This year marks a watershed moment in South Africa’s history when the country commemorates the death of 69 people who were killed, and hundreds wounded, when police opened fire on a crowd protesting for the abolition of repressive pass laws.
This historic day on 21 March 1960 has come to symbolise the relentless struggle for human rights and the restoration of human dignity for the indigenous African population who were forcibly displaced from their land through draconian and racially discriminatory laws.
Despite the repealing of repressive legislation such as the Land Act of 1913 – which allowed successive Nationalist governments to forcibly take large tracts of land from black people -– and the promulgation of progressive laws aimed at redressing the wrongs of the past and restitution of land to its rightful owners, limited progress has been achieved to change the racially skewed land ownership patterns in South Africa.
“Integral to the commemoration of Human Rights Day should be the need to acknowledge that the land reform programme forms the nucleus of human rights in South Africa,” says Peter Setou, Chief Executive of the Vumelana Advisory Fund. Vumelana is a non-profit organisation that was established in 2012 to help beneficiaries of the land reform programme put their land to profitable use by establishing commercially viable partnerships between communities and investors.
According to Setou, the unresolved land question forms the cornerstone of centuries of struggle against colonialism and decades of resistance against institutionalised racism. Any celebration of human rights devoid of the resolution of the land question does not fully recognise the role played by the gallant men and women who formed part of the 1960 struggle that has resulted in the fundamental rights we enjoy today.
Setou points out that while the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down progress on land reform, as scarce resources were allocated to the relief programmes and to curb further transmission of the virus, it remains important to ensure that the drive to expedite land reform continues in order to restore dignity, which in some communities only the implementation of the required changes to land reform can resolve.
Setou notes that the announcement by Treasury that it will allocate R896.7 million to fund post settlement support, and the allocation of 700 000 hectares of underutilised and vacant state-owned land to black farmers, are welcome developments. In implementing post-settlement support, however, it remains important that all efforts are made to avoid repeating mistakes of the past. We need to carefully look at initiatives that have worked and replicate these. Furthermore, the way in which land is used should be profitable to the beneficiaries that these efforts seek to aid.
“It will be helpful if the state can shed more light on whether procedures announced provide safeguards against the process being captured by elites and what form of property rights will prevail. These are crucial issues that need to be addressed if this important gesture by government is to really benefit the intended recipients,” says Setou.
He further highlights that the current legislative reforms aimed at amending Section 25 of the Constitution by sourcing public input on the Constitution Eighteenth Amendment Bill are commendable. However, it is critical to note that legislative intervention alone will fall short of attaining the noble ambitions of addressing past injustices if lacklustre political and the structural impediments to land reforms remain intact. Failure to deal with matters requiring urgent attention will compound the problem, slow progress, and contribute towards rising dissatisfaction.
The importance of having policy certainty on the land reform programme cannot be over-estimated, as it is a prerequisite to attract much-needed investment by the private sector, but we should resist the temptation to believe that this will be a magic wand that will fast-track the land reform programme.
“The implementation of a successful and sustainable land reform programme cannot be divorced from human rights – the two are inextricably linked. Celebrations of human rights would be hollow for millions of black people so long as challenges in land reform remain unresolved,” Setou concludes.