PLAAS seeks to influence land reform policy through media debate

2 March 2015
SERIES Think tanks and elections 17 items

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Rebecca Pointer, Information and Communication Officer at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS). PLAAS have developed efforts to influence land policy’s discussion in the context of 2014 South African elections. 

During colonial times and apartheid, seizing the land of indigenous populations and giving the land to white settlers was a key to entrenching and enforcing racial segregation in South Africa. Since the end of apartheid and the first free elections in 1994, the government has promised to return land from the mainly white land holders to indigenous populations.

However, land reform in South Africa has had negligible impact on the economy, with only about 6.1 million hectares of land having been transferred through land reform programmes since 1994. Still, many of South Africa’s citizens are still hopeful that meaningful land reform will take place. While the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), has so far promised to transfer 24.6million hectares (or 30% of South African land) to black ownership, progress is painfully slow. The ANC promises are also not matched by an adequate budget to move things along more quickly.

Nevertheless, many South African citizens feel that real change to South Africa’s racially divided economy cannot happen without meaningful land reform. Much political rhetoric is generated around the land issue, which is highly emotional. Indeed, many citizens argue that if land is not delivered, they will not vote. Citizens expect government to act on making land reform happen, and so ANC party congresses perennially promise to give priority to land reform, the President often mentions land reform as a priority in budget speeches, statements about land reform appear in the party’s election manifesto, and the party gives priority to pushing through land legislation that seems to offer South African citizens a real chance at accessing land.

At the same time, new parties entering the political terrain, cannot do so without having a clear agenda on land reform. And so, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), argue that citizens should not wait any longer for the ANC to make land reform a reality; instead, they argue, citizens should seize the land they need in order to make a livelihood. The EFF has underscored that if it were to rule, all land would be transferred to the state, without compensation, although contradictory, its election manifesto argues for redistribution of land among all the people. During the run up to elections, it incited people to occupy vacant land without paying compensation, and thousands responded, showing a growing willingness to act on the policy and practice vacuum in government.

PLAAS’ efforts to influence land policy’s discussion in the context of 2014 South African elections

In this emotive, charged terrain, it is a challenge for research to have policy impact, because the appearance of doing something about land reform — the language of making overtures to popular sentiments about land — are more important than the details of policy implementation. This challenge is especially difficult in election years, when rhetoric and promises are high, with the ruling party trying to show that it is effectively delivering on citizens’ demands, while other parties strive to show that the ruling party has failed and they would deliver better.

The lead up to the 2014 elections in South Africa were no different in this regard; in an effort to convince voters that land reform is a priority for the ANC, the government  — against objections from academics, communities and Community Based Organisations (CBOs)— signed in the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Act of 2014, telling those who had not previously applied for restitution by the cut-off date, would have a second chance. The importance of land as a political marker was also emphasised by a raft of other government policies introduced just before elections, including, Final Policy Proposals on Strengthening the Relative Rights of People Working the Land, the Extension of Security of Tenure Amendment Bill, a new Communal Land Tenure Policy,  a draft policy on Communal Property Associations and the Rural Economy Transformation Model, an Agricultural Landholding Policy Framework, and the State Land Lease and Disposal Policy.

This sudden splurge on policies right before the elections came after years of a land policy vacuum, where the government made no progress in moving land reform forward, nor in coming up with policies that citizens strongly supported. Because of the suddenness with which these new policies were released in quick succession, PLAAS had to scramble quickly to study the policies and develop responses to them. For example, the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Act draft allowed only a month for comments and responses to be submitted to government, which was not enough time to bring different organisations together to develop a joint position. Nevertheless, PLAAS researchers produced a response and circulated it widely through social media. At the same time, working with another academic centre, the Centre for Law and Society, we called together various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and CBOs to hold a workshop to inform people about the implications of the new policies. The workshop underscored how new land policies are further entrenching poverty and inequality, as was discussed in PLAAS blog and press release.

PLAAS researchers found that the policies were not well thought out; some even contained logical flaws. So, in response, PLAAS researchers — through blogs, press releases, speaking engagements, and press interviews — sought to underscore that these policies were merely vote-seeking, and would not have the effect that the policy titles suggested.  The media was quite receptive to the messages around the flawed policies, and reiterated the researchers’ messages.

For example, after a book launch in October 2013 of a book about South African land policy, the Daily Maverick picked up on Prof Ben Cousins’ statement that: ‘There’s little doubt the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill is a vote catching exercise’.The Mail&Guardian gave space to an OpEd from two PLAAS researchers, who opined that the ANC’s election manifesto was ‘good election rhetoric but the main problems dogging farm redistribution are not being addressed’. The thrust of this article, and another one, featured by the Financial Mail, is that despite pro-poor sounding words, the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment might in fact lead to further elite capture in the land sector. The government responded in a Right of Reply OpEd, from the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s Head of Policy Development, calling PLAAS’s article a “smear” that is “far off track”.

In a PLAAS blog, one researcher sought to highlight the distinction between the policy statements on the one hand, and the budget allocation for land reform on the other  — a frame picked up in the Farmer’s Weekly magazine and the Mercury newspaper. Similarly, using a blog and press release to argue that the government was using smoke and mirrors in its farm worker policy, PLAAS researchers highlighted that the Final Policy Proposals on Strengthening the Relative Rights of People Working the Land seem to suggest radical change, but would likely have limited effect on farmworkers’ lives and livelihoods. Again the media was receptive to the PLAAS frames, with the Business Day taking up the blog title as it’s newspaper headline, as does the Agriculture News, while the Mercury highlights many of the problems raised by PLAAS researchers.

While the ruling party seems hell-bent on pursuing its new policies, despite gaping holes in those policies, PLAAS never the less succeeded in generating debate around these policies. Newspaper editors proved highly receptive to PLAAS’s critiques of the new policies, but given the politicised nature of the land debates, it is politics — not evidence that shifts land policy in South Africa.

Post-elections, the ANC government has pushed ahead with pushing through weak policies, despite warnings. PLAAS continues to engage in debate about these policies, and our critiques continue to have traction in media spaces. Given a broad spectrum of outputs around the different policies, South Africans are becoming more informed about the problems with the policies, but whether this will lead to significant political change remains to be seen.