Land reform in South Africa: 5 myths about farming debunked

Land reform in South Africa: 5 myths about farming debunked

Written by Johann Kirsten and Wandile Sihlobo[i], first published in The Conversation

South Africa’s land reform policy remains highly contested. But, in our view, a number of persistent myths about farmland statistics and the structure of commercial agriculture skew debates. This makes it difficult to reach some common understanding about the realities of land and agriculture in the country.

In 1994 when South Africa became a democracy, white farmers owned 77.580 million hectares of farmland out of the total surface area of 122 million hectares. The new government set a target of redistributing 30% of this within five years. This target date has been moved several times and is now 2030.

According to popular belief between 8% and 10% has been redistributed so far. But as we show below this is incorrect as it omits a number of key statistics.

Only 17%-20% of the 77,58 million ha is suitable for field crop, irrigation and horticultural production. More than 55% of farmland is only ideal for extensive grazing (land that is poor and dry but animals can roam widely, the Karoo being an example), and another 20% for intensive pastures and animal production (land, the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands being an example, that receives good rains and has good pastures for grazing).

This shows that the potential of farmland being used to create full-time sustainable livelihoods is limited. This suggests that a careful and measured approach needs to be adopted in redistribution efforts.

These realities are the basis for our arguments against five standard myths about agriculture and land in South Africa. That’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal still to be done. But failure to recognise the gains that have been achieved means that policies can’t be developed based on what’s been achieved so far.

Myth 1: 40,000 white farmers own 80% of all of South Africa’s land

First, let’s turn to the number that’s quoted about white farmers.

The number of 40,122 commercial farmers is widely quoted as the total number of farmers earning a commercial income from farming. The number comes from the 2017 census of commercial agriculture.

But the number is flawed.

Firstly, the census only considers farmers who are registered for VAT (for which the threshold is a turnover of R1 million a year (about US$59 000 today).

Adding in two other groups – the number of households involved in commercial farming as their main source of income and those that practice farming as a secondary source of income – the total number of households comes to 242,221.

It’s difficult to estimate the “race” of commercial farmers. But, using different data sources including the 2011 population census, the 2017 agricultural census and the 2016 community survey we estimated that most commercial farm enterprises are black-owned. And that only 18% of these households are white.

Now to the 80% figure.

In 1994 white farmers owned 77.58 million ha of freehold land. We estimate that white farmers now own 61 million ha of freehold farmland. This follows the implementation of redistribution and restitution programmes and other transfers of land to the state and black farmers. It still represents 78% of freehold farmland but covers only 50% of the total surface area of South Africa.

Fact: white commercial farmers (around 44,000 farming units) own 61 million ha – 78% of the farmland that comes with private title deeds or 50% of all land in South Africa.

Myth 2: Commercial agriculture is characterised by large-scale white farmers

This myth results from a misinterpretation of the concept of “commercial” and “scale”.

Commercial agricultural production indicates production beyond subsistence needs, with some (or a major share) of the total production sold to the market. This usually also involves the purchase of production inputs such as seeds and fertiliser.

But commercial production happens at various levels or “scales of production”.

The scale of farming is not determined by land size. Instead, it refers to the gross farm income (or turnover) of the farming enterprise.

Land size is not a good indication of the scale of the farming operation. For example, a small irrigation farm of 10 ha can deliver millions in turnover while a 10,000 ha extensive grazing farm is unlikely to exceed R1 million in turnover per annum.

If we unpack the census of commercial agriculture, commercial farming in South Africa consists largely of small-scale family-based operations. Almost 90% of all VAT-registered commercial farming businesses can be classified as micro – or small-scale enterprises (turnover below R13.5 million). While this is true, it’s also a fact that there are just over 2,600 large farms with a turnover on average above R22.5 million per annum. These farms are responsible for 67% of all farm income and employ more than half the agricultural labour force.

If we take into account the farms that are not registered for VAT it is evident that 98% of all farming operations in South Africa are small-scale operations.

But, a mistaken leap is made to say that all white commercial farmers are “large-scale” operations, and all black farmers are “small-scale”. In the process, most writers on South African agriculture confuse the “scale of the operation” with the “race” of the operator.

Fact: most white commercial farmers in South Africa are small-scale and family-based operations. Only a small minority (2 600) are large-scale operations. Most of these are owned by white farmers.

