed that this land is owned by absentee, foreign landlords.

Of the 79 percent of land that is in private hands, a significant percentage is owned by individuals, companies and trusts.

A provincial breakdown of land ownership pattern shows that 71 percent of land (7.5 million ha) in South Africa’s North West Province is privately owned while the land registered under the state is only 2.4 million ha (23 percent). Ownership of six percent of the land (596 380ha) is unaccounted for, the department’s audit report says.

In Gauteng, 65 percent of the land is privately owned and the state holds 17 percent, while ownership of 18 percent of the land is unclear.

In Limpopo, 70 percent of the land is held privately and the state only owns 20 percent of it; the ownership of the remaining nine percent is unknown to the government.

The situation is much better in KwaZulu-Natal where 46 percent of the land is under private ownership with the state owning 50 percent. It is the ownership of just four percent that is unclear.

In Mpumalanga, the state owns 25 percent of the land against 63 percent that is privately owned and 13 percent whose ownership the department said it could not verify.

In Eastern Cape, the South African government owns nine percent of the land in the province while private individuals own 67 percent and 24 percent falls in the category of unaccounted for.

The land ownership pattern in Western Cape, Northern Cape and Free State is startling given the extent to which the government has virtually no access to the land.

In Western Cape, 89 percent – which is about 11.5 million ha – is privately owned land. The state owns eight percent and three is unaccounted for.

In Northern Cape, a staggering 35.2 million ha, or 94 percent of the land – is in private hands and the state owns a miniscule five percent with one percent unknown.

The situation is also stark in Free State, where 91 percent (11.8 million ha) of land is privately owned. The state owns seven percent while the ownership of two percent of land unaccounted for.

The department said that it was not able to identify foreign ownership because the system in use does not provide for that kind of analysis.

The audit report has been unveiled as South Africa marks a grim centenary: the Natives Land Act came into law in 1913 and its provisions keep the country divided.

The 1913 Natives Land Act drove black people away from productive land and forced them into what were then called Bantustans.

Due to overcrowding and loss of means of production, many had no option but to trek into towns, mines and farms in search of work and livelihood.

The idea was that firstly, prime land would be placed in the hands of whites, and secondly, blacks would have to go and work either on white-held farms or white-run industries, businesses and residences.

“This audit comes at an apt moment where we are steadfast in our resolve to reverse the legacy of this abominable act that had brought nothing but shame to Africans.

“The results of the audit will assist us with better planning of our broader land reform programme,” Mdu Shabane, Director-General for Rural Development and Land Reform, said.

“The results of the land audit will allow us to restore the dignity of the dispossessed majority. As such, the audit which was finished on the eve of the centenary of the 1913 Natives Land Act, will serve as one of the final nails in the coffin of what shall never be repeated,” Shabane said.

The Natives Land Act restricted blacks to just 13 percent of the country’s total land mass, leading to creation of “homelands” – the hallmark of the repressive, racist and morally repugnant apartheid system.

Blacks were prohibited from owning land or pursuing farming outside the “reserves” and leasing of land between blacks and whites was outlawed.

The law also imposed 90 days of compulsory work a year on all blacks living on white-held land.

“The question of land is a sensitive and emotive one, and has been since the earliest days of colonialism.

“The issue was exacerbated during the dispossession programme given effect by the 1913 Natives Land Act, and worsened during the dark days of apartheid when a flood of similar legislation effectively impoverished the black population, and banished them to the least fertile areas of the country,” Gugile Nkwinti, Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, said in a foreword in the audit report.

“This was particularly hard on rural communities, accustomed over centuries to using the land they occupied for agricultural and economic purposes, not forgetting tenure.

“This was effectively a birth right, and removing that right was devastating,” he added.

Facing trial by the apartheid regime, former South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela, once declared: “I am without land because the white minority has taken a lion’s share of my country and forced me to occupy poverty stricken reserves, over populated and over-stocked. 

We are ravaged by starvation and disease.”

Across the continent, it is generally agreed that land ownership will restore the dignity of Africans.

“Land differs fundamentally from all other resources because it constitutes those portions of our planet on which we live, on which we grow our crops and from which extract minerals. 

Consequently, land is a basic economic asset.

“Discourse on land tends to reduce it to an exclusively agrarian issue-who owns and controls farmland-forgetting that the (1913 Natives Land Act) entailed the expropriation of land in rural and urban areas,” Pallo Jordan, South Africa’s former Arts and Culture Minister, wrote in Business Day in June.

September 2013
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