Settlement of land claims slumps ahead of reopening of claims process

As the government prepares to give a second chance to people whose land was taken from them under colonial and apartheid rule, the office responsible for land restitution has reported to parliament that the settlement of claims had slowed to a trickle.

The Commission on Restitution of Land Rights said in its annual report to Parliament  for the year to March 31 that it had settled 270 claims at an average value of R7.62 million, down from 602 at an average cost of R4.27 million in the year before.

With an anticipated flood of 379,000 new claims after President Jacob Zuma signs the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill currently waiting on his desk, the recent slow-down looks worrying. To make matters worse, settlements in the past year included 208 relatively simple claims for financial compensation for urban land, with only 47 more complex rural claims settled in the year.

In the  year to March 2013, the Commission settled 255 rural claims, including 104 in Limpopo. In the year covered in the latest report, Limpopo  managed to finalise only one rural land claim.

Claims are considered settled when the Commission makes an award and are reported as finalised once that decision has been implemented by payment of compensation or the transfer of land.

The value of the claims settled in the year just ended is distorted by the massive R1-billion settlement of the Mhlanganisweni Community’s successful claim on the luxurious Mala Mala game reserve adjoining the Kruger National Park. Without that one, the average value of Commission’s reported settlements in the past year drops to R3.22-million.

The mismatch between the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s record and its ambition has led scores of community and civic organisations to call for a legislative provision to prioritise unresolved existing claims ahead of the anticipated flood of new ones.

The point was made in dozens of submissions during public hearings on the amendment bill last year, but no provision was made to implement the appeal for a first-come, first-served plan to manage the rush for land restitution and to protect existing claims.

Acting for a group of civic organisations, the Legal Resources Centre has written to President Zuma asking him not to sign the amendment into law until the statutory requirement for public input at every stage of the legislative process has been properly met. The LRC says hearings by the National Council of Provinces were rushed and submissions were not properly considered.

Gugile Nkwinti, the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, who was reappointed to the same cabinet portfolio in May, cheers the work of the Commission in a foreword to the annual report, saying 77,610 claims have been settled in the past 20 years at a total cost of R29.3-billion.

But his department has estimated that the five-year renewal of the claims period included in the bill now awaiting President Zuma’s signature will cost about R180-billion in land, financial compensation and administration costs over the next 15 years. Only R8.7-billion of that is included in the three-year budget approved by Parliament in February.

With or without the money she will need, Land Claims Commissioner Nomfundo Gobodo says in her annual report that logistical arrangements are in place to start recording and processing new claims as soon as the amendment is enacted.

Offices have been secured in 14 towns and cities across the country, furniture is in place and staff have been trained to capture new claims on a computer network that is installed and ready to be switched on. One mobile unit has been readied for each province and 38 additional offices are being prepared to make it easier for people to submit their claims.

A citizen’s manual is ready in all 11 official languages as well as Braille and the main Koi and San languages, posters have been printed and an advertising campaign has been drafted, Gobodo says.

The planning is done, but the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights will have to process claims five times as quickly over the next 15 years as it has over the past 20 and spend money it hasn’t yet got at six times the pace it is used to if it is going to meet the expectations of people entitled to get back the land taken from them before 1994.

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