- Controversy around statements by the South African government that it is to review its "willing-seller willing-buyer" approach to land reform and use expropriation, where necessary, is due more to unclear communication than substantive change in state policy, according to analysts.
Land reform was one of the main promises made by the African National Congress (ANC) when it came to power in South Africa in 1994. It has proved a complex and slow moving process, and more than a decade after the first democratic elections, the government has found itself unable to settle many outstanding claims.
In his state of the nation address President Thabo Mbeki said, "Land reform and land restitution are critical to the transformation of our society. Accordingly, the state will play a more central role in the land reform programme, ensuring that the restitution programme is accelerated, further contributing to the empowerment of the poor, especially in the rural areas."
During 2006 the government would review the "willing-buyer willing-seller" policy, land acquisition models and the possibility of price manipulation, and regulate conditions under which foreigners could buy land. "This will be done in line with international norms and practices," President Mbeki said.
But it was the reported comments of the government's Chief Land Claims Commissioner, Tozi Gwanya, which stirred controversy. Mr Gwanya said that from next month he would begin to confiscate land in cases where negotiations with the owners had dragged on for three years or more.
Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza has set 2008 as the target date for settling 7,000 outstanding land claims. This prompted fears of a "Zimbabwe style" fast-track land reform programme, which Professor Ben Cousins of the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) said were completely unfounded.
"The Land Affairs people and government spokespeople have shot themselves in the foot by not being very clear. What [government] was saying was that in cases where the negotiations have dragged on for years, they are going to put a time limit on it and use the threat of expropriation," Mr Cousins maintained.
At the 2005 land summit it was announced that government would review the "willing-seller willing-buyer" policy as interpreted in the South African context. "They also made it clear they were not talking about large-scale expropriation, and certainly not expropriation without compensation. They are talking about amending some aspects of policy, and not the wholesale abandonment of policy - not a Zimbabwe-style land grab," Mr Cousins added.
During a seminar organised last year by the Southern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN) and PLAAS, Mr Cousins noted that: "Under the present willing-seller willing-buyer programme, landowners have a virtual veto over whether to sell or not. As a result we have the worst aspects of the market, (unequal power to influence markets), and the worst aspects of a bureaucratic system (inappropriate, lengthy processes that slow everything down)."
Mastoera Sadan, Director Social Sector in the Presidency, commented at the seminar that regarding expropriation, "it seems more likely that it is meant as a signal to people from government" of its frustration with the slow pace of progress.
South Africa's principal opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), today strongly protested the statements made by Land Claims Commissioner Gwanya, saying they were "in direct contradiction with comments made by President Mbeki during his State of the Nation address."
"The government needs to be conscious of the fact that any abandonment of the 'willing buyer, willing seller' principle leading to unfair and inadequate compensation could have disastrous consequences for the land market in South Africa," DA spokesperson Maans Nel said. "Abandonment of this principle could lead to a drop in value of not only agricultural land but also eventually the value of all land. This in turn will have a devastating effect on the economy," he added.
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