Re-opening restitution: Election promises doomed to backfire

Parliament is currently holding provincial public hearings on the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill. The Bill, which re-opens the window to allow people to put in restitution claims until 2018, was tabled in October.

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The Western Cape hearing in George was emblematic of the government’s broken promises to deliver land to restitution beneficiaries. People came to the hearing with expectations of receiving cash compensation for restitution claims they had lodged, according to James Richard-Jacob. He attended the hearing with his community-based group, Amaliestein Zoar. After it became clear that the hearing was not about compensation, people became angry. Richard-Jacob describes the hearing as a “circus”. His community feels they have been “left hanging” as they are still waiting for the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform to resolve their claim.

Parliament issued a press release after the George hearing on November 8th, saying that attendees “lauded the initiative to extend the cut-off date of lodging land claims from 1998 to 2018”. There was no mention of expectations that could not be met.  This positive public claim in the face of chaos on the ground begs the question: what is actually at play with the re-opening of land restitution?

The government seems set on passing the Restitution Bill before next year’s elections. The assumption is clearly that the promise of vast swathes of additional restitution land will revive confidence in the failed land reform programme and draw votes. Attendees at the hearings in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal felt that some of those on the platform used the occasion as an electioneering opportunity. In Kirkwood in the Eastern Cape, an ANC MP stated that “only one party can bring you land”.  In KwaZulu-Natal, the mayor of Ulundi, who is from the IFP, told attendees that “[DA leader Helen] Zille would appropriate” their land if they voted DA.

The aim of restitution, as enshrined in the Constitution, is to restore land to people dispossessed as a result of racial discrimination. However, rather than moving us towards this goal, the Restitution Amendment Bill makes a series of promises it cannot keep.

One of the most glaring promises relates to money. Since 1995, the restitution programme has cost the state a total of R22.5 billion. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform has estimated that it will cost between R129—R179 billion to settle the new claims they anticipate will be lodged when the restitution window is re-opened.

Yet the Department’s budget was recently cut and the Minister of Finance has indicated that there is no plan in place to accommodate this jump in the budget for re-opening restitution. To proceed with re-opening restitution without an undertaking from Treasury that this massive budget is viable risks raising unrealistic expectations that cannot be met, and in the process derailing the finalisation of existing outstanding claims.

During November, public hearings on the Restitution Bill are taking place in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. But the hearings have thus far been so chaotic that they severely undermine the department’s promise to remedy the lack of consultation that took place during the previous restitution window (1994-1998).

The hearings on the Restitution Bill have generally been inaccessible to rural people – in both location and content. In the Eastern Cape, the hearings took place in Kirkwood and Mount Ayliff. As a result it was difficult for people based in the former Ciskei and Transkei, whose land rights are dangerously insecure, to attend. Those who arrived (mostly from the area surrounding the hearing venues) came without an understanding of what the hearing was about. Government representatives did not explain the bill in detail at the hearings. As a result, the hearings were too marred by confusion to offer a meaningful opportunity for rural people to meet and comment on the Bill.

In Limpopo, hearings are only being held in the south of the province – in Waterberg and Sekhukhune – which means that some people have to travel about four hours to reach the venues. They receive no government assistance to get there. In KwaZulu-Natal, people who attended the hearings reported that the chosen venues were again very poorly situated – especially for people living in remote villages.

At the hearings in Ulundi and Emnambithi in KwaZulu-Natal, some attendees felt intimated by presentations made by traditional leaders. While many people who wanted to speak were cut short (in Emnambithi the hearing lasted only two hours, as parliamentarians had to rush off to catch a flight), traditional leaders were given full opportunity to speak.

According to Msizeni Magwaza from Babanango, Prince Mbonisi Zulu stood up on behalf of King Goodwill Zwelithini and warned people they had “no right to lodge claims” on land where traditional leaders had also staked a claim. Mandla Mandela, a traditional leader and a member of the parliamentary committee conducting the hearings, reiterated Zulu’s statement. Magwaza says the rest of the government delegation did not do enough to allay his fears that his community’s claims would be rejected on the basis that they overlapped with traditional leaders’ claims.

His fears are well founded in the light of recent developments. The Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform is on record as saying that independent private landholders organised in elected Communal Property Associations should no longer be allowed to own land acquired through restitution or redistribution within “communal areas”. In various provinces, including the Eastern Cape, there have been delays in transferring land to CPAs – ostensibly because traditional leaders have complained that CPAs undermine their authority over land. If CPAs can no longer own restitution land, the door is open for traditional leaders to claim ownership of restitution land on behalf of “tribes” that were delineated in terms of the Bantu Authorities Actof 1951.

In a year that marks the centenary of the 1913 Land Act, government is undermining beneficiaries of the land restitution process by re-opening a process that will delay or conflict with the settlement of existing claims. Re-opening the restitution process without addressing its current failures, and without securing the budget to finance extravagant election promises, is bound to backfire on the rural poor – and perhaps on the government too.

Millions of South Africans were dispossessed of land and rendered insecure in the land of their birth under apartheid. One hundred years after the Land Act, they deserve better than calculating election promises that cannot be met.

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