Struggle for land reform goes beyond Bantustan and national boundaries

The department of rural development and land reform (RDLR) refuses to transfer land title to communal property associations (CPAs), condemning many residents in the former Bantustans to continued insecurity and marginalisation. The Masakhane CPAs in the Eastern Cape are a case in point.

For 31 years, the Masakhane residents have attempted to secure tenure to the farms their families have occupied since the 1850s. In 2000, they thought they had finally succeeded. That year, Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs Thoko Didiza signed a power of attorney approving the transfer of nine farm portions to the Masakhane villagers. They subsequently utilised the CPA Act of 1996 to form two CPAs for the purpose of holding title to the land.

Exuberant in the wake of these hard-fought victories, the residents organised a jamboree and invited the Eastern Cape official charged with effecting the transfer. Hundreds of villagers donned their best clothes and converged on an old empty storefront for the party. But the official never pitched and the land was never transferred. These skilled cattle farmers have since languished without the development funding promised them or any formal explanation as to why everything fell apart.

The CPA leaders are especially frustrated that confusion over the status of the land has led the state to continually conflate their villages with the larger Imingcangathelo chieftaincy. The latter falls under the authority of Chief Tyali. In interviews, Masakhane residents expressed respect for the ceremonial significance of chiefs but insisted the land belongs to them, rather than any chieftaincy. What is more, even the Imingcangathelo chieftaincy supports the Masakhane residents’ land claim, Chief Tyali’s spokesperson told me.

The objections of the Masakhane residents are particularly understandable given the fact that their farms have long been considered commercial land. The farms were white-owned from the early 1850s until 1982, at which time the South African Development Trust purchased them for incorporation into the Ciskei homeland.

Upon the departure of the white farmers, the Ciskei government elected to keep the farms in commercial production. With the farm parcels left wholly intact, many were leased to black stockowners, the majority of whom never permanently settled in the area. This process kept the farm parcels from becoming overcrowded with people or livestock.

In order to preserve their toehold on land they believe to be rightfully theirs, the Masakhane farmers provided service for first the white owners and then the black lessees. They have been the only consistent occupants of the land over this 161-year period. It was their uninterrupted occupation and farming activities that led the state to recognise the Masakhane villagers as beneficial occupants with underlying ownership rights in 2000.

This history shows that the Masakhane farmers have never known life under direct chiefly authority. After all, the CPA leadership insists they access resources and services only through the municipality and province.

This fact continually falls on deaf ears at RDLR, however. The department’s reluctance to honour the 2000 agreement appears to be based on the fact that the land falls within the former Ciskei “homeland” and must therefore be the fiefdom of one or other traditional leader. Considering the quality of the land, which they have maintained with nominal assistance, the Masakhane residents fear displacement and environmental degradation through continued encroachment by neighbours.

Questions abound as to whether the ongoing failure to transfer title deeds to CPAs like Masakhane reflects worrying ideological motives within the national government rather than provincial inefficiencies. Signs are increasingly pointing to the former.

In a 2011 interview, the Eastern Cape RDLR official in charge of the case expressed frustration with his powerlessness to effect the transfer. Citing an ideological shift in the national department, he stated that a moratorium had been imposed on the disposal of state assets to rural communities in the former homelands.

At the Land Divided conference held at the University of Cape Town in 2013, RDLR minister Gugile Nkwinti commented on the rationale behind this moratorium, contending that CPAs are “communal area[s] within communal area[s]”, or legally redundant entities given that they are subsumed under tribal jurisdictions. The comments point to a dangerous and highly contentious compromise between RDLR and traditional authorities.

This compromise is further evidenced in a June 2012 affidavit from a chief director in RDLR concerning the department’s refusal to transfer land to another Eastern Cape CPA known as Cata. The director declared that discussions within the department concerning the implementation of the Communal Land Rights Act of 2004 (CLaRA) are ongoing, and no state land will be transferred to CPAs until they are resolved. Considering the fact that CLaRA—which legally bequeathed control and ownership over communal land to chiefs—was struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2010, the affidavit has resurrected fears over the chiefly hijacking of land reform.

The situation has consequences well beyond the former Bantustans, or even southern Africa, for that matter. Over the past six years, the Masakhane CPA leaders have been embroiled in a transnational struggle over Pelargonium sidoides, a medicinal plant endemic to southern Africa. The plant generates hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales across the global North as a popular pharmaceutical product.

The former Ciskei serves as one of the major extraction points for the resource. Confusion over the status of land and authority there has led the department of environmental affairs (DEA) to organise access and benefit-sharing agreements associated with Pelargonium through chieftaincies like Imingcangathelo.

The Masakhane residents count among a chorus of voices complaining that such chieftaincies are enriching themselves through the pharmaceutical royalties, rather than directing the royalties toward community upliftment. Meanwhile, the local plant harvesters, whom the state seems to regard as the “natural subjects” of tribal authorities, are paid a pittance for their labour.

DEA officials seem to understand that the Masakhane farms do not technically fall under the authority of a chief. This fact contributed to their decision to delay the issuance of a bio-prospecting permit to a major European pharmaceutical company – a company wishing to maintain formal access to Pelargonium through chiefly structures.

Two South African companies have been issued such permits, however. And partnerships with chiefs entitle at least one of these companies to purchase the resource from harvesters in select communal areas of the former Ciskei homeland.

Considering their CPA status and the 2000 ministerial approval of their ownership rights, the Masakhane residents may not epitomise the experiences of rural communities in the former Bantustans. The task, however, is to convince the DEA and RDLR that in terms of their desire to be recognised not as constrained subjects but full citizens, the Masakhane villagers are quite unexceptional.

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