State bungling threatens to turn land reform into a national crisis

25 May 2008, by Admin

25 May 2008

Government and private sector must work together in stepping up the pace of restitution, writes Ann Bernstein.

Recently a Sunday publication reported an important event — hundreds of black farmers marched on Parliament to protest the slow pace of government delivery on land reform. This was yet another indicator of the inadequate performance of the country’s land reform programme.

A curious aspect of the Department of Land Affairs’s response to an 80-page report on land reform by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) is that, with one exception, it does not question any of our core research findings. This is extraordinary. The department says market forces are holding back land reform; that white farmers are driving up the price of land and that it needs extraordinary new powers of expropriation to speed up land reform. Yet it does not dispute the CDE’s research findings, which completely contradict these three assertions.

The CDE has found that land prices have not risen overall in areas experiencing restitution; nor did it find any evidence for the department’s assertions about markets or established farmers.

Even more remarkably, the department does not dispute the depressingly harsh conclusion that, in fact, very little progress is being made on land reform issues or that the future of key components of South African agriculture is now at stake.

The one area of fact that they do dispute is puzzling indeed. The department contends that it is assessing the impact of its restitution and redistribution projects and that this suggests a different picture from that painted by the CDE.

The problem with this is that the director-general of Land Affairs has publicly stated that 50% of projects have been abject failures — “beneficiaries are not better off … assets dying in the hands of the poor”. It’s a strange day indeed when a department attacks an independent research report for quoting its own director-general!

The department argues that there are many government and business structures that meet and discuss agricultural issues. True. We are proposing a new, public- private partnership precisely because there is no appropriate action-oriented body at the most senior leadership levels focused on land reform issues; and because it is our firm view that many departments need to be involved in land reform issues, not just the struggling Department of Land Affairs with its 27% vacancy rate.

The department might have a “concept document” on public-private partnerships, but we see little evidence of progress in establishing significant partnerships and achieving results.

In light of the department’s performance thus far, we do not have confidence in its ability to manage contracts with private agents (estate agents and others). Thus, while we welcome their new intention to involve the private sector, we need to know the terms on which this will be done; and what additional qualified and experienced professionals the department has employed to ensure that the public interest is served through this outsourcing arrangement.

The department completely misreads the CDE’s suggestion that parts of the restitution process should be outsourced. The CDE is certainly not proposing outsourcing restitution to the “very same people whose land is under claim”. We are saying that restitution needs urgent attention from independent professionals to settle the remaining claims, buy land efficiently and cost effectively, and manage successful projects. The restitution process is stalled and large swathes of valuable agricultural land are frozen, which in turn prevents further land redistribution.

The department’s statement insinuates that the CDE is too close to the private sector to be honest and impartial. We have spoken to many farmers and agri-businesses people, black and white. They all have a very good idea of what is happening in their sectors and districts. Does the department believe that listening to farmers and supporting market-based economic development automatically makes you morally suspect? If they do, then these are not the right people to be running the complex private-public partnerships that South Africa needs to make progress on land reform.

The department says it is very difficult to obtain data on the private sector contribution to land reform. The CDE’s research team found plenty of information; our report contains much evidence on the role played by banks, agri- business and farmers. We found, for instance, that market transactions have already transferred a quantity of land at least equivalent to 40% of that transferred through the government’s land reform programmes.

The fact that the department has so much trouble getting data from the private sector does not inspire confidence that it is capable of running successful private-public partnerships.

We do, however, share the department’s desire for harder numbers on land transfers from white to black through the market. We would be quite willing to undertake a countrywide research project for the department if it has the considerable resources necessary to do this.

The CDE is not suggesting that there is a competition between the department and the private sector, or that private players are always right. What we are saying is that markets, agri-businesses and established farmers are already doing a lot and can play a larger role if certain obstacles are removed and some enabling preconditions are met. These preconditions include changes to departmental approaches and attitudes and increased professional capacity in the department.

What matters now is to institutionalise private sector participation in a way that reflects their needs and concerns as well as those of the government.

Partnership is not achieved unless both parties feel free to express their concerns and both participate in defining agenda items, and the frequency and purpose of meetings.

South Africa cannot afford complacency at the department, which seems to feel that it has everything under control. Every other stakeholder in the country is saying something different.

The department admits the pace of delivery is “slow” but says it has taken “reasonable steps to improve the pace”. The CDE’s analysis shows that the pace of delivery is, in fact, dangerously slow — creating serious risks for the country as whole.

The department’s track record does not inspire confidence that it will be able to pick up the pace by itself. The CDE agrees with the department that the government and the private sector need to “stand up and be counted”. As a country, we need to put much more senior leadership, energy, expertise and money into land reform.

Of course, the government has to play the leading part in this, but we cannot afford to move at the pace imposed by the department’s capacity constraints.

We stand by our analysis: there is a clear need for bold and urgent action to get land reform back on track. The department should engage with the issues being raised rather than question the CDE’s integrity.

 – Ann Bernstein, Sunday Times

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