Magazine article New African

Time Bomb Still Ticking

Magazine article New African

Time Bomb Still Ticking

Article excerpt

As reported in our last issue, South Africa's land reform programme is failing, and the consequences could be catastrophic. In this rejoinder, Roger Roman, a white South African, warns his country: "It is vital to the future of this country and, indeed, of Southern Africa in general that South Africans find each other and a radically new land reform programme fast. The time bomb is still ticking. To paraphrase Hemingway: 'Ask not for whom it ticks. It ticks for us all'." But will the government and the white landowners listen?

It is interesting to read the headlines of two New African articles about land reform in South Africa together. The first, in November 2002, was: Land Issue: South Africa's Ticking Time Bomb, and the second in December 2008: South Africa: Land Reform Bites the Dust. Together they just about sum it up: Land reform in South Africa is critical, it is failing, and the threat of civil unrest as a result is growing.


After 15 years of land reform in a post-apartheid "Rainbow Nation", the reality is that the time bomb is still ticking away, not defused, and is primed to explode. The failures are many and varied. At the strategic level, the transfer of only about 5% of white-owned land since the first democratic elections of 1994 means that about 80% of the land is still owned by whites. At this rate, the already modest redistribution target of 30% has absolutely a zero chance of being achieved by the target date of 2014.

The restitution leg of the programme, which responds to claims lodged before December 1998, still has some 5,000 cases outstanding. This represents some of the largest, the most complicated, and the most costly of all the claims lodged. Again, the chances of meeting the projected deadlines are most costly of all the claims lodged. Again, the chances of meeting the projected deadlines are zero.

Perhaps the greatest failure of all is found in the thousands of claims never registered because the potential claimants were not aware of their rights and the deadline for registration of their claims. No wonder the hundreds of thousands denied their right to claim land merely by some administrative edict are angry and growing more so.

The third leg of the programme is aimed at securing the rights and tenure of people living on land owned by other people. The abject failure here is demonstrated by the fact that over a million people have been illegally evicted by landowners in rural South Africa since 1994. The landowners have treated the law with complete contempt, and do get away with it constantly. Far more people have been evicted since 1994 than have benefited from land reform in the same period.

All the three legs of the land reform programme are failing at the strategic level, but the greatest failure is visible at the project level. The majority of the hundreds of projects established since 1994 have failed calamitously. The government acknowledges that at least half of all projects are failing, but independent and objective observers put the figure close to 90% or higher.

In other words, not only is the country failing to achieve the quantity of projects needed, it has not even got the right formula in the first place. Therefore, we cannot achieve success by doing more of the same. We are still grappling to find the models for socially, environmentally and economically sustainable land reform. South Africa is once again proving that the neo-liberal, market-oriented, land reform programmes negotiated at the time of independence are bound to fail.

The consequences of these failures are severe. Perhaps the most severe of all is the impact of land reform on food security. At a time of global food crisis, South Africa has become a net importer of food after decades of being a net exporter of food. And land reform is one of the most significant contributors to this situation.

In almost every sub-sector of agriculture, failing land reform projects have contributed to lower food production from these lands. …

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