It is true that the pace of delivery on South Africa’s land reform program has been underwhelming.And it is also true that land reform is an issue that can easily be exploited by politicians, while unresolved land issues can plunge countries into political and economic crisis.But let us also not forget why throughout history land reform is politically so appealing.From Napoleon Bonaparte via Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson to Hernando De Soto, the promise of broad-based ownership of land is not so much about cheap politics, but about democracy, economic growth and higher living standards for all. So for all these reasons—peace and stability, economic growth and poverty reduction—a well-executed land reform program can be a cornerstone of sustainable development.
South Africa’s land reform strategy, while not exactly on the fast track, is on the right track. At no point in time since 1994 has there been such a strong consensus among all stakeholders to get the job done, and done well. And that includes white commercial farmers. Add a dose of determined and pragmatic leadership to this new-found stakeholder consensus, and the existing programs and the much needed improvements being made to them can yield dramatic positive results in the short term.
So what about recent newspaper reports about “Zimbabwestyle” land reform being contemplated by radical elements in the Department of Land Affairs? As someone who has worked with these “radical elements” for four years, I believe nothing is further from the truth.
The reality is that these officials are working day and night to, first of all, resolve the often highly complicated restitution cases. The government has correctly decided that the sooner restitution is brought to closure, the better.Because nobody benefits from uncertainty, and there can be no going back on the first law signed by the first democratic government of South Africa and its President, Nelson Mandela, in 1994.
Second, these officials, working hand in hand with their colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, are redesigning the way they implement the land redistribution program. It is through the redistribution program and the land market itself, and not the restitution program, that the bulk of the 30 percent target will be met.This redistribution program is firmly based on the principle of willing-buyer, willing-seller. Beneficiaries of this program use subsidies to buy land on the market from willing sellers. Under this program, the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development sub-program and its forerunner, financially supported by the Settlement and Land Acquisition Grant, have demonstrated that land can be delivered through the market.If the government wanted to deliver more land tomorrow, it could do so by simply increasing the budget for redistribution. Admittedly, the impact of redistribution can be significantly improved, but there is no intention by the government to scrap these programs and replace them with unlawful confiscation.Rather the focus is to make these programs, and the land market itself, work better.
Will this see a more pro-active role of the state? Yes, it will. Black farmers should not be forced to mobilize large crowds to be able to pool enough grants together to buy a large farm, or, driven by misguided notions of “viable farm sizes”, be pushed into ill-fated collective farming experiments (which will fail, as they have elsewhere in the world). The state will and should be more pro-active in assisting black farmers acquire farms that they can operate as individual family farms, commensurate with their initial skills and financial resources, and benefiting from the type of technical support and infrastructure developments that will make these farms and other businesses a success.
And will the state very selectively and prudently use expropriation following the constitution and the law, paying immediate and fair compensation to come to closure on certain restitution cases that are not getting resolved within very reasonable time? Or to acquire certain farms that are extremely well-suited for land reform, as identified through the participatory and consultative process of drawing up an Integrated Development Plan for the area, but where landowners refuse to accept market value even after years of negotiation or because of the Not-In-My-Backyard syndrome?Surely it will and it should. Similarly, should the Property Rates Act be implemented in such a way that there will finally be a cost to holding on to vast tracts of land purely for speculative reasons, but without hurting productive investments in farming? Of course. And finally, do we all hope that the anti-market and anti-poor restrictions on the sub-division of land will finally be relegated to the apartheid history books where they belong?We do.
The main strategic thrust, as supported by all stakeholders, will go to removing the unnecessarily complex delivery of programs, empowering farmers, rather than officials, to drive the program.It will be up to local governments, rather than national bureaucracies, to coordinate the financial and technical advice these farmers need to make their farms a success.And it will be white farmer neighbours, rather than consultants, giving a hand where needed.That is definitely the right track.
 Dr. Rogier van den Brink is the World Bank Country Economist for South Africa. At the request of the Ministry for Agriculture and Land Affairs and the National Treasury he has been advising the Government on land reform since 2002. He has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, and a Masters degree from the Agricultural University, Wageningen, the Netherlands. Before joining the World Bank, he worked as a researcher for Cornell University.