Myth 3: Commercial farmers are hoarding land and not selling any farms

It is often argued that white commercial farmers are holding on to their land and not offering it for sale to potential buyers.

Deeds office records provide insights into the activity in the farmland market. Between 2013 and 2021, the annual number of farm transactions recorded varied between 2,000 and 4,000. In 2021 2,585 farms were sold and registered to new owners. Most (58%) of these were farms smaller than 300 hectares.

Between 2003 and August 2022, the state acquired 2.8 million ha which brings the total area of farmland acquired by the state since 1994 to 3,12 million ha (or 4% of freehold farmland). This suggests that the state is also active in the market.

Fact: The farmland market is active with around 2% of total farmland with private title deeds traded annually.

Myth 4: All black farmers with private title deeds acquired their land through the land reform programme

Deeds records show that since 1994 black South Africans have privately acquired a total of 1.78 million ha of farmland through normal self-financed market transactions.

Over the same period, the government redistribution programme has assisted beneficiaries to acquire a total of 7.2 million ha of farmland. Thus, for every four hectares transferred by the State to black South Africans, private transactions contributed another one hectare to the process.

Fact: Black farmers have acquired almost 2 million ha of farmland (2,3% of total freehold farmland) on their own without any assistance from the state-sponsored land redistribution programme.

Myth 5: South Africa has only redistributed 8% of farmland to black people

The debate on the expropriation of land is largely driven by the myth that white farmers are hoarding land and are inflating prices, and therefore, it is impossible to remove the racially skewed land ownership patterns in South Africa.

These arguments typically ignore the statistics on the land market and the fact that black South Africans have been acquiring farmland on their own. These arguments also conveniently ignore other factors, such as bureaucratic inefficiencies, patronage and corruption – that have slowed down land reform.

In addition, the incorrect presentation of the progress of the land reform process is also maliciously used to inflate the argument for expropriation. If South Africans are true to themselves and correctly report the statistics, then they will be much closer to the 30% target. We estimate, using various official datasets, that up to August 2022, the land statistics were as follows:

Based on these numbers extracted from official sources it is evident that South Africa has made much more progress than what is been punted around. It is, therefore, disingenuous of analysts and commentators not to take account of the real progress made here.

Fact: Taking account of all the pillars of the land reform programme, it is estimated that 24% of all farmland has been redistributed or land rights have been restored. This is close to the 30% target, which could be reached by 2030.

[i] Sihlobo is a senior research fellow in the department of agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University. Kirsten is a professor in agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University.

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ANC delegates need to examine self-inflicted harm to South Africa’s farming sector

ANC delegates need to examine self-inflicted harm to South Africa’s farming sector

Written by Wandile Sihlobo and Johann Kirsten[i], first published in Business Day

We are a few weeks away from the 55th national conference of the ANC, where new leadership will be elected and resolutions will be adopted on critical policy matters.

Agricultural policy is likely to be among the prominent topics discussed at the conference, with burning issues of food security and land reform receiving much attention. The July 2022 policy conference outcome offers clues to the ANC’s approach to agriculture, food security, and land reform matters.

It is widely accepted that agriculture is a vital sector of the SA economy, especially the rural economy, as it has the potential to lift many South Africans out of poverty through increased production and rapid, responsible, and effective land reform.

The ANC’s overall position on the agricultural sector gives us much-needed hope that there will be policy certainty and that more investments could flow into this critical sector of the economy. However, in SA good political intentions, speeches and debates do not always translate into favourable outcomes.

Many commentators have been sceptical of the various layers of the government, state-owned entities, and agricultural stakeholders’ ability to translate noble calls about the role of agriculture into meaningful actions and outcomes.

There are aspects of the agricultural value chain ecosystem that threaten the sector’s growth prospects, despite solid growth in 2020 and 2021. Some are external to us, while others have been self-inflicted. These are the issues ANC delegates should debate to find solutions to critical failures and fault lines.

The external factors include:

  • Rising input costs (fuel, fertilisers, chemicals, transport);
  • Non-tariff barriers introduced by main trading partners such as the EU and China;
  • Slowing global growth, high inflation and higher interest rates; and
  • Logistical and shipping bottlenecks.

