Landing SA in trouble - Cape Argus

8 February 2019 - To enunciate grand, visionary goals is both futile and reckless in the absence of the basic infrastructure to make them function. To give land reform – under any conditions – any chance of success, the calibre and capability of the state must be enhanced.

Terence Corrigan

Official rhetoric on expropriation without compensation has cooled somewhat of late. Perhaps the government and ruling party have realised just how destructive it has been to South Africa’s economic standing. A blander ‘land reform’, or the ‘land issue’, is now the preferred formulation.

This is not to say that EWC is off the table – far from it. There has been a recalibration of words rather than a reorientation of goals. But the attempt to focus on ‘land reform’ invites a review of this (very necessary) endeavour, and what has gone wrong with it.

This question is raised starkly by the recent report of the Special investigating Unit into ‘irregularities’ in South Africa’s land redistribution efforts. The findings relate to some 146 land reform projects or grant allocations across the country.

Perhaps its most jarring finding, specifically in respect of qualifying criteria for accessing grants, is that ‘our investigations have indicated that the far greater majority of LRAD projects have failed; (and) grants to the value of millions of rand have been allocated to individuals who constituted part of the so-called rent-a-crowds; i.e. individuals who (in our view) were never eligible for grants.’

It details a system compromised by poor policy, non-compliance with the Public Finance Management Act, shortcomings in the available skills in the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, inadequate monitoring and evaluation, and management failings.

All of this makes for concerning reading.

It is, sadly, not unfamiliar. The High Level Panel under former president Kgalema Motlanthe pointed to governance pathologies as central to the country’s land reform malaise. Testimony from members of the public captured in the Panel’s report closely and graphically echoes that in the SIU report.

Said one: ‘Some community members who lodged complaints are kept in the dark by government officials, who fraudulently alter the names and numbers of people on the beneficiary lists. Some people who are supposed to be listed in court proceedings are deliberately and fraudulently left outside the process in order to dilute their claims or in order for corrupt government officials to personally benefit from the land claims.’

Widely noted research by Ruth Hall and Thembela Kepe into land reform projects in the Eastern Cape raised similar concerns. Central to the litany of failures they identified was apparent ineptitude if not outright malfeasance on the part of officials charged with managing the process – often expressed in collusive deals with businesses to the exclusion of the nominal beneficiaries.

We at the Institute of Race Relations have investigated and drawn attention to cases of collusion between corrupt business and political interests to deprive (typically small-scale and poor) owners of their holdings. We have warned about the prospects for broader ‘capture’ of land reform through such large-scale collusion.

Each of these speaks with frustration less to corruption, indifference and incompetence than to a broader incapacity of the state to handle its own ambitions. The mighty South African developmental state exists more in the official imagination than in any discernible reality.

Of course, it is positive (as the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform has pointed out) that misappropriated properties have been recovered – some 58 farms with another 37 under curatorship. A number of officials are facing sanctions, although only one has apparently been sentenced to prison and several seem to have escaped censure by resigning.

But is difficult to imagine a successful land reform programme built on this sort of infrastructure.

It is even more difficult to envisage the sort of expanded land reform effort that government and the ruling party wish to undertake. The provision of extensive support services, for example, assume an officialdom that for the most part does not exist.

Adding EWC – the concept now encoded into ‘land reform’ – will only aggravate this state of affairs. It will do nothing to alleviate these problems, and there is every reason to believe that, with a troubled bureaucracy suitably empowered and emboldened by EWC, such pathologies would grow.

Requirements that government compensate people for property it takes offers them some protection from abuse. Not always very much, but some. It signifies a concrete obligation by the state towards those under its authority. Remove it, and the possibility for abuse inevitably grows. With a state and society with South Africa’s afflictions, it is well-nigh certain that abuse will follow. And it is likely that those most vulnerable will be precisely those who are (purportedly) the intended beneficiaries of the programme.

This is a sad reality. To enunciate grand, visionary goals is both futile and reckless in the absence of the basic infrastructure to make them function. To give land reform – under any conditions – any chance of success, the calibre and capability of the state must be enhanced.

This in turn, is a slow and probably thankless process. It would also necessarily mean dispensing with much fondly held ideological and political baggage. But nothing less will do. Whether there is a willingness to do this on the part of the country’s leadership is uncertain – and the same is thus true of the prospects of making land reform a success.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).

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