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May 17, 2008

South African land claims official rejects report critical of land reform

Acting South African chief land claims commissioner Blessing Mphela has attacked researcher Ann Bernstein following a damning report on land reform produced by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE).

Mphela questioned Bernstein’s fitness to “make generalised statements on a matter that she is clearly not familiar with” and said that Bernstein “likes coming up with precarious theories masquerading as academic research on serious issues such as land and agriculture. Maybe she should rather focus on other issues,” he said.

In the CDE’s report, Land Reform in South Africa: Getting Back on Track, published this month, the policy research body argued that delays around land reform were seriously threatening commercial agriculture and SA’s ability to feed itself.

The CDE found that land redistribution at its current pace would not meet the expectations raised by the government’s target of 30% of commercial agricultural land to be handed over to black people by 2014. “In the three years from 2004 to last year, state redistribution of formerly white-owned land to black owners increased by less than half a percentage point, from 4,3% to 4,7%,” the report said. It said the process of settling land claims had become seriously bogged down.

It said there was no prospect of meeting this year’s deadline for completion of the restitution process. Without bold intervention, significant parts of the rural economy are set for decline.

The land claims commission’s mandate expired in March this year with most of SA’s rural land claims, representing by far the greatest number of claimants, yet to be settled.

Mphela rejected the CDE’s report in its entirety, saying it was biased, outdated and there was “absolutely no new knowledge generated by the study.”

“On the contrary, the trajectory of the report is a dangerous one for the country’s social and economic development.” He said the report was “basically parroting what we have been saying all along and are currently implementing”.

The commission interpreted the report as saying that black people should not have anything to do with agriculture, and that it should instead be left to whites, contradicting the CDE’s call for the creation of public-private partnerships to establish black people in commercial farming.

Mphela’s response also contradicts the CDE’s call for much-increased spending on land reform and post-settlement support for emerging farmers.

Bernstein said Mphela’s response was disappointing . She said one of the main obstacles to land reform was that many officials in the department and commission seemed not to understand the issues.

Mphela’s statement seems to ignore former chief land claims commissioner Thozi Gwanyathe’s assessment last year that at least half of the department’s land reform projects, involving large numbers of people, have failed.

The government has consistently blamed white landowners for obstructing land reform and exploiting the demand for land by inflating selling prices.

Business Day

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