The domestic (self-inflicted) factors are:

  • A malfunctioning state veterinary service that cannot prevent and manage disease outbreaks and is unable to comply with trade partners’ requirements;
  • Poor implementation and financial management by most provincial agriculture departments;
  • The destruction of our rural road and rail system, leading to soaring costs that have to be passed on to consumers;
  • High levels of crime and theft destroying farmers’ production infrastructure, especially that of new-entrant black farmers;
  • Inefficiency in our main export harbours, leading to large losses and additional costs;
  • The department of water & sanitation delaying key water infrastructure investments for more than eight years;
  • The electricity crisis; and
  • Service delivery failures by dysfunctional local municipalities affecting input, financial, and output markets that are critical for the sector.

Immediate interventions are required, which have budgetary and non-budgetary dimensions. Broadly, the reforms encompass improved access to agricultural finance, the provision and protection of water supplies, animal health, market access and exporting capabilities, and productivity.

The most interesting and undeniable aspect of these interventions is that all relate to the improvement in delivery by the state of basic regulatory and services that would enable the agricultural sector to grow inclusively.

Fortunately, the ANC has already highlighted the failures in the critical network industries and their negative effect on agriculture. The policy papers of late July stated that “a few critical preconditions need to be in place to advance transformation and support growth in the agricultural sector, which the ANC will prioritise. These include a comprehensive, well-maintained infrastructure, electricity, water, roads, rail and ports, and well-functioning local municipalities with reliable service delivery.”

This was an important acknowledgment that must not remain on the policy conference papers. It must be adopted as a critical resolution in December and provide a mandate to the next administration. For instance, the SA economy is hampered by extreme forms of economic sabotage and vandalism of the network industries that need urgent intervention by our security forces. We need a conference resolution that addresses the issue of organised crime.

A point about agriculture in SA that was not reflected fully in the ANC policy papers is the urgent need to grow our export markets, which underscores the continuous insistence on the need to improve the efficiency of our ports, deal with the destruction of our rail network and improve the quality of our roads.

Aside from the critical agrology-related issues, there are regulatory interventions we have highlighted before that the government must prioritise. Such regulatory interventions include modernising regulations such as the Fertilisers, Farm Feeds, Seeds and Remedies Act of 1947, with which many role players in agriculture continue to express dissatisfaction.

Delaying action to improve the functioning of these areas will compromise the potential productivity growth of the sector, as well as its compliance with international export standards due to issues such as the continued use of banned chemicals in some sectors.

In the context of transforming the agricultural sector and establishing black commercial farmers in SA, access to finance is important. A well-functioning Land Bank would be better positioned to contribute to these activities. That said, the bank’s funding model is highly dependent on debt finance raised in the capital markets. This money is largely borrowed at commercial rates, which makes borrowing costs too high to start farming enterprises.

Land Bank’s funding model therefore requires urgent revision. Beneficial terms were in play when the bank supported commercial white farmers under previous administrations, and the same practice is again essential to build a new cohort of black commercial farmers. The only way this can happen is for the bank to be recapitalised by the state. This can be done quickly by consolidating all agricultural grants housed in various government departments to be used as a capital base for a new and sustainable Land Bank.

Agricultural growth will also be supported by successful land reform. Unfortunately, a lot of time, effort, and budget has been squandered over the years on poorly executed and corrupt land reform processes. Recent reports have again shown how corrupt government officials derailed a noble land reform effort. This evidence confirms the lesson from many land reform programmes in the world: the state is good at buying land but ineffective at redistributing it to the rightful beneficiaries.

This puts the Land Reform & Agricultural Development Agency, announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2021, at the centre of policy to fast-track agricultural land redistribution. The idea of the agency emerged from the realisation that the state should only be the facilitator, promoter, enabler, and monitor of the land redistribution process. It was therefore included in the ANC’s July 2022 policy papers.

The establishment of the agency has the potential to bring about national coordination, reduce red tape and become a one-stop shop for all issues related to land reform and inclusive agricultural growth. Detailed information on this agency is not yet available, but we understand the work to structure it is near completion under the leadership of the agriculture, land reform & rural development minister.

SA’s agricultural sector has significant growth potential, but a supportive and stable policy and regulatory environment are essential to attract long-term investment. Most importantly, there must be an increased focus on improving service delivery at all levels of government.

[i] Sihlobo is a senior research fellow in the department of agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University. Kirsten is a professor in agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University.

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How to broaden farm ownership for successful transformation in South African agriculture

How to broaden farm ownership for successful transformation in South African agriculture

Yesterday, 07 June 2022, I presented at the Large Herds S.A. Conference held in the Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. I explored the prospects of broadening farm ownership for successful transformation in South African agriculture.

