South Africa’s land reform programme was supposed to ensure that the impoverished get to own and work the land. Now, only the politically connected and economically included are benefitting.

The majority of actual beneficiaries of land reform to date are from the urban middle class, according to the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas). The institute says this is “elite capture” of the land and has effectively redirected state resources, originally intended for the impoverished, to the better-off.

At a recent webinar to mark the 25th anniversary of Plaas, its founder, emeritus professor Ben Cousins, and its lead researcher on land reform, Farai Mtero, warned that land reform has become the preserve of the well-off, with 44% of beneficiaries being urban-based “business individuals, taxi or transport operators, former state bureaucrats and local politicians with access to material resources, knowledge and information”. An additional 11% became land recipients as a result of their political connections.

“Elite capture” of the land has redirected state resources, originally intended for the impoverished, to the better-off.

This leaves the majority of land recipients – about 45% – not benefitting in any real way from the land process. Many have even left their unsuccessful farms to seek employment elsewhere. Restrictions in the wake of Covid-19 has resulted in a significant decline in systematic research on the outcomes of land reform, Plaas argues, and during this time, elite capture in land redistribution has become firmly entrenched in South Africa.

Mtero and his team conducted intensive fieldwork at seven sites in five provinces: Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, North West and Western Cape. They found clear evidence pointing to skewed distribution of resources in the land redistribution programme. Plaas says the well-off now often qualify as beneficiaries due to “policy biases which prioritise commercial success as an overriding goal in land reform”.

Mtero points out that this comes at a time of significant budget cuts in land reform programmes, alongside “a perennially low land reform budget, which has persistently been below 1% of the national total budget”. He says existing land reform legislation, such as the Land Reform, Provision of Land and Assistance Act 126 of 1993, has proven to be “very inadequate when it comes to assuring adequate access to land in South Africa … there are wide discretionary powers that are afforded to the administrative authorities in determining the allocation of resources. In other words, there is no formula to apportion the distribution of resources.”

Mtero points out that the Constitution directs the state to broaden opportunities for people to derive benefits from land, and this should include the right “for people to produce their own food”. “The right to land and the right to food [are] integrally linked. They are inseparable. They are interconnected,” he says.

Elite capture of land

The Plaas research team gathered data on 62 land reform projects across the country and found that “land reform has shifted from being pro-poor to being pro-elite”. The question, then, is: who has benefitted from land redistribution in South Africa? Who are the winners and who are the losers?

Elaborating on the concept of elite capture of the land, Mtero says, “[It] simply refers to the concentration of public resources in the hands of a few individuals, and usually it’s the economically powerful and the politically influential individuals. Instead of broadening access to land and reconfiguring the unequal agrarian structure, a select group of black commercial farmers is promoted in land reform.”

In the study, Mtero and his colleagues found that a majority of land recipients have basically dropped out of production as a result of a number of constraints on their farms, mainly lack of production support, poor infrastructure and rundown farm houses. These people, Mtero says, fall under the “dropping out category”. This is largely on account of “powerful people intercept[ing] resources, so that they don’t reach the rightful beneficiaries”. In the absence of resources and support, many have abandoned the farms allocated to them and moved elsewhere to seek alternative livelihoods.

About 16% are still hanging on. “These are farmers who are just really maintaining a foothold on the farm,” says Mtero. This in spite of the fact that they still lack support and resources, such as machinery and production chemicals.

Fewer than a fifth of farmers who were allocated land are able to reinvest any surplus.

The strategy used by the elite is to move in on new projects that have nothing to do with land but divert resources. This results in the concentration of resources in the hands of a few powerful individuals.

“There is the imposition of politically connected beneficiaries; there’s the bailing out of politically connected elites who have accumulated debt in their farming enterprises; there’s the withholding of leases; there’s fronting; there’s also the exerting of political pressure on lower level officials so that they comply and flout departmental regulations,” says Mtero.

Agribusiness complicit

He says agribusiness is heavily involved in elite capture and describes how farms, even farm produce, are bought at a very low price and resold to the state at a very high price. Assets are transferred to partners or rented out to other farmers, including what he calls “strategic partners”.

Capital is brought in from outside agriculture. “Politicians, civil servants, affluent professionals, have increasingly become more involved in agriculture. Across the continent, the middle class is moving into agriculture, diversifying their sources of income,” Mtero says.

Instead of the agrarian structure being equitable, broad and inclusive, a few black commercial farmers now hold the concentration of public resources. What is lacking, he says, are the founding principles of land reform. The process must strive to apportion resources in an equitable manner, so that historically disadvantaged groups, the marginalised, women, the youth, farm workers and dwellers can also benefit from land reform in South Africa. “The accumulation that we see is not based on the inclusion of the smallholder farmers,” says Mtero.

Approximately 250 000 small-scale farmers out of the total of 2.5 million small-scale farmers actually produce surplus food. The rest produce only for household consumption.

Job creation potential of land

Cousins’ study, commissioned by the European Union’s Capacity Building Programme for Employment Promotion (CBPEP) for the government’s Technical Advice Committee, focuses on the potential for job creation on the land. It concludes that land set aside for reform would be more effectively utilised if it were further divided into smaller pockets enabling small-scale farming to play a significant role in tackling the challenges of unemployment and food security.

This research was based on a model in which 50% of available agricultural land was redistributed. Focusing on four local municipalities – in Eastern Cape, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape – it found that more than 23 000 jobs could be created in these municipalities.

As the Covid-19 pandemic rapidly corrodes employment, Cousins’ project findings may suggest ways to get South Africans working towards self-sufficiency.