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LREAD – Land Reform perspective – September 2016

LREAD – Land Reform perspective – September 2016

(The views expressed in this article are not necessarily of Casidra)

Earlier this month I came upon a short news article on the BBC’s website: “North Yorkshire farmer takes on 900-hectare ‘dream’ job”. The article describes the joy of 28 year old Mr Jonathan Grayshon, from Dacre in Nidderdale in North Yorkshire, after learning that he was selected to farm on the Humberstone Bank Farm. The land owner, Mr Yorkshire Water, needed to find a new manager after the previous incumbent retired.

The sentence that grabbed me was this one by Mr Grayshon: “Like a lot of young farmers trying to get on the farming ladder, it is difficult to get hold of any land, and almost impossible within a ring fence or near where you live. Getting my own farm will be like living the dream.”

I was struck by the fact that land ownership and access to land are also newsworthy topics in the United Kingdom, one of the oldest democracies in the world. It seems that land reform is not only a South African issue.

Some further research along this line brought me to an interesting paper published by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation: Land reform: Issues and challenges. A comparative overview of experiences in Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Australia. The author, Bertus de Villiers, focussed on these four countries due to similarities in their land reform stories.

All four countries share a history of colonialism where indigenous inhabitants were forcefully dispossessed of their land. Also similar is the fact that land reform initiatives belong to the relatively recent historic timeframes of these countries. The African countries embarked on land reform during democratisation and the establishment of new governments. Australia embarked on land reform programmes only in 1992 due to a High court order which forced the issue of native land title to be addressed.

According to De Villiers, the land reform initiatives adopted by these countries are not yet finalised in all four countries at this point in time. These countries also initially based their land reform programmes on a market approach, better known as willing buyer willing seller in South Africa. At this stage, only Zimbabwe has deviated from this with a far more radical approach.

It is interesting to note how differently things have played out in the different countries, and what lessons South Africa can learn from its peer group in this regard.

Australia, the most stable democracy in this group, is facing a reputation crisis due to the fact that it seems unable to solve the land reform needs of a small minority of Aboriginal people. Here it is a case of reputation, rather than democracy per se, being at stake, according to De Villiers.

In contrast to Australia, in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, the very foundations of democracy are at stake if the majority of it citizens’ sense of justice regarding land reform is not addressed.

Zimbabwe, with its radical reform programme since the 2000’s, has abandoned the market based approach where land reform options are dictated by land willingly coming into the market, and opted for the speed of a government driven process, where expropriation with or without compensation became an available policy instrument. The price the country has paid since then is a severe agricultural production decline and general economic hardship, as the new beneficiaries of farms often do not have the skills or financial resources to maintain production on the once thriving commercial farms.

Namibia has made slow and cautious progress with its land reform initiatives, but this slow pace is now resulting in  political pressure for a more radical approach with faster results, according to De Villiers.

South Africa has adopted a complex approach to land reform since democracy in 1994. The country differentiates between restitution, tenure security and redistribution as separate aspects of land reform. The ineffectual policy and legislative attempts targeted at tenure security and redistribution have been partially offset by a relatively successful restitution programme.

It seems that South Africa should aim for a middle of the road approach when compared to Namibia and Zimbabwe: Not too slow, as this could give rise to populist sentiment boiling over, but also not too fast, as this could place food security and economic stability at risk.

Perhaps a combination of market driven and government driven approaches will assist in getting the speed and outcomes of land reform right. We should also take note of Australia’s reputational issues regarding unsuccessful land reform, and remind ourselves that South Africa has a leadership role to play in Africa.

At the end of the day, land is a scarce and precious resource. And this is equally true for Mr Grayshon from Dacre in Nidderdale in North Yorkshire, a 28 year old citizen of the erstwhile colonial powerhouse, which used to rule over the lands and aspirations of Australia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

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