The presentation is based on a paper co-authored with Professor Johann Kirsten of Stellenbosch University.

For background, one of the dominant questions in South Africa’s agricultural policy since the dawn of democracy is the need to accelerate land reform to ensure the inclusion of black farmers in the sector. The failures in this attempt prompted some political parties to call for a need to expropriate land without compensation from December 2017 through an amendment in section 25 of the Republic of South Africa constitution. This is a motion that was tabled in the National Assembly and failed.

On the margins, some began to ask, “Is farm ownership a requirement for success in the South African context?”. Of course, this is a broad question, and answers would depend on each individual’s financial status. But using the principle that farming is a long them endeavour with intensive capital investment, farm ownership is crucial.

For this fundamental reason, South Africa still discusses the subject of land ownership; hence the address focused on this topic, not the historical perspective but the options to accelerate land reform.

You can watch the 25 minutes long address by clicking here.

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Land reform in South Africa: what the real debate should be about

Land reform in South Africa: what the real debate should be about

Written for and first published in The Conversation.

Land reform in South Africa is an emotive and politically fraught subject. That’s because the land was at the heart of the dispossession of Africans by colonial settlers. Successful land reform can help overcome this legacy, making it central to forging shared national bonds. It can also serve as a basis for a cohesive society through a properly managed redistribution programme.

But nearly three decades since the first democratic elections in 1994, South Africa has yet to crack land reform. That’s not for lack of initiatives. Some communities and individuals have indeed had their land restored. But for every one of these stories, there’s another of a “failed” farming project or a small farmer stuck in a remote area without hope of gaining a livelihood.

Opinions vary on what has gone wrong with land reform and what should be done about it.

The first problem is that the topic often rears its head close to election time. As the governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), gets closer to its national elective conference scheduled for December, the country can expect another heated debate on land reform. The curtain raiser to this debate will be the ANC’s policy conference in July which precedes the elective conference.

But the debates in these charged environments tend to generate more heat than substance. Take the decision of the 2017 ANC policy conference to amend Section 25 of the constitution. The political rationale was that this would enable the expropriation of land without compensation under specified conditions, which, in turn, would accelerate land reform.

But a prominent legal scholar on land reform, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, pointed out in 2018 and 2019 that land reform had not been held back by the constitution but by capacity constraints and the lack of political will on the part of the government.

Ngcukaitobi went on to consolidate his views in a book, Land Matters: South Africa’s Failed Land Reforms and the Road Ahead, published in 2021.

His book should be part of the basis for the debates on land reform during the forthcoming ANC conferences. It offers insights on what an effective land reform programme – and the institutions to deliver it – might look like.

Why land matters

Ngcukaitobi reflects on the role of business in dispossession and apartheid, and, therefore its potential contribution to land reform. In this he invokes the late Stellenbosch University economist Sampie Terreblanche who also flagged the role of business in contributing to reparatory justice.

Ngcukaitobi also argues that land reform shouldn’t be seen only as an agricultural industry problem. Rather, it should be viewed as a multi-industry challenge involving non-agricultural players. Underpinning this view is his analysis that white farmers weren’t the only beneficiaries of the colonial and apartheid regimes’ land policies. Most of those who profited from apartheid live in urban areas.

On this point, the proposals of a Land Reform Fund that came out of the Expert Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture in 2018 could be a perfect vehicle for businesses to contribute through donations for land reform. Perhaps, Ngcukaitobi should have reflected on the panel’s proposal.

His research draws heavily on archival material. He casts a spotlight on the large-scale loss of black South African livestock during the years of dispossession, starting from the late 1600s through theft and killings and during the wars since the late 1600s. This insight brings home the point that black South Africans lost more than land. They lost their livelihoods and productive assets, too, in the form of livestock.

He writes

the story of land dispossession will never be complete without an understanding of the loss of indigenous people’s cattle. Cattle, more than land, were a visible sign of wealth. 

Unfinished work

The book also brings home the reality of the slow progress of land reform in South Africa. In 1994 when the country became a democracy, white farmers owned 77.580 million hectares of farmland out of the total surface area of 122 million hectares.

Ngcukaitobi writes that the ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) set a target of redistributing 30% of agricultural land in the first five years of the new democratic government. The RDP was the socio-economic policy framework of the first ANC government in 1994.

