In 1994 the government adopted the "willing seller, willing buyer" model, based on the World Bank’s approach of market-led land reform with a reduced role for the state, to correct an apartheid-era policy under which a white minority held 87 percent of the land.
The willing seller, willing buyer approach has been subjected to increasing scorn both within and outside government circles, and blamed as the reason for the transfer of only 5 percent of white-owned land – or about four million hectares – to black South Africans by March 2007. Government has set a target of transferring 30 percent of land by 2014.
In recent months the top echelons of the ANC have undergone a sea change and, according to political commentators, lurched to the left. Former President Thabo Mbeki’s second term was cut short and he was replaced with Kgalema Motlanthe, while the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) – the ruling party’s alliance partners – are seen as wielding greater influence over government policy.
A two-day economic summit in October 2008 of the Tripartite Alliance partners – the ANC, SACP and COSATU – to formulate policy after the 2009 elections, concluded that South Africa had to return to its position as a net food exporter and accelerate land reform.
The latest official trade figures show farm exports in the 12 months to March 2008 stood at R33.7 billion (US$2.92 billion), while imports rose to R34 billion (US$2.95 billion).
Steep rise in food prices
"South Africa has grown from being a net exporter to being an importer of food, and this needs to be addressed. Policy must be geared to increase food production and safeguard food security so that we rely less on imports," said a statement by the alliance partners.
According to government statistics, access to affordable food in all nine of South Africa’s provinces is becoming an increasing concern. In KwaZulu-Natal, 1.2 million of the 10 million people in the country’s most populous province faced food shortages and were living on less than R200 (US$18.28) a month, while the provincial agriculture department said more than half – or 5.3 million people – were "living in poverty".
A steep rise in food prices between July 2007 and July 2008, estimated at 17.8 percent by the National Agricultural Marketing Council’s quarterly food price monitor, has compounded high levels of poverty in South Africa. The local currency’s sharp devaluation in recent weeks as a consequence of global financial turbulence will push up the already higher costs of imports.
Against the backdrop of a volatile global food environment, the ANC government is committing itself to tackling one of the country’s most fraught issues – accelerating land redistribution – while at the same time increasing food production.
"There is a need for both continuity and change. There are policies and programmes we can build on, while others require review, and in many cases persisting problems relate to poor institutional coherence and co-ordination within the state," said ANC secretary general and SACP national chairperson Gwede Mantashe.
Top of the policy reform hit list is scrapping the willing seller, willing buyer model, which must be "abandoned", Mantashe said on 19 October. "Land redistribution cannot depend on the willingness of those who own to sell," he said, and intimated that land expropriation would begin to play a greater role.
The ANC and its partners are placing the apparent failure of the willing seller, willing buyer model firmly at the doorstep of white farmers, who they accuse of demanding higher prices for their land so as to stall the redistribution process.
A recent report by Edward Lahiff of the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), Land Reform in South Africa: A Status Report 2008, noted that "recurring complaints from land reform beneficiaries, officials and politicians that, where land is offered, excessive prices are being demanded, little firm evidence has been offered to support this contention."
PLAAS, based at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, acknowledged in its report that "Many landowners [feel] politically opposed to land reform, or lack confidence in the process, especially the slowness of negotiation and payment, and, if possible, prefer to sell their land to other buyers."
Although the state’s ability to buy land has been considerably strengthened, "Matching land to the needs of intended beneficiaries – in terms of land size, quality and location – is an essential requirement for a successful land reform strategy; the absence of beneficiaries from critical decisions affecting their livelihoods, and the strong possibility that the identity of beneficiaries may not even be known to officials at the time of land purchase, reduces the likelihood that these needs will be met."
The report said that "Expropriation offers the potential of expanding the range of land available for redistribution beyond what the market offers, and reducing the compensation paid to owners.
"Like proactive purchase, however, the success of this approach will depend on the guidance provided to state officials as to what categories of land to target and the manner in which they exercise their powers," the authors said.
"Legal challenges to the amount of compensation offered may also slow down the process and drive up the ultimate costs, making it unlikely that expropriation will entirely replace other, more consensual, approaches."
Where land reform has occurred, the state has failed to support it adequately. "South Africa has approximately one-third of the number of extension officers required to meet its development targets, and 80 percent of the current extension staff are not adequately trained," the report noted.
"Various studies have shown that beneficiaries experience severe problems accessing services such as credit, training, extension advice, transport and ploughing services, veterinary services, and access to input and produce markets."
In November 2005 the agricultural ministry said in a report to parliament that 70 percent of land reform projects in Limpopo Province were dysfunctional, which was attributed to poor design, negative dynamics within groups and lack of post-settlement support.
"Central to any overhaul of policy must be reform of the institutions tasked to implement such policy," the PLAAS report suggested.
The Land Bank, which claims on its website that it "plays an active role in realising the land reform programme," is embroiled in a multimillion-dollar scandal.
Three senior Land Bank officials were suspended earlier this year, including CEO Alan Mukoki, after financial irregularities were highlighted in three separate audit reports and it emerged that an R800 million (US$70 million) loan was authorised to a public company, Pamodzi Investment Holdings, in which President Motlanthe was a shareholder.
Commercial farmer resistance
The disarray in land reform, coupled with higher food prices, has not been missed by those representing the interests of commercial farmers.
Chris van Zyl, a spokesperson for the Transvaal Agricultural Union, told IRIN that increasing food production required both infrastructure and experienced farmers, so redistributing prime agricultural land to the previously disadvantaged – who may not even want to farm the land – would probably result in reduced food production.
"In South Africa the whole issue of land redistribution has caused a severe drop in food production already, and now the dramatic increase in input costs like labour and power are further compounding the situation," he commented.
"Only 13 percent of our land has a high potential for agricultural output, so everything needs to be done to protect it; the current land reform policy only puts it at risk," Van Zyl said.
"There is quite a lot of government land that is not being utilised that could be farmed to increase food production – we had a look at Cullinan [70km north of Johannesburg] and here 56 percent of the rural land is owned by the municipality, and it is not being used. We are researching the subject, and I’d say our findings will show that a lot of government land is being under-utilised."