The Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill (Restitution Bill) currently awaits the President’s signature before it can become law. This is after a committee in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) voted for it to be passed in its final mandate meeting on March 25. Limpopo is one of five provinces that voted in favour of the bill at this meeting. While this province’s mandate acknowledged the written submissions and suggested amendments by stakeholders such as the Legal Resource Centre and the Platinum City Development Corporation, it did not make its vote conditional on any amendments. In other words it voted for the bill without amendments. If any amendments had been proposed the amended Bill would have had to go back to the National Assembly for final approval, which had already had its last sitting on 13 March.The NCOP final mandate meeting followed public hearings that took place in most provinces in the space of a week. The Limpopo Legislature held its hearing on March 14 at Bolivia Lodge in Polokwane, and a report of these hearings was attached to the final mandate presented in the NCOP. This report does not mention how many people attended the hearing, an important omission in light of the short period during which notice of the hearing was issued. The mandate mentions a pre-hearing meeting the legislature held with the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) at which “it was agreed that the public hearing must not be turned into complains [sic] session about the old claims and challenges facing the department or the commission regarding previous land claims.”
This statement points to an attempt by DRDLR to artificially disconnect the Restitution Bill from the challenges currently experienced by many restitution claimants, when the proposed amendments will have a direct effect on their claims should this bill become law. Instead of engaging with the concerns raised about the effects that reopening will have on existing claims and budget allocations, it seems the DRDLR and the Limpopo legislature were set on silencing dissent to prevent it from ‘derailing’ the hearings.
In spite of these attempts, several community members voiced their concerns and there was a general consensus that DRDLR must prioritise old claims over new claims if the bill is to become law. This is consistent with the submissions made in the National Assembly hearings on the same bill in November 2013 and January 2014. Reports of this first round of hearings show that while people welcomed the spirit behind the main amendment-reopening the lodgment process- they also opposed it given the current backlog of claims.
The report attached to its mandate shows that the Limpopo Legislature and the DRDLR jointly planned to keep “complaints” out of the hearing by setting up a table outside the hearing venue for “complains [sic] and queries regarding the old land claims.”
Some of the community members who attended the hearings were of the view that this was a strategy to appease existing claimants without any commitment to address the challenges they raised. Upon presenting their matter and submission to the Land Claims Commission officials at this ‘complaints’ table, representatives of the Tladi-ya-Kgahlane and Seloane Land Claim Committee were promised that their outstanding claims would be attended to very soon. They were told that the Commission would respond to claimants in writing. A couple of months later, despite successive telephonic conversations with various officials and written submissions, there has been no written feedback and resolution. Instead, the casual response given telephonically to representatives from Tladi-ya-Kgahlane was that there is no allocation for their claim in the restitution budget for the 2014/2015 financial year.
Similarly, there were efforts by DRDLR officials in the first round of hearings held by the National Assembly to placate claimants by making promises to expedite their claims and travelling with them to see the land they had claimed. But there has been no follow through since then. There were reports of this happening in both Mpumalanga and Northern Cape.
The dangers of reopening the restitution process are immediate for people living in rural areas, in particular those with outstanding claims. The delays in restoring land (that will be exacerbated by the reopening) continue to have adverse implications for citizens in rural areas and their security of tenure. Despite countless demands by community members that the bill obligate the state to prioritise existing claims, the current version awaiting the president’s signature simply leaves this to the discretion of the Land Claims Commission in section 6(2)(d) of the Bill.
Attempts to bring these costly implications to the attention of the state are dubbed “complaints” and excluded from a participatory process in the fear that they will derail the legislative process whose purpose is citizen engagement and not exclusion.