Nothing in Nene’s budget for land restitution rush

There was nothing in Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s first three-year budget programme for South Africa’s ambitious land restitution programme reopened earlier this year.

Officials have estimated that the reopening of the land restitution claims window until June 2019 will cost the government between R129-billion and R179-billion over 15 years. But Nene made no new allocation to the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (DRDLR) in his maiden Medium-Term Budget on Wednesday and did not mention restitution in his address to Parliament.

Nene forecast overall average budget growth of 7.6% a year over the three-year planning cycle, but only 5.7% a year for DRDLR.

“In agriculture, better links between emerging farmers and produce markets need to accompany an improved alignment between land reform and agricultural support programmes,” was all he had to say about the government’s plan to reform the country’s heavily skewed ownership profile.

“These figures show that the government cannot put its money where its mouth is on restitution,” said Tara Weinberg, a researcher with the Rural Women’s Action Research programme at UCT.

“Many people have been waiting for 10 years for their restitution claims to be settled. They have been hoping that the government could speed up the settlement of claims. But they cannot eat hope forever. Without adequate funds, the government’s promises to restore not only land but also dignity to people rings hollow,” she said.

Gugile Nkwinti, the minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, denied in a meeting with Parliament’s portfolio committee last week that there was a looming crisis in land reform. He said no provision had been made for new claims because the amendment was only enacted in June.

He told MPs it had been necessary to borrow from current funds to establish the logistical network to receive the claims, but said they would be provided for in the next funding round.

Nene contradicted this, giving DRDLR no new funds, but permission, instead, to reallocate R1.1-billion of the funding allocated for the next three years to “manage and investigate” new claims.

The Finance Minister confirmed in his budget adjustment on Wednesday that R263.2-million had been taken from the 2014/2015 provision for current claims and used to supplement funding for national and regional offices. The budget documents showed that R77.3-million of this amount was allocated to additional salaries for staff taken on this year to manage the new claims.

Another R39.3-million of unspent funds intended to pay land claimants was reallocated to help provinces and municipalities to settle their property rates.

Government officials estimated during hearings on the restitution amendment earlier this year that it would cost about R12-billion to settle the 30 000 outstanding claims from the first period. They said up to 370 000 new claims were likely under the new programme.

Several civic organisations have asked the government to ring fence claims made during the first round, which ended in 1998, so that they are not crowded out by the expected rush of new claims.

Nkwinti said last week, however, that he could not do more than prioritise old claims because some of them were complex and would only be resolved after extensive research and possibly court disputes. It would not be fair to hold up new claims until all the old ones had been settled, he said.

“When the government reopened the restitution claims, it raised the expectations of thousands of people who were dispossessed of their land. But the reality is that the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform simply does not have the money to settle or finalise the existing claims – of which there are over 30 000 – let alone the 300 000 claims estimated to be lodged over the next few years,” Weinberg said.

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