The government has missed this goal and has been shifting the goalposts ever since. The aim now is to reach the 30% goal by 2030.

The achievements so far have been small. Exactly how far off the target the government is is the subject of heated debate. Some researchers argue that land reform has been painfully slow. In my work with Stellenbosch University agricultural economist Professor Johann Kirsten, we estimate that a total of 13.2 million ha (or 17%) has already been transferred away from white landowners to the state (3.08 million ha) or black owners (10.135 million ha) through private and state-supported transactions including land restitution.

These have included restitution, redistribution, private transactions and state procurement transactions.

If we add the hectares of land (2.339 million ha) that were successfully identified for restitution, but for which communities elected to receive financial compensation as the means for restitution, then the total area of land rights that were restored since 1994 is 15.56 million ha.

This is equivalent to 20% of formerly white-owned land – much closer to the 30% target (of 23.25 million ha) than commonly believed.

I don’t mention these statistics to justify the relatively slow pace of land reform but to highlight the challenge of the lack of credible land data in South Africa. For effective policy-making, accurate data is key, and we have suggested on various occasions the methods of accelerating this process.

Ngcukaitobi argues that the failure to faithfully implement the land reform policy and its three pillars of redistribution, restitution and tenure should be attributed to weaknesses in the state, including corruption. Thus, blaming the constitution for the slow pace of land reform – and calls for an amendment – are perhaps, misplaced.

Another critical aspect the book highlights is the role of women in land reform by offering both the historical part played by women in the South African society and a mirror of how they have not benefited from redistribution in the recent past.

Finally, there are some success stories that might have been examined more in-depth. Examples are joint venture approaches to land reform, specifically within agriculture. The success stories are important as they provide insight into what can be done better going forward.

Overall, Land Matters is crucial work that should be read by all South Africans who care about the country’s future. The point about the weakness of institutions comes up several times in the book. This is a critical aspect that the government should prioritise. It should strengthen the land reform delivery instruments and do more with the establishment of the Land Reform and Agricultural Development Agency that has already been announced by the president.

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Poor implementation is a major issue for policy credibility in South Africa’s agriculture

Poor implementation is a major issue for policy credibility in South Africa’s agriculture

Governments can build credibility over time through consistent commitment to implementing policies efficiently and effectively. South Africa hasn’t done well on this score. As a result of the poor record of policy implementation, investors and the general public have become sceptical of government policy pronouncements.

Recent examples of this credibility gap include its handling of two major policy initiatives. The first is the National Development Plan launched in 2012. The second is the National Treasury’s 2019 economic policy paper titled “Economic transformation, inclusive growth, and competitiveness: Towards an Economic Strategy for South Africa”. Neither was ever fully implemented.

Once unveiled, it was up to government departments to pull ideas from them to enhance their strategies. But this wasn’t done.

The factors that lie behind poor policy implementation are varied and complex. They range from conflicting ideologies, a lack of capacity within the state and its institutions, corruption, and poor governance at local municipalities.

But the government seems to be waking up to the fact that the key to success is public policy implementation. Take the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan launched in October 2020. The plan is focused on energy security, infrastructure development, green economy, food security, and the tourism sector, among others.

Unlike the slow policy implementation observed over the past decade, the government has followed through with reforms in the energy sector. It is worth highlighting that this is a sector that was already beset by crisis.

Elsewhere, the departments of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, and Trade, Industry and Competition have followed up with sectoral master plans. These include building local industrial capacity, for both domestic and export markets.

These are being drawn up with input drawn from a range of key stakeholders in each sector. This is a break from the past where the government drew up plans and sought stakeholder input at the end.

The master plan for agriculture and agribusinesses, for example, has included government, farmer organisations, agribusiness, commodity organisations and labour representatives. This process too could suffer inertia if it only leans on grand ideas which are not implemented.

The department of agriculture and various social partners are nearing the completion of the master plan for the sector. The document supports economic recovery plans set out by President Cyril Ramaphosa a year ago. But what will make this particular plan different is the commitment to implementation and the costing of its activities.

Based on many years of engaging with the government on the agricultural sector policies needed to make it easy to do business in South Africa, I have distilled a few things that government can do to improve its policy credibility in the sector. I have also developed a list of what the private sector’s contribution can be.

