The land-reform conundrum

2013 came and went and along with it the centenary of the Native Land Act in 1913. This dispossession would leave deep scars on South Africa's political landscape and it was Sol Plaatje, who was then secretary-general of the South African Native National Congress (later the African National Congress, the ANC) who travelled to London to protest unsuccessfully against the passage of this Act.

Despite attempts by the ANC-led government to deal with land reform effectively over the past 20 years, to say it has been a fraught issue is probably an under-statement. Firstly, the issue is clearly an emotive one. The botched 'land reform' which has happened to the north of our border has created an environment in which it becomes nearly impossible to even speak about land reform without invoking the scare mongering which comes with it. For it completes fully the fear of 'the other' coming back to avenge the past and to 'take away' the land from 'white settlers'.

Yet, what we feared would happen post-1994 did not, except a rather slow and unsatisfactory land-reform process that has not yielded the sort of redistribution needed to create greater equality and deal with the legacy of dispossession.

Recently though the ANC rhetoric around the land issue has increased and it has sometimes sought to blame the Constitution for the state's inability to ensure that the land-reform process is free of corruption and administrative bungling.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that hectares of redistributed land lies unused and derelict in parts of Limpopo province as workers have been unable to work the land, lacking resources and capacity from the state to support them in their new schemes of ownership.

So despite the re-opening of land claims for another five years questions will be raised about the true benefits of this to workers.

As South Africa battles with inequality and the crass displays of wealth there surely needs to be some sense of urgency about real redistribution and greater equality between workers and employers.

It is a larger debate that will so sorely need the social dialogue that Cyril Ramaphosa has been charged with in Nedlac.

That dialogue will require an honesty that South Africans have probably avoided for the past 20 years: the time for 'business as usual' must be over surely?

When platinum workers are prepared to strike for five months to bring home that point the time bomb must have started ticking.

So, last week when Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Gugile Nkwinti, set out his land-reform proposals they were met with an uproar from all the usual quarters.

The proposals are far-reaching and, in many instances, completely unworkable. Nkwinti proposes, inter alia, that the aim of the draft proposal is to 'de-racialise the rural economy'; democratise the allocation and use of land; and ensure food security.

To this end, Nkwinti proposes that commercial farmers retain 50% of the farm; labourers on the land assume ownership of the remaining 50%, proportional to their contribution to the development of the land based on the number of years they had worked on the land; and government pays for the 50% to be shared by the labourers.

One wonders whether Nkwinti has discussed this with his colleagues at National Treasury?

The money will not go to the farmer. It will go to an investment and development fund (IDF) to be jointly owned by the parties constituting the new ownership regime. The IDF will be used for re-investment in the farm, skills improvement and to pay out those who want to opt out of the arrangement.

All well and good, yet this proposal is curiously not in line with government's National Development Plan (NDP), which in and of itself raises a further new set of questions about the NDP and its primacy of place.

Furthermore, there is little evidence to show that workers themselves actually support these proposals. What they do wish for is security of tenure, decent wages and benefits that would provide the dignity so sorely lacking in many employer-employee relationships in South Africa.

The land-reform proposals will be considered only after April 2015 when comment has been received from all the relevant sectors.

The reverse psychology of the impractical proposals might be to serve as a warning to those farmers who continue to exploit their workers: reform or face a state-sanctioned plan that will most likely be unpopular and raise the populist spectre.

It is unclear quite how much support there is for the plan within the ANC itself, but somehow, sector by sector inequality needs to be tackled in practical and principled ways.

That will mean not just another 'shock and awe' tactic from government but rather a practical and principled solution which has at its heart the interests of workers.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).