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By Farai Mtero

South Africa’s land reform has shifted markedly from its pro-poor focus which was its key defining feature in the early years of democracy.

The new Draft National Policy on Beneficiary Selection and Land Allocation presents an opportunity to rethink the direction of land reform in South Africa and reclaim the pro-poor land reform agenda.

Recent research by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) reveals that elite capture in land reform has become prevalent and most land reform beneficiaries are well-off men.

More than half of the 62 farms investigated in PLAAS research were allocated to well-off, urban-based business people, diversifying into farming and politically connected individuals.

In addition to accessing land, these people also benefitted substantially from production support through recapitalisation programmes.

Very few women benefit from land reform in South Africa. Available national data shows that only 23% of post-apartheid land redistribution beneficiaries are women.

Thus, well-off beneficiaries and elites have become the main beneficiaries of land reform as the poor are increasingly neglected and underrepresented.

The poor outcomes in land reform are partly a result of policy biases that inherently prioritise economic success while simultaneously neglecting the social justice aspects of land reform.

The existing land reform policies favour the replication of the large-scale commercial farming model.

Only those farmers who can access resources to engage in large-scale commercial agriculture are favoured as ideal beneficiaries of land reform.

There is also unwillingness to subdivide agricultural land and accommodate small-scale land use activities by the poor.

While these policy biases have greatly tilted the scales in favour of the well-off beneficiaries, corruption and elite capture also contribute to the concentration of public resources in the hands of the privileged few.

The Draft National Policy on Beneficiary Selection and Land Allocation is a welcome attempt to address skewed outcomes in land reform.

Some major recommendations in relation to the overall thrust of land reform, initially by the High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and Acceleration of Fundamental Change, and subsequently by the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture have preceded this policy.

A key finding by the two panels is the absence of an appropriate law governing land reform in South Africa.

The primary law governing land reform, the Land Reform: Provision of Land and Assistance Act, 126 of 1993 is, in spite of amendments, woefully inadequate.

First, Act 126 gives the Executive (Minister) too much discretionary powers especially in relation to the determination of the size of grants.

The abandoning of a means-test as the primary criterion for beneficiary selection at the end of the Settlement and Land Acquisition Grant (SLAG) in 1999 and the implementation of the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) in 2000 saw the poor competing for grants with the well-off beneficiaries.

While LRAD provided grants on a sliding scale depending on own-contribution including sweat equity, its adoption represented a profound shift in land reform policy as the pro-poor agenda became peripheral while commercial success was elevated as an overriding goal.

The adoption of the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS) in 2006 only intensified the thrust towards commercialisation. In spite of different categories of farmers being identified as beneficiaries, PLAS has exclusively promoted a select group of black commercial farmers instead of ensuring that a wide-range of social groups benefit.

In short, there is no system to ensure that public resources in land reform are distributed in a more equitable manner across the different priority groups.

This has greatly undermined the right to equitable access to land provided for in Section 25(5) of the Bill of Rights.

The Beneficiary Selection and Land Allocation Policy will only be successful if it is supported by relevant legislative reforms to ensure a pro-poor land reform and address the challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment in South Africa.