What government can do

The first useful step government could take would be to implement all the regulatory interventions that require less capital. In the case of agriculture, these would include:

  • the release of land already in the government’s book to beneficiaries with tradable land right
  • improvement in efficiency in various regulations in the livestock industry, and animal hygiene which would assist in boosting exports,
  • improvements in the efficiency in registering new agrochemicals that can help in making agriculture more efficient.

It should also reprioritise the national budget in line with the master plan interventions. This will signal its commitment to ensuring its success.

Another important intervention would be for it to support state entities such as Transnet to improve the efficiency of the ports. This should go in tandem with intensifying efforts to open more export markets for South African agriculture. Then there is the Land and Agricultural Development Bank. Government should speed up the resolution of the bank’s financial challenges. Resolving these would enable the bank to play an influential role in the rollout of the agricultural master plan.

The government should release land that it owns to new beneficiaries with long term tradable land rights or title deeds.

It also needs to root out corruption at various levels within the department to ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of staff.

Finally, the government needs to take action to cut red tape and reduce bureaucracy and bring the legislation up to date.

For example, the Fertilizers, Farm Feeds, Seeds and Remedies Act of 1947 which regulates the registration, importation and sale of fertilizers, farm feeds, seeds, and certain remedies dates back to 1947. Naturally, it doesn’t reflect the realities of the 21st century. Agro-chemicals suppliers and seed companies struggle to bring new technologies into the country because they aren’t covered in the law. Yet the technologies are key to boosting agricultural productivity.

Then there is the Agricultural Product Standards Act which regulates the definition, classification and grading of most agricultural produce. The problem doesn’t lie with the law itself but how the government has chosen to implement it through a set of regulations for each product. These are onerous and require auditing which adds to costs of production.

The department of agriculture has assigned the enforcement of the act to various entities whose services must be paid for by the private sector. This adds, even more, to operating costs which in turn are recovered through higher retail prices or lower profits for producers.

What should the private sector do?

The private sector has a role to play too. The first step should be to build trust among various farmer organisations and agribusiness to have a unanimous private sector voice that speaks to the government.

Private sector players also need to recognise the need for collaborative efforts in rebuilding South Africa and expanding the agriculture and agribusiness sector. One example of this is that they could develop partnerships with new entrant farmers in the development programmes of various commodity organisations.

The private sector also needs to participate in initiatives to help finance the new entrant farmers.

Lastly, it needs to showcase and expand partnership programmes that have proven success in various commodities and parts of the country.

Dealing with apartheid’s legacy

South Africa’s history is unfortunately still mirrored, to an extent, by the farmer associations and commodity groups. There are some that largely represent black farmers and some largely white farmers. This division contributes to different messages being carried to the government. Ideally, farmer organisations and groups should, at least on broad issues, strive for a unanimous voice. But the key thing is building trust so that every participant can gain comfort knowing their views are represented.

Both lists are not exhaustive but the proposed interventions could move the needle in terms of translating the ideas on paper in various plans into tangible projects that could contribute to the growth and job creation in South Africa’s agriculture. The government’s priority should be on building credibility. This could be done by listening to business and social partners and effectively implementing the less financially costly programmes quickly. This will demonstrate the commitment and prove to be an encouragement to all role-players.

This essay first appeared on The Conversation on 05 September 2021.

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South Africa’s land policy seeks to boost women in redistribution delivery

South Africa’s land policy seeks to boost women in redistribution delivery

In 2020, the South African government approved a women empowerment policy proposing that roughly 50% of the allocation of agricultural farming land under the Redistribution Programme should be for women, 40% for youth, and 10% for people living with disabilities. Titled “National Policy on Beneficiary Selection and Land Allocation of 2020” the policy is an essential intervention as it outlines who should benefit from land redistribution.

It is a corrective method that seeks to address the skewed land redistribution delivery which has historically favoured men and those with political connections. While the origins of these ideas can be traced from South Africa’s 1997 White Paper on Land Reform, it was the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture (Panel) that sharpened the framework.

Appointed in September 2018, the Panel comprised of ten members, five women and five men. It was chaired by a prominent woman, the late Dr Vuyo Mahlathi. I was one of the five men. Our mandate was to provide a unified policy perspective on South Africa’s land reform regarding restitution, redistribution and tenure reform. In responding to this call, it became clear that the lack of transparency and mechanisms for selecting who should benefit from land redistribution was amongst the areas that we needed to intervene in.

