Government brushes aside submissions on Restitution Bill

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Although many people have questioned the government’s decision to re-open restitution claims – saying that the Restitution Amendment Bill will not effectively deal with land dispossession and land hunger – the government is hell-bent on passing the Bill anyway.

Over the course of the past three months, people have attended public hearings around the country on the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill. Speakers at the hearings repeatedly complained that the restitution process is backlogged and their claims have not been finalised.

Elderly people in provinces like Mpumalanga and Free State said that they were concerned about the lack of update on the status of their claim – and they expected to die before their claims were settled. They raised concerns that new claims that will flood in if restitution is re-opened might further delay the completion of existing claims. Many suggested that if the government is determined to pass the Bill, then claims launched during the first leg of the restitution period should be ‘ring fenced’ (protected from interference).

In its response to submissions made during the public hearings, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform brushed aside concerns around overlapping claims. Its report, tabled in parliament on February 3rd 2014, says that a new electronic system will solve any issues related to new claims that conflict with old claims. This does not explain how the government will deal with claims on the same land – especially where different people have a stake in that land, acquired over the course of our conflict-ridden land history in which groups of people were often forcibly removed and dumped on top of others.

The report also says that it will amend section 6(2)(d) of the Bill so as to give the Restitution Commission the discretion to “prioritise” prior claims but it will not ensure that these claims are protected from interference. The Department has therefore ducked the request from people at the hearings that it make sure all prior claims are settled before embarking on accepting new claims.

The Department also dismissed concerns raised by people at the hearings that they feared that traditional leaders would put in claims ‘on behalf’ of communities if restitution claims re-opened, and thus crowd out ordinary people who were dispossessed of their land. The Department said that any objections to traditional leaders showed a “colonial view”. Minister Nkwinti implied that the problem actually lies with Communal Property Associations and Trusts (both legally recognised collective land holding structures), saying they are “sophisticated institutions imposed on our people”. Such statements are insulting to hundreds of black people around the country who pointed out traditional leaders’ lack of accountability and said that the concentration of power over land in traditional leaders is at odds with living customary law.

The Department’s response says nothing about whether people at the public hearings wanted the Bill to pass or not. It assumes that since people spoke at the hearings of how much they have suffered as a result of land dispossession, they are in favour of the Bill.

The Department and several MPs yesterday made it clear that the government is determined to pass the Restitution Bill before elections. It seems it is willing to cast aside the results of a public consultation process to do so.

Watch this space for news on the Restitution Bill.

Download the Department’s report in PDF.

opinion-grey Tara Weinberg is a researcher in the Rural Women’s Action Research Programme, at the Centre for Law and Society, University of Cape Town.
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