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It has become widely accepted across different sectors of society that South Africa’s land reform has fallen short of expectations.  There is growing public impatience with the slow pace of land reform—government has fallen woefully short of the targets it has set itself for land transfer. In response, activists and politicians have made proposals to amend the constitution and allow for expropriation without compensation. A key issue, however, is that these proposals focus only on the mode of land acquisition—the question of how to gain more land for redistribution. But this is only part of the problem.  The real question is what is land reform for, who should benefit from it, and how land reform is expected to help with transformation, justice and job creation.

Our research project on ‘Elite Capture in Land Redistribution in South Africa’ was conceived as a two-year project which commenced in January 2018. Findings from this investigation are a product of intensive fieldwork over a period of seven months, including follow-up research for three months. The project looked at 62 land reform projects, in five district municipalities, across five provinces, namely the Eastern Cape, Free State, Kwa-Zulu Natal, North West and the Western Cape.

The purpose of our research on elite capture is to foreground fundamental questions not only about the pace, but also around the purpose and direction of land reform in South Africa. Previous high-level reports have already identified the need to re-introduce some of the key issues in relation to the role of land reform in transforming South African society.   The publication of the PLAAS ‘Elite Capture in Land Redistribution Research Report’ follows the release of the Report of the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture in July 2019.  The PAP Report, among other things, identifies, key legislative gaps in land redistribution, and specifically notes that the existing law governing land redistribution fails to adequately put measures in place to ensure ‘equitable access to land’. Broadening access to land is not simply a matter of fairness and equity but also relates to expanding livelihood opportunities for the rural poor. This was echoed by the High Level Panel (HLP) of Parliament Report on the Assessment of Key Legislation and Accelaration of Fundamental Change which argued that to date, the constitutional right to equitable access to land has not been defined or operationalised in any meaningful manner.

The primary law governing land reform in South Africa, the Land Reform: Provision of Land and Assistance Act 126 of 1993 (or Act 126) is not sufficiently prescriptive. The law allows the Minister too much discretionary power in terms of allocation and spending of grants for land redistribution. The legislative weaknesses provide a fertile ground for elite capture as resources are easily concentrated in the hand of a few select farmers.

Access to public resources is usually implicated in various social divisions which include wealth and economic status, gender, generation and political affiliation.  Elite capture happens when public resources meant to uplift the poor are appropriated by a few, often politically-connected and economically powerful groups in society, at the expense of the intended beneficiaries, usually non-elites.

Land redistribution policies have changed markedly in terms of beneficiary targeting and selection. In the early years of democracy, the Settlement and Land Acquisition Grant (SALG) was largely pro-poor as beneficiaries were means-tested such that only the neediest and poor households qualified for land purchase grants. In 2000, the Mbeki administration introduced significant policy changes through the Land Acquisition for Agricultural Development (LRAD) Grant. The means-test was abandoned as key criteria for beneficiary selection.

In 2006, the government introduced the leasehold system through the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS). The state no longer transfers ownership rights to land reform beneficiaries. PLAS is implemented on the basis of the State Land Lease and Disposal Policy (SLLDP) which identifies different priority groups that can lease agricultural land.  Although the SLLDP disaggregates different target beneficiaries, processes of beneficiary targeting and selection continue to favour commercially-orientated farmers, ahead of the rural poor.

In short, the underrepresentation of the poor in land redistribution partly emanates from the policy biases which favour the replication of the large-scale commercial farming model. Emerging research, mainly local-level studies, have also revealed the rise of elite capture in land redistribution. The phenomenon of elite capture has also received wide media coverage.

Our research on elite capture sought to develop a systematic understanding of elite capture beyond the localised studies and media headlines. The research report – downloadable now from the UWC Research repository –  provides rich empirical evidence on the growing phenomenon of elite capture in land redistribution. It reveals that economic and class inequalities in land redistribution are on the rise. Urban-based businesspeople diversifying into farming with their own capital have accessed land ahead of the rural poor.

Evidence from this research shows that the rural poor who include farm workers, smallholder farmers, communal area farmers, women and the youth access have been allocated land through the redistribution programme. Out of the 62 farms, only 19 % of the farms were allocated to women while 81% of the farms were allocated to men, mostly well-off, urban-based business people and politically-connected individuals.  Very few farms were leased to farmworkers and the rural poor. Only 18% of the farms were leased to farmworkers while 82% of the farms were leased to economically powerful and politically-connected individuals.

Policy biases in favour of well-off beneficiaries mean that land reform policy design inherently excludes the rural poor. In addition, it creates a huge loophole for malfeasance and corruption.  Politically connected and economically powerful people have been able to leverage their social networks to access land and resources ahead of the poor. The distribution of public resources is thus skewed in favour of powerful individuals and groups. There is a need for more progressive policies in land redistribution and land reform in general that foreground social justice and social transformation. In addition to creating a prosperous group of black commercial farmers, land reform must prioritise household food security, enhancing livelihoods and the improvement of the general welfare of the poor.