Hence, if one reads our report released in late 2019, it recommends a Beneficiary Selection Criteria for the land redistribution pillar of land reform. In our internal discussions, the idea of the Criteria was initially proposed by a subgroup I was in, which comprised of four men; the late Professor Mohammad Karaan, Dan Kriek, Nick Serfontein and yours truly. But our conceptualisation provided guidelines for selecting a person with skills and youthfulness to run a farming enterprise. We did not reflect deeply on gender dynamics.

Professor Ruth Hall, Bulelwa Mabasa, Thandi Ngcobo, Thato Moagi and Dr Vuyo Mahlathi —  the women in the Panel — brought the gender dynamics to the fore in the discussions. They followed up by convening a round table discussion in March 2019 to solicit women’s views on their plight regarding access to land, specifically in marginalised rural communities of South Africa.  In those discussions, women shared lived experiences of how they lost their land after their husbands passed away and the struggles faced by unmarried women regarding access to land. These engagements are the reason the Panel’s report made such a strong case for gender diversity. After the Panel’s report approval by the Cabinet in 2019, the government implemented some of the recommendations. The Beneficiary Selection Criteria is what culminated into the current National Policy on Beneficiary Selection and Land Allocation, which guides our land redistribution now.

For example, in the 700 000 hectares of state land that the government announced it would release from October 2020, the majority of beneficiaries should be women and youth, in line with the National Policy on Beneficiary Selection and Land Allocation.

I am narrating this story to highlight the importance of gender diversity, not only at general levels in the workplace but also at key policymaking spaces. It is possible that without the presence of the prominent women I mentioned above, the Panel’s report wouldn’t have explored the plight of women to the same depth as we did.

For the sake of transparency, I can still remember the times when I argued that we should focus just on skills and age in our selection criteria. Still, the wise Dr Vuyo Mahlathi would always remind me that “Wandile, asiyibhaleli namhlanje le mithetho; sibhalela amangomso nezisukulwana” loosely translated as “Wandile, we are not writing these policy suggestions for now, but for tomorrows and the next generation”. Indeed, the youth and women of today, and hopefully the next generation, will benefit from the fruits of the foresight showed by women in the Panel who uplifted the plight of the poor and rural women on land matters. Thankfully, they had the ear of the President and Minister to action their suggestions.

The policy is indeed an honour to the late Dr Vuyo Mahlati and all the women on the Panel who provided wisdom on the importance of the presence of women in the policy creation process.

This essay first appeared on Business Day, 10 August 2021

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How a land reform agency could break South Africa’s land redistribution deadlock

How a land reform agency could break South Africa’s land redistribution deadlock

Essay by Professor Johann Kirsten and Wandile Sihlobo[i]

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has conceded that the country’s land reform programme is taking too long to address the challenge of land ownership inequality in South Africa. Bureaucratic delays, patronage and political influence, and opportunism among beneficiaries and landowners are among the challenges that have hindered South Africa’s land reform programme progress.

At the same time, the government’s farmer support programmes haven’t been agile and quick enough to provide the necessary support for beneficiaries.

In 1994 when South Africa became a democracy white farmers owned 77.580 million hectares of farmland out of the total surface area of 122 million hectares. The new government set a target of redistributing 30% of the 77 million hectares within the first five years in government. This target has been consistently moved over the years, and now the aim is to reach 30% by 2030, in line with the National Development Plan’s agriculture and land reform objectives.

Our estimates, which include restitution, redistribution, private transactions and state procurement, suggest that 13.2 million hectares (or 17%) have already been transferred from white landowners to the state. An additional 3.08 million hectares have been transferred to black owners and 10.135 million hectares through private and state supported transactions including land restitution.

Adding 2.339 million hectares of land that was identified for restitution but for which communities elected to receive financial compensation as the means for restitution brings the total area of land rights that were restored since 1994 to 15.56 million hectares. This is equivalent to 20% of formerly white-owned land.

We argue that things can happen much quicker if the arteries of land reform are unblocked.

One proposal is the creation of a Land Reform and Agricultural Development Agency. Ramaphosa announced the creation of such a body in his state of the nation address in February 2021.

Here, we outline how the proposed agency could accelerate land reform by removing the process from political and bureaucratic control. The state’s only role would be to create an enabling environment. The heavy lifting would be the task of landowners, agribusinesses and large corporates. Their job would be to facilitate equitable and sustainable land reform.

