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[OPINION] Land reform in SA, between a rock and a hard place

Protest has always been the most visible means that South Africans have used to object. Whether it was protesting heinous apartheid laws or injustice in a democratic South Africa.

In the past few years, we have seen a rise in protest action, specifically around student fees and then also other social justice issues such as housing, sanitation and crime, to name a few of the social ills which plague our country.

Yet since December last year and the ANC’s announcement regarding land expropriation without compensation, there has been a marked increase in so-called ‘land invasions’ and protests regarding land. When the announcement was made after the Nasrec conference, the ANC’s Enoch Godongwana, chair of its subcommittee on economic transformation, seemed like a reluctant messenger.

In his State of the Nation Address, President Ramaphosa reassured the country that the land debate should be seen as an ‘opportunity not a threat’ and that the debate would happen rationally. Importantly, he added that the rule of law would hold and that ‘land grabs’ and land invasions would not be tolerated. "We will not allow smash-and-grab interventions. That we will not allow," said Ramaphosa.

This past weekend the ANC held its land summit in Boksburg and there reaffirmed its commitment to proceed with expropriation without compensation as one of an array of options. While clearly many details still need to be ironed out and a parliamentary process needs to commence its work, the conversations seemed to be rational and attempts were made to include the views of academics, lawyers and other researchers. This is to be welcomed.

The problem, of course, is what happens in the interim - while the ANC cogitates, citizens are agitating. Land has now become a proxy for all manner of socio-economic delivery issues.

This past weekend, for instance, Cape Town saw its fair share of ‘land invasions’. The reality is that large parts of the M5 freeway have been closed to traffic causing massive congestion because of protests. The protests predictably turned violent when the police tried to remove those who had staked out plots of land and put up structures on council land in the Parkwood area, right along the M5. Before one could blink, tyres were burning, cars were being stoned and a municipal office was burnt down. Similar protests have happened along the N2 and in Vrygrond near Muizenberg.

Burning, after all, has become a leitmotif and a certain way for protesters to get the attention of those who are in power. Western Cape Human Settlements MEC Bongingkosi Madikizela vowed not to be intimidated and has told the public that the housing backlog is at 570,000 units. So, the reality for the protesting backyard dwellers is that quick-fix solutions are simply not possible. In the meantime, the impasse continues and other ordinary citizens are held hostage by the violence that goes along with protests and the gridlock it causes.

In the case of Parkwood, it becomes very difficult to know who the legitimate protesters are and who are the opportunists. Children have been used as part of the protest action. For the better part of the weekend, the police watched the chaos unfold and took no action as backyard dwellers staked out plots.

So, this is the untenable situation that is causing a conundrum across the country. Cape Town is not alone in having to deal with these issues. Ramaphosa’s call for the rational conversation will not reach those desperate for shelter in a chilly winter, unfortunately. Many have been waiting for 24 years for requisite progress after all. The police, on the other hand, appear afraid to tackle protesters for fear of inflaming the situation and fomenting further violence.

The challenge for the ANC is how to manage the high expectations which have now been created as a result of the Nasrec resolution on land as well as some of Julius Malema’s predictably more irresponsible comments such as, "If you see a beautiful piece of land, take it".

It’s a situation that has become difficult to deal with because understandably if one is poor and desperate, the cogitation of the ANC is a luxury. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that protesters may not necessarily be the ones on housing lists and in several cases they have jumped the queue on such lists because the authorities have had to find quick solutions in the face of the protests. Or they have illegally staked out land and been allowed to continue residing on it. That has created unfairness in many areas. So, proper processes and waiting periods are abandoned in such situations.

Many Parkwood residents say they have been on the housing waiting list for 16 years. 16 years. That is also an untenable situation yet putting up an informal structure on a highway will not solve their problem either. So, we are caught between a rock and a hard place as regards backlogs and community anger. This anger is the result of 24 years of inaction by the state.

The cruel reality is that even after the parliamentary process is completed and the ANC has made its final decision on the land issue, there will still be no quick fixes. As former President Kgalema Motlanthe pointed out at the ANC land summit, there are all manner of obstacles to proper land reform, not least of all dealing with the thorny issue of the Ingonyama Trust and the chiefs who own large tracts of land on which rural communities are dependent.

But the state’s capacity to manage land redistribution processes has also been called into question given that there have, in fact, been no legal obstacles to proper land reform since 1994. Most of the best-laid plans have fallen victim to corruption and maladministration. Will any of this change in the ‘new dawn’? In addition, the minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Maite Nkoane-Mashabane (she of the ‘hole in the head’ fame), is probably not the brightest star in Cabinet and has been left an almighty mess by her predecessor, Gugugile Nkwinti.

Ramaphosa has called the land issue both the ‘original sin’ and the ‘challenge of a generation’. He is right on both counts and the ANC has thus far been negligent in its handling of the land issue. It is now a major challenge, but so is housing and rapid urbanisation. Sometimes the call for land is a proxy for housing and employment opportunities and all the debates need to be untangled and translated into workable policy. The ANC can thus not afford to be a ‘one-trick pony’ on the issue of redress; it will need to create jobs, alleviate poverty and accelerate housing at the same time as pursuing the land agenda.

That will be a tough ask given what we know about the capacity of the state and the perennial ‘triple challenge’ of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

Somehow the communication government has with citizens needs to be about more than sloganeering and appealing to the ‘quick fix’. How does the ANC balance this with the need to win an election convincingly in 2019, is the real question?

Our cities and towns are locked in conflict on the back of easy promises. It’s no way to live - not for the poor and excluded, and not for anyone else either.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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