We believe that the model set out below, with the agency as proposed by the president as the starting point, would give South Africa another chance to get a meaningful land reform programme underway.

The model could be the vehicle through which farmland can be returned to the majority of South Africans, with two notable differences from previous efforts. Firstly, it would ensure that beneficiaries weren’t being set up to fail, as has been the case in the past. Secondly, commercial farmers, who benefited from the past injustices, would have an opportunity – in a non-politicised way and with little red tape – to contribute meaningfully to land reform.

How it would work

The agency would ideally bring about national coordination, reduce red tape, and become a one-stop-shop for issues related to a decentralised redistribution of agricultural land. This would not require additional fiscal outlays. It would, instead, use existing sources of material and other forms of support from the commercial agricultural sector.

The agency idea was developed out of proposals on decentralising land reform first set out in South Africa’s National Development Plan released in 2012. The ideas in the plan were echoed in a 2019 report by the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture.

The central principle is to locate the responsibility of redistributive land reform with district-level land committees. These would design locally-based solutions created on the dominant farming enterprises while considering an area’s community and social dynamics.

The agency would take the job of land acquisition and redistribution out of the government sphere and put the responsibility on the shoulders of those who have benefited from the previous regime.

At the district level, farmers, communities, agribusinesses and other private sector role players would craft local solutions within a framework managed by the agency.

Local District Land and Agricultural Development committees would be established within a particular area. They could comprise ten voting members (all bona fide farmers: five black and five white). This structure could then elect a chairperson and invite six other members (agribusinesses, banks, community and so on) to join.

The local committee would have to consult with all stakeholders in the area and register as a non-profit company with a memorandum of incorporation, a budget, and a board of directors.

The functions of the committee would include:

  • the listing of land,
  • the identification of potential beneficiaries in terms of objectively agreed criteria,
  • funding, training and support programmes,
  • monitoring of enterprises, and
  • liaison with government departments and the secretariat of the overarching national agency.

The mechanism would not require the state to provide funds for land acquisition since the land would be made available by farmers and transferred to beneficiaries without any funding flows.

What’s being proposed is a form of “self-expropriation without compensation” but on the terms of the existing landowner. This implies that there are no legal processes required to get land for free. It is done automatically by the current landowner and will transfer land to the beneficiary of their choice.

Success factors

A number of critical success factors would need to be in place before any transaction was set up. These would include: access to land, ownership or long-term lease, skills, access to markets for inputs and selling products, funding, the exit strategy, and a supportive environment.

Simply put, the new farm enterprise on redistributed land should immediately be linked to commercial value chains.

The district committee would be responsible for coordinating and facilitating implementation in line with the agreed principles.

The national agency would be established by the Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform, and Rural Development and supervised by a board of 12 members who would meet quarterly. A small secretariat would have funding and administrative capabilities to liaise with the local committees.

Its main functions would be to create enabling policies and smooth out bureaucratic logjams, set up a land reform fund, prescribe rules for the local committees and record and monitor progress with land transactions.


To nudge current landowners to make land donations we propose:

  • Exemption on donation tax for land or finance donated for land reform purposes.
  • Exemption on capital gains tax when land is transferred to a beneficiary or new entity.
  • Registration of title deeds and the important notarial links on the deed signalling the land reform status of the deed. The speedy transfer of title deeds and tradable long-term leases to beneficiaries, including those who occupy land already procured for land reform purposes, will go a long way to support the land reform process.
  • Exemption of transfer fees.
  • Some recognition mechanisms to upscale voluntary donations. This could be in the form of water rights and access to a land reform fund at beneficial interest rates. The awarding of Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment scores could also be used. These were set up by the government to advance economic transformation and increase the participation of black South Africans in the economy.

The empowerment recognition could also be provided to individuals or companies donating funds to a land reform fund.

What we are proposing is a way forward that avoids top-heavy, bureaucratic focused processes. The agency would largely operate virtually. It would only report on progress and make sure politicians weren’t hindering the redistribution of land. It would facilitate the process of redistribution of land by ensuring that incentives for donation and transfer of land were in place.

This would ensure limited opportunity for political rent-seeking, jobs for friends, and corruption.

[i] Kirsten is a professor of agricultural economics at Stellenbosch University. Sihlobo is the chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (Agbiz).

This essay first appeared on The Conversation.

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